Get out of the city and into nature with Roger Harrison
My interest in nature began watching ducks and grebes with my dad, and has continued over the last 12 years via weekly visits to Welsh Harp Lake in my lunch breaks. I’ve been amazed at what can be experienced so close to the north circular, Brent Cross and the M1, and I hope I can share its story through the year
ONE of my favourite moments of the year at Welsh Harp Lake, and a sure sign that summer is ready to begin comes with the return of two much-travelled birds, the swift and common tern.
Both will have made long journeys from various parts of Africa and both are supremely aerial, with the swift having such mastery of the air that, in good health it has no natural enemies, as nothing is capable of matching its combination of speed and manoeuvrability. With their sharp, rapier wings and small, almost black silhouettes against a blue summer sky, they can resemble little clouds of Chinese throwing stars as they wheel about with wide open mouths in pursuit of tiny insects. So specifically designed for flight, they are incapable of perching, can even sleep while flying, and after first leaving the nest, may not land anywhere for a full three years until they themselves are ready to breed.
The tern’s capabilities are more visually apparent, given a bit of observation.
Appearing as a slightly built and more graceful type of gull (not intended as a put-down to gulls – I really like gulls), it possesses a different kind of agility, its lightly bouncing patrols up and down the lake being interupted by a sudden handbrake turn and dive, on occasion almost seeming to defy the laws of mechanics, and I’m sure the sort of thing that would tear apart any man-made craft.
It completes the move either with a headlong plunge into the water after a fish, to somehow propel itself vertically back into the air, with a shake to get rid of excess moisture, or more often at Welsh Harp, another abrupt turn
centimetres above the water to pluck an insect or fish from the very surface. I could watch them all day.
These two are joined by various members of the warbler family travelling back to the lake and surrounding woods and bushes to breed. Small brown birds, not easily spotted or identified on sight, they are as their collective name suggests more known for their various songs. These range from the simple lilting ‘chiff-chaff ’ from the bird of the same name, a hallmark of spring, to the manic call of the sedge warbler, which sounds as if it’s recorded a more conventional song, and thinking it unexceptional, cut the tape in pieces, stuck it together in random order and adopted that as its signature. Most of these fall silent once mates have been found and the serious business of chick-rearing begins, but the swifts and terns will be in evidence over gardens and lakes respectively for the next few months, and are always worth taking the time to marvel at.
n WELCOME RETURN: The common tern as pictured by Juha Soininen and the swift, photographed by Pau Artigas, are sure signs that summer is here