In London it can be easy to assume that foxes and pigeons are about as wild as it gets. But, with 48 percent of the city open space or water, we are in fact a green city and this is reflected in the surprising biodiversity of the creatures that live here. We’ve come a long way since the Thames was declared biologically dead by the Natural History Museum in 1957 (reports from the time describe it as ‘a vast, foul-smelling drain’). So, if you find yourself in the tender throws of a hangover and in need of some good ol’ greenery to bring you back to life, here are some of the best spots for getting your Sir David Attenborough on in the city.
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Where to see wildlife in London year-round
Best for snowdrops and marine life
Just when you think you’ve survived the worst of the cold weather, snowdrops are here to remind you that winter doesn’t end with Christmas. Each year, the arrival of these cool white flowers prompts the Chelsea Physic Garden to open ahead of the official season so hungry plant fanatics can catch a glimpse of the heralds of spring.
The Thames is now home to 125 species of fish, up from approximately zero 60 years ago, thanks to legislation and construction which has reduced the amount of poisonous chemicals and sewage in the water. As the river has reverted to its natural state, the fish have returned and with them have come harbor and grey seals. A report in 2015 found more seals were spotted in Canary Wharf than anywhere else in the Thames Estuary, with one particularly bold seal known to locals as Sammy becoming the unofficial mascot of Billingsgate Fish Market. Porpoises, dolphins and occasionally even whales have also been known to venture into the Thames. So, for a splash of marine wildlife, head down armed with hot water bottle and keep your eyes peeled. ZSL are always looking for citizen scientists to help them with collecting data. If you spot a seal, let them know here.
Best for wintering crocus and foxes
In February, vibrant clusters of wintering crocuses bring bursts of purple to the otherwise frosty landscape, and the ‘crocus carpet’ is a popular attraction in Kew Gardens. If you don’t fancy the trek on the District line, you can also find these cheerful blooms dotted along the riverside path in Battersea Park.
A guide to London’s wildlife wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the city’s sleekest bin divers, and in February they’re not hard to find as female foxes can be heard trying to deter the unwelcome advances of amorous males (big mood for Valentine’s Day). Urban foxes aren’t in short supply and make excellent subjects for wildlife photographers, as seen in Matthew Maran’s ‘Fox Meets Fox’ which featured in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year People’s Choice awards.
Best for daffodils and kingfishers
In March, the first signs of spring burst from the ground in the form of daffodils and there’s no shortage of these sprightly yellow trumpets in the city. The Royal Parks annually plant 1 million bulbs across their gardens with St James’s Park getting the lion’s share, but they can also be found in their droves in Kew Gardens, Kensington Gardens and Victoria Embankment Gardens.
Spring is also an excellent time for spotting kingfishers, the electric-blue birds whose vivid plumage makes even the most vibrant bubble tea selfie pale in comparison. Top spots for catching a glimpse include the waterside habitats of Walthamstow Wetlands and London Wetlands Centre in the north and south respectively.
Best for goslings, ducklings and rhododendrons
In April, the season for floral Instagram posts begins as the cold, empty landscape starts to flood with colour. Rhododendrons kick off the season at Kew Gardens, Kenwood House and in the Isabella Plantation at Richmond Park.
Further north, competition is strong between Canada, greylag and Egyptian geese for the title of ‘Cutest Baby Waterfowl’, with shelduck, mallard, pochard and tufted ducks following close behind. But there’s more. The vast Walthamstow Wetlands are also home to cormorants, grey herons and little egret chicks, as well as London’s only breeding pair of greater black-backed gulls. Get your binoculars and pick up a birdwatcher’s guide from the Engine House, because this place is a proper chick magnet.
Best for bluebells and the dawn chorus
In May, Mother Nature rolls out the blue carpet as swathes of bluebells burst from the land. Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park is an idyllic spot for taking in a stroll through this spring spectacle, while Hyde Park offers a convenient alternative for postcode-wary Londoners. Click here for map showing London’s best bluebell spots.
International Dawn Chorus day is on the first Sunday of May. The celebration began in the 1980s when environmentalist and broadcaster Chris Baines insisted everyone stick out his birthday party until 4am so they could enjoy the dawn chorus together (naturalists know how to party). To the untrained ear it can sound like a bit of a mad squabble but with time you’ll come to recognise which species habitually sing before the others. Robins and dunnocks are often the first to get started, with blackbirds and song thrushes following before the latecomers, such as tits, wrens and warblers, join in.
Best for wisteria and ring-necked parakeets
Wisteria blooms become the talk of the town in south-west London, as the houses in Kensington, Chelsea and Notting Hill don their fleeting purple coats. The exact time for the blooming can change with the weather so to avoid missing out, give this Insta-famous flower a follow so you know when it’s landed. #wisteriahysteria
One of London’s most unusual trademarks is the exotic birds which swarm our parks, somewhat upstaging the modest threads of the local pigeons. Ring-necked parakeets are, unsurprisingly, not native to the UK, being an invasive species which escaped into the capital some decades ago. The best place to experience them depends on your motive. For quantity, ring-necked parakeets flock in such great numbers at Wormwood Scrubs in Fulham, that it can look as if the trees have sprouted animated leaves. For quality, getting up-close and personal with these vibrant birds is as easy as one, two, three in Kensington Gardens:
1) Buy apple.
