Category Archives: London Birds

Wild Swans – Poetry in Motion

Wild Swans flying over Loch Insh (Photo by Charlie Marshall

Dear Readers, I have been so busy writing about wild geese that I forgot to include a poem about wild swans by one of my favourite poets, W.B Yeats. I love this poem, with its close observation and air of melancholy – note ‘the bell-beat of their wings’.

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Mute swan in flight (Photo by Alexis Lours, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

And another poet who is up there in my list of favourites is Edna St Vincent Millay, largely for her near-constant air of exasperation, with which I often sympathise.

Wild Swans
Edna St. Vincent Millay
1892 – 1950

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Mute swan (Photo by By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0,

And how about this, by Sara Teasdale, an American poet who died in 1933? You can almost feel the hush in the darkened park…

Sara Teasdale
1884 – 1933

Night is over the park, and a few brave stars
Look on the lights that link it with chains of gold,
The lake bears up their reflection in broken bars
That seem to heavy for tremulous water to hold.

We watch the swans that sleep in a shadowy place,
And now and again one wakes and uplifts its head;
How still you are—your gaze is on my face—
We watch the swans and never a word is said.

And finally, here’s a poem by Stevie Smith. It’s an early work, but I think it still has that kick that was most well-developed in poems such as ‘Not Waving But Drowning’. It starts off almost like some childish doggerel, but suddenly deepens. See what you think.

The Bereaved Swan

Stevie Smith

On the lake
Like a cake
Of soap
Why is the swan
On the lake?
He has abandoned hope.

On the lake afloat
Bows his head:
O would that I were dead
For her sake that lies
Wrapped from my eyes
In a mantle of death,
The swan saith.

Photo by
L.C. Nøttaasen at

Coal Drops Yard – An Update

The roof at Coal Drops Yard, designed by Thomas Heatherwick

Dear Readers, you might remember that I’ve been keeping an eye on the Piet Oudolf-inspired planting around Coal Drops Yard at Kings Cross, to see how it’s maturing and whether it has as much pollinator-attractiveness as it promised. Well, clearly there are no longer any gaps: have a look at this positive bank of Rudbeckia, which was attracting many hoverflies (none of which I managed to photograph, but they were there! I promise).What strikes me most, though, are the textures: this style of prairie-planting features many grasses and seedheads, and I think it works very well in this urban context. And if anyone can identify any of these plants, I would be most appreciative!

What struck me most, though was the sun shining low through these grasses. They really are stunning.

I only wish that when I planted things in the garden I was so conscious of how they would look at different times of the year. Or is this a happy accident? The sun was also lighting up these deep magenta asters, which were attracting a few of the last queen bumblebees before they settle down for the winter.

But what struck me  most was not the planting here, but a much more modest planting just around the corner, close to the Waitrose supermarket and the Ruby Violet ice cream shop (highly recommended). There was a little family of young sparrows in the hedge – sparrows always love a hedge, for shelter and  food and everything else that they need, and these birds were taking full advantage. It was lovely to hear them chirruping away, especially as they are now so much rarer in London than they used to be.

And a few metres away there was some lovely soft soil, just perfect for a dust bath.

Meanwhile, a robin sang from a low branch and occasionally cocked its head to listen to another robin before responding.

With a little thought, it’s very possible to create habitats and niches for all kinds of wildlife in the city, and they aren’t always where you might think. More power to the designers here for making space for the birds and the bees.

You can read more about Coal Drops Yard below, and see how the wildlife changes through the year.

First visit in February 2020

Revisit in October 2020

Revisit in July 2021

Little Things….

Dear Readers, following the news about my heart earlier this week I have decided to make a point of popping out into the garden to see what’s going on every day, instead of sitting hunched over my laptop like a vulture. And today, I was amazed by the number of house sparrows who seem to be visiting the garden. Earlier this year I would have said that I got maybe 3 or 4 occasionally, but today there must have been a flock of twenty, including a couple of fledglings. I am so glad to be able to make them welcome.

