David Lindo on which birds to look out for during a visit to West London
London has recently been designated as a National Park City, and our whistlestop journey around its ornithological hotspots continues with a look at the west. For the sake of convenience West London will be, broadly speaking, the area north of the Thames and west of Kensington, as far out as the Colne Valley that borders Surrey and Berkshire. Indeed, it is the Colne Valley that for a long time held the crown for being one of the capital’s premier birding localities. Staines Reservoir is perhaps the most famous birding spot in the valley, and has a bird list longer than most people’s arms. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to the important numbers of wintering diving ducks it attracts. It is, in fact, two reservoirs (north and south basins) that lie southwest of Heathrow Airport and thus is usually under the shadow of a noisily landing passenger jet. The central causeway separates the water bodies and has general public access. It is well worth looking for wintering Black Redstart along here. Over the ages, the reservoirs have been the stomping ground for many of the good and the great in the British birding scene. Before the days of bird information services, the grapevine was king and the causeway was the place to meet up with fellow birders to chew the fat and to find out what rarities were around. A fairly low number of regular species can be observed here, including the expected Great Crested Grebes and Coots. However, a remarkable array of rarities has occurred, including a host of waders – attracted in when one of the basins is drained for maintenance. Sexy beasts such as Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Collared Pratincole and Wilson’s Phalarope have all turned up, while interesting terns and gulls are regular. Most recently was a
wintering Shore Lark emanating from North America and quite likely a good candidate to be split as a new species. Staines Reservoir can be quite an exciting place to be on the right day, as you can often see migration in action as you watch waders sweeping in. There are several other waterbodies in the Colne Valley well worth visiting, including Stockers Lake, Broadwater Gravel Pit (which is currently threatened by HS2 development plans) and King George VI Reservoir. All of these and other locations like Staines Moor are notable sites, although always check before visiting, as permits are required for some of the them. Moving eastwards, you will discover Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve and Ruislip Lido in Hillingdon. The woods, which hold good stands of Hornbeam and oak, are the largest remaining block of ancient woodland in the city covering some 300 hectares (750 acres). The adjacent areas consist of acid grassland, heathland and wetlands including the Lido, a 25-hectare (60-acre) lake. Ruislip Woods comprises Park, Copse, Mad Bess and Bayhurst Woods. They are all worth taking a wander through and, in the past, have held breeding Wood Warbler and still probably harbour nesting Woodcock, along with Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Much more likely breeders are Sparrowhawk, Tawny Owl and warblers, such as Whitethroat and Garden Warbler. South of Ruislip, and still largely within Hillingdon, lies the Yeading Valley. Situated here are a string of sites following the course of Yeading Brook. The main areas on which to train your binoculars are Ickenham Marsh, Gutteridge Wood, Ten Acre Wood, Yeading Brook Meadows and Minet Country Park. Woefully underwatched, this area regularly has reports of Cuckoo and migrants such as Spotted Flycatcher. Other sites not too far away include Osterley Park and Hounslow Heath. The former site is a fairly manicured area of parkland beloved by roving flocks of Rose-ringed Parakeet while, on the waters, Mandarin roam. Less well known are the hoards of Stock Dove that are to be found throughout the park. Hounslow Heath is another poorly-visited site. Star birds from this site in the past have included Red-backed Shrike and Ortolan Bunting. One of the most unlikely birding spots in the region is Wormwood Scrubs. It is a large area of parkland covering approximately 74 hectares (183 acres), which is even bigger than the nearby London Wetland Centre. A large portion is given over to playing fields, but there is a thin strip of woodland that practically encircles the site dominated by Sycamore, birch, plane and oak. At the wilder western end of The Scrubs is a 20-acre grassland and the northern portion of the site is bordered by a raised gorse and Japanese Knotweed clad embankment. The grassland held the closest breeding colony of Meadow Pipits to central London until 2017, when they were extirpated through disturbance, while the embankment is much loved by good numbers of nesting Song Thrush and Linnet. Both of these segments have single handedly turned up the best birds, including two Honey Buzzards, Osprey, Goshawk, Marsh Harrier, Wryneck, Ortolan and Little Buntings, Dartford Warbler, Quail, Great Grey and Redbacked Shrikes and three Richard’s Pipits. It must be stated that there is no standing water anywhere on the site, but the wader list is remarkable and includes Blacktailed Godwit, Whimbrel and Greenshank. The future for wildlife at The Scrubs is in doubt, owing to the development planned around the site.
Next month: David visits north London.
DAVID SAYS If west truly is best, get out there and prove it!
Wormwood Scrubs: An unlikely birding spot – but it’s not to be ignored!
Read our review of David’s latest book on page 82