2) Arrive in Kensington Gardens.
3) Present apple.
You have arrived at your parakeet party.
Best for woodland walks and bat-spotting
London is home to a surprising number of green spaces where you can’t see the city for the trees, from Highgate Wood in the north to Hackney Downs in the east and Dunham Lock in the west. In the south, you’ll find the largest remaining tract of the Great North Wood at Sydenham Hill, where you can explore an old rail track which leads to a disused tunnel that’s popular with bats.
Common pipistrelles are out in full force this month as the pups begin to leave the nest and adults search for a mate. Weighing no more than nine grams, these tiny airborne mammals are easiest to spot as they hunt for insects over large bodies of water. They can eat up to 3,000 in a single night. A scenic location for bat-spotting is the Alexandra Palace boating lake. Head there in the early evening to catch a glimpse of these amazing animals before heading for a pint and a killer view of London at the Phoenix Bar. The nearest tube station is Wood Green and if it brings back memories of drunken uphill waddles to a Bloc Party gig, you’re headed the right way. Want to know more? Visit the Bat Conservation Trust.
Best for lavender and the London Wildlife Festival
For a truly immersive lavender experience, it’s worth a jaunt out of the city to expansive locations such as Mayfield Lavender Farm, where the whole horizon turns purple, but there are plenty of spots closer to home for taking in this fragrant bloom. Small patches have been planted in Vauxhall and Kennington Park, providing a feast for your eyes as well as the bees. Find more London lavender locations here.
London is the greenest major city in Europe and in 2019 will officially become a National Park City. To celebrate this environmental victory, from August 9 to 11, the London Wildlife Trust is launching the first ever festival dedicated to London’s wildlife and green spaces. Taking place on Walthamstow Wetlands, the festival will feature guided walks, inspiring talks and showcase art, music and literature inspired by nature in the city.
Best for mushroom-hunting and the deer rut
September is the perfect time for a mycological foray in the city, with Epping Forest, Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common all popular locations for mushroom-hunting. Eating mysterious fungi is famously a really stupid thing to do, so head along to one of London’s many guided walks to hone your identification skills.
Red and fallow deer at Bushy Park roam as freely today as they did back when Henry VIII was still hunting on the land. With approximately 320 individuals in the park, they’re not difficult to find and from September to November become particularly active as the deer rut (breeding season) takes place. Large males can be seen roaring, barking and battling it out with their impressive antlers to win the favour of their chosen fair lady. Head down early to catch them in the morning mist for the fully immersive ‘Skyfall’ experience.
Best for leaf-peeping and peregrine falcons
Leaf-peeping is the practice of hunting for spectacular displays of autumn leaves and London is rich in golden possibilities, but the tree-lined avenues and deer-dotted grounds at Richmond Park make it the most quintessentially ‘autumn’ spot for snapping those irresistible russet hues.
Yes, they sound like something out of ‘Star Wars’, but peregrine falcons were in fact around *before* George Lucas mulled over his idea for a space opera. Peregrines are the world’s fastest living creatures, flying at up to 390 km/h. Thankfully, you can see them at a more leisurely pace with a stroll on the South Bank, as RSPB staff armed with binoculars flock to the Millennium Bridge to teach passers-by about the falcons that nest on Tate Modern’s chimney. Find more details on keeping up with these super-fast flyers here.
Best for foraging and starlings
There’s a world of edible opportunity out there for cash-strapped Londoners, with a variety of foraging walks taking place across the city. Forage London hosts educational tours in several North London locations.
Starlings were once an extremely common sight in London, with the spectacle of their murmurations being an awe-inspiring and celebrated annual event. It was once reported that the sheer weight of a flock of starlings landing on Big Ben halted the enormous clock in its tracks. At this time of year, starlings form giant flocks for safety and if disturbed just before landing will take to the sky in a swirling murmuration. Starling numbers in Britain have fallen by 66 percent since the mid-1970s, but while flock sizes are smaller in number, you can still spot these amazing birds throughout the city with small roosts being reported last year on Battersea and Vauxhall Bridges.
Best for seasonal trees and little owls
Take a walk through a winter wonderland as the conifers put on a show in the Pinetum at Kew. If you’ve already had quite enough of the cold weather, then head to the giant glasshouses where you can loudly proclaim that winter is not coming while admiring the palms at a toasty 20C.
Keen birderwatchers have identified a small population of little owls (yes, that’s their real name) which has been growing in Hyde Park since 2011. There’s no need for creeping about in the dead of night to catch a glimpse of these charming birds, as they’re often seen in daylight perching on tree branches. If you don’t fancy spending all day searching for them, you can find a map of recent sightings on the Little Owl Project’s website.
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