Blurry baby on the yew shrub to the left!

Furthermore, I love the subtle colours on the back of the male sparrows, in their shades of chestnut and charcoal and fawn.

And look at those little grey caps! If you ever see a sparrow with a brown cap you’re looking at a tree sparrow, which is even more exciting if you’re interested in relative rarities, though house sparrows are on the Red List as we know.

The teasel is coming on a treat, and the very first flowers are starting to appear. Soon a whole ring of pale lilac flowers will decorate each ‘bloom’.

First flowers!

How architectural they are, these flowerheads! They are masterpieces of geometry.

Elsewhere in the (admittedly extremely overgrown) garden, the first of the greater willowherb flowers has appeared…

My ‘dwarf’ buddleia (now nine feet tall) is coming into bloom…

And the hebe next door is putting out its lilac firecracker flowers, much loved by the bees.

And so, it was well-worth popping outside to see what was going on, as it always is. I heartily recommend it!

Making the Most of It…

Dear Readers, my buddleia really is in a shocking state this year – there is so much honeydew coming from the greenfly that it managed to stick my green wheelie bin shut. However, it isn’t all bad news because a little flock of sparrows visit more or less every day, to give the insect life the once over and to pick off all sorts of invertebrates.

It’s difficult to see properly, but this bird might even have found a caterpillar, which is clearly what he’s really after – you have to work much harder to get calories from a bunch of aphids than you do from a nice juicy larvae. There are lots of baby sparrows about, so I imagine that the parent birds are having to work very hard, especially with the rain being intermittent and the ground as hard as iron. Goodness knows what the blackbirds are doing, they’ll be needing a pneumatic drill to get into the ground around here.

It is lovely to sit at my desk on a call, and to glance up to see a sparrow or a goldfinch feeding, though. And I’m watching as the flowers on the buddleia start to expand. They look most unpromising now, but will soon be splendid purple pollinator-attracting blooms, and no doubt all manner of insects will take advantage. But for now, back to the day job!

After the Rain

Dear Readers, it’s been a hot, humid day, followed by a thunderstorm, followed by some more of the hot, humid stuff. I’m back at work after my exams and my inbox is hilarious. I used to start reading my emails from the oldest ones, but after many years I’ve learned that the best way to do it is actually to start with the most recent, because it’s surprising how many of them have been sorted out by the time you get to the end of the thread. Still, it’s strange to be back, and I still feel a bit disoriented.

I popped outside after the storm just to see which plants were still vertical, and spotted the loveliest little common carder bee. I have a great fondness for these little ginger chappies – they seem even more busy than your average bumble. Their nests, which are ‘carded’ together with grass and moss, are usually on the surface of, or just below, the ground, and there are rarely more than 100 workers. They have a great fondness for deadnettle flowers, or foxgloves, and they are able to ‘buzz pollinate’, so you might see them making one hell of a buzzy noise around your tomatoes (or in my case, the bittersweet that’s been growing wild). They need to vibrate the flowers at just the right frequency to get them to relinquish their pollen. In countries where there are no bumblebees (such as Australia), the tomatoes are instead pollinated by humans (usually migrant workers ) with the equivalent of a plant vibrator. So if ever I’m feeling hard done by, I always consider someone tickling tomatoes in the blistering heat and count my many, many blessings.

In the south of England there are normally two generations of common carders, which explains why you might see them on the wing right into late October in a mild year. In the north their flight season is a lot shorter, but one was recently spotted on Orkney, but as climate change edges many creatures further and further north, who knows where it will turn up?

And in other news, my teasel is coming along very nicely, and looks more and more like a skinny, spiky green person every day.

And my bottlebrush plant is about to burst – my lovely Aunties, Rosemary and Linda, who died last year, bought it for me when they came to visit, so it’s very special, and I’m pleased to see it doing well. It’s another one that the bees normally love, so I’m hopeful, but I have to say it’s been very, very quiet on the bee front so far this year. Let’s hope that things improve.

