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Bird watching in London

David Darrell-Lambert has been working with the Horniman for years, leading the Dawn Chorus Walks. We caught up with him to find out more about his spots around the capital and how he got started.

When did you start bird watching?

I started in the early 1980’s, my junior school teacher Ms Anderson took us on a trip to Rye House RSPB up the Lea Valley. The warden there explained to us that Coots (a type of water bird, all black bar a white bill with a white shield above it) have webbing between each section of their toes. They can then dive under the water to evade predators.

Moorhens (another type of water bird, black with white stripe down the side and a yellow and red bill, very smart) have long thin toes which they can use to pull themselves under the water and only leave their bill above the water, so they can breathe but the predator can’t get them. Well this just ignited my passion.

I dashed home from school and ask my dad to take me out every possible day to go birdwatching.  So by bus, tube and train we went off birdwatching across the capital and the UK.

What is your favourite spot to see birds in South London?

Oh, hard to choose there are so many. Clearly I have a massive fondness for the Gardens at Horniman. A lovely variety of trees, the big open slope and a great view north, I’ve seen so many lovely birds here and twice located Great Spotted Woodpeckers nest!

Crystal Palace Park is great too: lakes for ducks and gulls, mature trees for breeding birds, plus a massive vantage point to watch migrating birds flying over the capital. A bigger version than the Gardens at Horniman.

What is your most unusual London bird spot?​

So many odd places to go!

Beddington Farmlands: it used to be a sewage farm for many years and then they started using it as rubbish tip and now unfortunately as an incinerator. Not happy about that!

It gets some amazing migrant birds there from a Citrine wagtails from Eastern Europe, to a Glaucous-winged Gull from the west coast of America. This year they had a Hoopoe which is European bird turn up in the spring.

It is used to hold the only Tree sparrow population left in the capital with fifty plus pairs but due to their habitat being destroyed they are down to a few pairs.

What do you hope to see in the capital?

There is so much to see in the capital from Little or Tawny owls present in many parks and woods, to rare breeding birds such as Peregrines which are now doing very well in the capital.

Or even the specialised Black redstart, a small Robin like bird which the males are mostly black all over with a bright red tail which they shimmer! Most of the time I am happy to see almost anything in London, from discovering a new population of House sparrows somewhere, to listening to a Wren nesting next to bus stop or the fruity song of a Blackbird singing in the evening on a TV aerial.

I really like finding a migrant bird, so in October I love to heard sharp thin zeep calls of Redwings migrating at night, which pile out of northern Europe and cross the capital heading south to escape to freezing northern winters.

What are ways we can help the capital’s bird population?

Firstly, make your garden as wildlife friendly as you can or willing too.

Plant native species such as hawthorn which are great for insects and then a great good source for our birds.  Put up feeders for birds, whether many or just a few, and remember to keep them full throughout the year and vary what you put in there. In my garden the House sparrows love the mixed seed whilst the Greenfinch and Goldfinch love the sunflower hearts.

Put out some water. You don’t have to build a pond, you can just put a bowl out or hanging bird bath which will used to wash in and drink from.  I have the last two and the other day a young Magpie sat right in the middle of the bowl for a wash!

If you want to do more then offer your free time to a local wildlife charity. You can join a working party to create or manage habitat, do some fundraising, help with their admin or just become a member. This means they will get more money, and the more money they get then the more work they can do.

What should we should stop doing?

Rubbish and plastic! Recycle as much as possible so we don’t have as much rubbish that gets buried or burnt, neither of which are good for the environment. Try to use less plastic – the less we use, the less will end up in our rubbish regardless if it is recycled or not.

Oh yes, and never feed birds bread. It is no good for them and can pollute the water too if throw in to a pond or a lake.

How would you recommend someone gets started with bird watching in London?

There are so many ways possible but I would say these two options.

Firstly, join a guided walk, whether it is via somewhere like the Horniman, where I have lead many early morning walks, listening to the explosive dawn chorus. Or your local wildlife group who will also do walks, such as the London Natural History Society. They run many across the capital throughout the year.

Secondly, go to one of our premier reserves in the capital such as the London Wetland Centre run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Rainham Marshes run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or Walthamstow Wetlands run by the London Wildlife Trust. They will be able to tell you where you can see birds on their sites and at some you can hire binoculars for the day too. Some places even have guides position around their site so you can ask them what is about or what you can see in that area.

Remember always to just have fun and enjoy the day.

David Darrell-Lambert is a Ornithological Consultant and author. Find out more about Birdwatching London.