Incidentally, I noticed how the swifts seem to follow the insects – after the rain they came screaming down the street, but as it warms up and gets less humid they get higher and higher. It reminds me of when I laid on my back as a teenager and watched hundreds of them swirling about until I had to hold onto the grass because I felt as if I was going to fall into the sky. I hope that somewhere they are still being found in such huge numbers,  because around here you’re lucky if you see half a dozen at any one time. I’m sure that the loss of insects means less insect-eating birds, but I’d love to know how it’s going where you live. How are the bees, and the birds?

Herring Gulls Are Even Brainier Than I Thought….

Adult Herring Gull (By Scottmliddell (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Readers, I have written before about how intelligent I think herring gulls are, and how we underrate their brains at our peril. But a study of the birds by Franziska Feist at the University of Sussex has shown that they are even more attuned to human behaviour than we knew.

The experiment was all about crisps. Feist and her colleagues presented crisps in either blue or green packets to groups of herring gulls, and then sat down about 5 metres away. The observer then either just sat and watched, or pulled a packet of crisps out of their bag and started to eat them.

When the experimenter was eating crisps, the gulls approached the packets 49 percent of the time, compared to 19% when the observer was just sitting around. But when the observer was eating crisps(and this is the clincher for me), the birds pecked the packet which was the same colour as the one that the observer was eating from 95 percent of the time.

Herring Gull in flight (By JalilArfaoui (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

So, this appears to indicate that a) the food choices of this group of herring gulls can be influenced by what humans are eating and b) that it isn’t in this case just about the type of food, but that they even take the colour of the packaging into account, to make sure that they are eating ‘our’ food. I find this astonishing, and you can read the whole article here.

This increasing attunement to the way humans behave is probably coupled with the way that herring gulls have changed their habits, from being largely coastal to coming inland and feeding from landfill sites. They nest on flat roofs everywhere, and are often seen to be a menace, in spite of the fact that they are declining and are on the IUCNs Red List of endangered birds in the UK. We are fast becoming their main source of food, so no wonder they are paying more attention to the finest nuances of our behaviour. The effect of all that junk food on the gulls themselves would be interesting to monitor.

Incidentally, a 2019 study showed that gulls are much less likely to steal your chips if they think you are watching them – only 26 percent of a sample of gulls touched the food if they were being stared at, and they took 20 percent longer to approach than if the experimenter was busy doing something else. So if you don’t want to be ambushed and chipless, it pays to be diligent, as it does in most situations. I wonder if the rise of the smartphone could be correlated with the increased success of herring gulls stealing food? Now that would be an interesting study.

And here is one of my favourite short films, of a herring gull ‘puddling’ for worms and then announcing  their presence with a most gratifying ‘long call’. Just look at that intelligent expression! These are extraordinary birds, well worth our attention.

At Last

Dear Readers, I spotted my first frogs in the pond several weeks ago, but since then we’ve had a cold snap, and everything has gone very quiet. Today, however, was mild, and it’s fair to say that amphibian season has well and truly kicked off. Have a look at the little film below.

Every year this feels like a little miracle to me. Frogs arrived within a week of our putting in the pond, goodness only knows where they’d been until then because I don’t know of any other neighbourhood ponds. Frogs are such mysterious animals – what do they get up to once they leave the pond? Where do they hang out? A few adults seem to linger on every year, but the concentrations that I see in the spring are soon gone, replaced by tadpoles and then tiny frogs. I know that lots hibernate at the bottom of the pond, but how about for the rest of the year? Anyhow, I know that they eat lots of slugs (at least in theory) so I’m very pleased to welcome them every year. There’s something about those hopeful faces that I find very endearing.

And if you look closely at the photo below (just to the right of the frog), you’ll see the first blob of frogspawn.

In other news, there are still plenty of squirrels. Look at this one, pretending to be a lion at a waterhole in the Serengeti…

If s/he was holding a baby in her arms I could almost hear ‘The Circle of Life’ playing in the background…

And finally, further to my wish list of birds yesterday, I just want to point out how much I appreciate my regular visitors. The starlings really are at the peak of plumage perfection at the moment, and it’s easy to forget how handsome they are. Look at the extraordinary range of colours on the back of this male bird. And to continue the Serengeti theme, does anyone else think that the knot in the trunk to the left looks like an elephant’s eye?

And how do I know that this bird is a male? Because the base of his beak is pale blue (in the females it’s pink-ish). Very handy that they are colour-coded, eh.

Male to the left (blue tinge to base of bill)

There didn’t seem to be any females about – maybe they’re already nesting and incubating? How exciting this time of year is. I can’t wait to see what happens next.


Big Garden Birdwatch 2023

Dear Readers, putting peanuts on the bird table was clearly not the best idea for the Big Garden Birdwatch this year: I have numerous very cute photos of grey squirrels (and one of a feral pigeon, a most unusual visitor) but none of the other birds could get a look in, though a very bold robin did have a go. Still, fortunately other feeders are available and so it wasn’t a complete washout. Clearly I’ll have to limit the seed and peanuts to the hanging feeders, which are a bit more of a challenge for the mammals.

So, we had a blackbird…

2 blue tits…

3 chaffinches (and at this point I feel like saying ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’, but I shall resist)…

1 collared dove (and no woodpigeons during the hour, probably too many squirrels…)

A dunnock, photographed through the back of a garden chair because s/he was very flighty and uncooperative…

Two very busy great tits, who I suspect are nesting nearby…

2 house sparrows, 2 magpies…

The magpies were in an altercation with the squirrels at one point – the birds seemed to be set on dismantling the remains of a drey in the whitebeam, probably for nesting material (it’s too early for baby squirrels), and the largest of the squirrels managed to drive them off.

Oh, and a robin…

and no less than fifteen starlings. At one point I thought that they might divebomb the squirrel, but those little dudes have very sharp teeth, so they thought better of it. There were so many of them that I thought I’d taken a photo, but this is the only one. Still, you get the general idea.

So, apart from the woodpigeon other no-shows were the goldfinches (where have they gone?), the ring-necked parakeets who’d popped in earlier, the blackcaps who are usually around, and the coal tit. But an hour isn’t very long in bird-time, and so I’m not unhappy – at least there’s something for the team at RSPB to punch into their computers. I shall be interested to see what effect, if any, the summer drought and the recent cold snaps have had on numbers. First winter survival is a key factor for the success of many garden birds.

Did you do the Big Garden Birdwatch? How did it turn out for you?

Red List 2022 – Number Two – The Herring Gull

Things that I have seen herring gulls do:

  • Dance on a patch of muddy ground to ‘bring up the worms’
  • Slide down a pitched roof, then flutter up to the top and slide down again, like a child in a playground.
  • Swoop over the shoulder of a two year-old and take the ball of ice cream out of the cone without a sound.
  • Feed their fluffy youngsters on the flat roof of Dorset County Hospital, where they nested as if it was a shingle beach.
  • Fight off all comers on a landfill site as they dive for the tastiest morsels
  • Sit on top of a pole at a popular beach in Jersey, waiting for the café owner with the water pistol to disappear before descending onto some abandoned chips

The sound of their wailing is really the sound of the seaside to me, although they are just as often found inland now – when I wake up in Dorchester, the first thing I hear are the gulls on the roofs behind, and they were a familiar reveille in Islington too.

Young herring gull (Larus argentatus)

From the amount of opprobrium that these birds get, you would think that they were a rapidly increasing pest, but in fact they are on the Red List for British Birds, as both their breeding and non-breeding populations are decreasing and have done so since the early 1970s when the first census was taken. Since then, numbers across the whole of the UK and Ireland have fallen by a half to two thirds.

The reasons for this are complex and varied. Herring gulls have, as noted above, often scavenged at landfill sites, but increasingly the organic material is used for biofuels, or buried immediately, reducing the availability of food. On the other hand, these sites are seen as harbourers of Clostridium botulinum, botulism to you and me – this can be fatal to anyone who ingests enough of it, including gulls. I remember that when I lived on the River Tay in Dundee, some tins of preserved meat were washed overboard from a ship, and they became contaminated with the botulinum bacteria – herring gulls were literally falling dead from the sky. Reductions in by-catch from fishing boats has also had an effect, and our old friend the mink can be a significant predator of chicks in some areas. No wonder the gulls are moving into urban areas, where there are plenty of messy people throwing their Kentucky Fried Chicken remains on the ground (although it’s fair to say that it’s a rare rubbish bin that is gull-proof, these being adaptable and intelligent birds). In spite of their Red List status, 16,000 gulls were culled as a ‘nuisance’ between 2013 and 2018. We clearly need to find a better way to live alongside these birds.

Herring gulls are not endangered in Europe as a whole, where they have a population of over 1 million and an extremely large range. Still, something is going on here in the UK which is not favourable to these big, beefy gulls, and what affects them is likely to affect other coastal birds who are less adaptable. And so, it’s something to be lamented. It would be yet another loss if their calls were not heard above our rooftops. They are the quintessential ‘seagull’, the backdrop to any number of radio programmes about the seaside, including Desert Island discs.

Am I the only one who finds that the hairs stand up on the back of their necks when they hear the herring gull’s ‘long call’ (recording by Irish Wildlife Sounds, made in Barleycove, County Cork, Ireland).

And this is the begging call of a juvenile – it is surprisingly high-pitched, and I’ve found myself turning round to identify the caller on more than one occasion, only to realise that it’s coming from a big bruiser of a young gull (recording also from Irish Wildlife Sounds)

And finally, here’s a story by Liz Humphreys, Principle Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). She is monitoring kittiwakes, but her task involved tiptoeing her way through a gull colony that included herring gulls. Here’s what she says in ‘Into the Red’ by Kit Jewitt and Mike Toms.

I’d give myself a second to brace myself for the welcoming committee and then step into the fury. 

I would see the gull chicks fleeing in panic, diving into the vegetation and takin gcover behind rocks. Carefully picking my way through, I then noticed the speckled fluffy behinds of small gull chicks poling out from the plentiful rabbit – and sometimes puffin – burrows. I would pause, even in the mayhem, to marvel at this comical sight of leopard-skinned balls tucked away in the undergrowth. Clearly they were working on the principle that if they couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see them. Meanwhile the adults were alarming from the skies, getting increasingly agitated at my presence.

Herring gulls clearly just want to live their lives, which are so intertwined with ours. I remember staying at a chalet in Lochinver in Scotland. Clearly, one of the local gulls had been fed by previous visitors, because s/he would stand on the hand rail overlooking the kitchen and glare in, occasionally shuffling from foot to foot. We tried to ignore that pale-eyed stare, but in the morning, just at first light (which comes very early in Northern Scotland in June) there was a sharp rat-tat-tatting at the glass door. We woke with a start, and there was the gull, ready for breakfast. Eventually we came to an agreement – we would leave out something when we went to bed, and the gull would feed and then go off to pursue more appropriate avian pursuits. These birds should not be underestimated, and we will need to learn to live with them.

Herring gull chick in nest with egg, photo by John Haslam.

Red List 2022 – Number One – The Pochard

Pochard (Aytha ferina)

Dear Readers, the Pochard is one of those ducks that it’s easy to take for granted. With its dapper plumage of mahogany and smoke with ruby eyes it’s a handsome bird, but not one to elicit a sudden intake of breath. And yet this is a bird that has been wintering in large numbers in the UK since records began, and we also have a decent resident breeding population, especially in Northern Ireland, where the populations on Lough Neagh and Lough Beg number about 7000 pairs. Once committed, each pair of pochards sticks close together, the bespectacled female appearing to take things very seriously while the male gets on with the important business of looking as distinguished as possible. In the breeding season, however, all that decorum gets dropped completely. Listen to this group of displaying male pochards in the recording below. I’m sure that they’re saying ‘Yahoo!’ (recording by Jarek Matusiak and made in Poland). If you don’t love pochards before hearing this, I’m sure you will afterwards.

This is the rather less musical call of a female pochard taking off from a lake (recording made by Peter Boesman in Belgium)

And this is a female ‘growling’, though whether she’s telling the male in the background to come on or go away is anyone’s guess (recording by Simon Elliott in Northumberland). All the recordings are from Xeno Canto which is a whole world of wonders for anyone interested in animal sounds.

The word ‘pochard’ probably comes from the Norman French word for ‘poach’ (which is presumably what people often did) or ‘poke’ (which is probably a reference to the bird diving down and poking its bill into the mud to get the small invertebrates that form its food.

Female Pochard by Savithri Singh

Pochard (Photo by Dr Raju Kasambe)

Pochards were an important source of food in medieval times. It wasn’t an easy duck to catch however – they are wily, wary and fast on the wing once they get airborne. Good for them, I say – they have often here from the bitter winters of Eastern Europe and Russia, and they deserve to rest. This is all the more important as the bird is globally threatened, with its global population down from 2 to 2.5 million birds in 2016 to just over a million birds in 2021, a terrifying drop. As usual, there are many factors – pochards are quite specific about the habitats that suit them, and the number one reason for the decline appears to be the loss of suitable breeding sites in Eastern Europe, and the general problem of water pollution from agricultural run-off right across their range.

Like many ducks, pochards are eaten by mink, foxes, raccoon dogs and wild boar, who also trample and eat the eggs. It’s also reported that pochards might be suffering from the decline in black-headed gull nesting sites – ducks that nest alongside the gulls have bigger broods, probably because the two species can share warnings about approaching predators (and if a black-headed gull is worried you’ll definitely hear about it). It just goes to show how interwoven different species are, and how if one starts to have problems there are knock-on effects for everybody else.

In many places along their migration route, pochards are also hunted, often illegally, and this seems to affect breeding females and juveniles disproportionately. The increased use of water bodies for recreation (i.e. idiots on jet skis and in speedboats) doesn’t help. And finally, climate change is increasing the salinity of many of the places where pochard used to feed en route to their wintering or breeding grounds, making them unsuitable. All in all, these familiar and well-loved ducks are facing a whole barrage of challenges.

All this, I know, sounds extremely depressing. And it’s important not to get Pollyanna-ish about the way that things are going. But still, we have to believe that each of us matters, and that each of us can do something, and so we can. One organisation that I like very much that supports all manner of waterbirds is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, founded by Sir Peter Scott. It has some wonderful reserves all over the UK, including the original Wetlands Centre at Barnes in London which is still an amazing place to visit. And with Christmas coming up, maybe there’s something that would work as a present for someone.

Another organisation that is very close to my heart is, of course, the London Wildlife Trust, which manages Woodberry Wetlands, Walthamstow Wetlands and Camley Street Natural Park among many other sites (and I’ve seen pochard at both Woodberry and Walthamstow Wetlands). You can help them (or your local Wildlife Trust) out in a variety of ways, but for those of us who already feed the birds, it’s worth noting that the Wildlife Trusts benefit from any bird food that you buy from Vine House Farm, who grow a lot of the seeds etc on site, making it much more sustainable.

It’s going to be a hard winter, I know, and many of us will just about be getting by without any spare cash for charities, so over the course of this series I’ll be thinking about ways that we can help our beleaguered birds without having to spend any money. In the meantime, though, let’s see if we can’t get out for a walk to appreciate them as the days shorten and the nights draw in. Winter can be an exciting time to see birds, and in other news apparently there is a real shortage of berries in Scandinavia and a glut here, so keep your eyes peeled for waxwings, especially if you live in eastern Scotland or on the east coast. Fingers crossed!