Tag Archives: City of London

The Wanstead Teal and a 92 year old vision for the Park

On the numbers of Teal

“This very prettily marked species, the smallest of our Ducks, but one of the best as an article of food, is an early and constant winter visitor” 

So Mr Yarrell (he of Pied Wagtail fame – the British sub-species is known as ‘yarrellii’) opens his description of my favourite duck when he was writing 170 years ago.

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John Thompson’s engraving of a Teal from Yarrell’s History of British Birds, 1843

In the early Victorian era there seemed to be some confusion about whether Teal actually bred in the UK (BTO estimates about 2000 pairs breed in the UK), although Yarrell gives plenty of examples from his network of contacts to prove that they do.

But we all know that this is largely a winter migrant in the UK when their numbers increase one hundredfold (literally) on the summer residents. The Wanstead Flats/Park patch is not a noted site for Teal, where only small numbers appear, and somewhat irregularly, during the winter. On last weekend’s Wetland Bird survey on the patch, we counted 22 Teal in Wanstead Park and this morning one of the local birders counted 26 on a single lake in the Park – possibly a patch record – especially if any had also been on the Ornamentals or Alexandra lakes at the same time.

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Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

But… I haven’t just been reading Yarrell. I was perusing another one of my antiquarian bird book collection *he boasts* and read something very interesting.

In his book, Birds in London (1924), W.H. Hudson writes about Wanstead Park and says: “this park is peculiarly rich in wild bird life, and among the breeding species may be mentioned mallard and teal”.  Teal breeding on Wanstead Park less than a hundred years ago?! This doesn’t sound like a record of a rare occurrence, but rather the statement of a common fact – mentioned in the same breath as Mallard no less (no other ducks were mentioned as breeding here). In Andrew Self’s recent book The Birds of London, historical records of Teal breeding in London are scarce – the first ever recorded being in 1880 at Epsom and then other sites listed, but no mention of Wanstead.

I wondered at first if the lack of mention of Teal was because a hundred years ago, Wanstead was more of an Essex village than a London suburb, but Epsom is even more rural and distant from central London. Hudson could have been wrong, of course, but he was an eminent ornithologist (a founding member of the RSPB no less!) and a London resident who, as we shall see, clearly personally knew the area well. I would be willing to wager he had personally witnessed evidence that Teal bred at Wanstead.

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On a vision for the Park

Furthermore, Hudson’s list of breeding birds in the park contained some other surprises: Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale! I would be delighted to see any of those birds – even fleetingly – on the patch now (I should add that all three have been seen, but are rare birds on the patch), let alone have them breed.

As many know, the three bird species mentioned above all have ‘red’ conservation status in the UK, so the fact they no longer breed in Wanstead Park would not be a surprise to anyone. I am actually quite surprised that they bred as recently as the 1920s.

Hudson was ahead of his time in being conservation-minded, and he was also full of praise and hope for Wanstead Park which he described as: “perfect wildness” (many decades before rewilding was recognised as a ‘thing’). He set out a vision for the park, suggesting: “it would be well to make Wanstead Park as far as possible a sanctuary for all wild creatures.” He also singles out the City of London Corporation for praise in the way it managed the Park:

“The Corporation are deserving of nothing but praise for their management of this invaluable ground. Here is a bit of wild woodland nature unspoiled by the improving spirit which makes for prettiness in the Royal Parks”

Hudson goes on to describe specific practices, or the lack of, which support wildlife.

My concern is that recent ‘management’ of the park has seen a shift in the direction that Hudson clearly saw as a being a threat to nature: valuing ‘prettiness’, or tidiness, over wildness. Those who care about the wildlife on our patch have watched with dismay as a slash and clear policy has sometimes been used in the name of ‘management’ or to (re)create ‘vistas’ (from a long lost age when the park was a private garden) whilst destroying habitats for who knows how many living creatures.

I would encourage the City of London Corporation and those involved in the management of Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats to heed Hudson’s words with care otherwise there are breeding birds – Skylark, Song Thrush, Lesser Whitethroat for example – which could go the same way as Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale!

A tale of two winters

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Bush Wood under snow

The weather
The deliberate mangling of Shakespeare and Dickens for my latest blog post title is the best way I can sum up what is going on with the weather. Last weekend was snowy and cold, a couple of days later the patch recorded the lowest temperature for three years (-5.7 degrees centigrade … I know there might be a raised eyebrow if anyone is reading this from the blizzard-struck eastern US at the moment, but London is a mild-weather city). This weekend, we have probably just broken another record, but in the other direction. It hit 15.3 degrees today which may be the warmest recorded 24 January in London’s history! (I am indebted to Wanstead_meteo whose hyper-local weather reports on Twitter I find invaluable and fascinating).

I assisted the local conservation group (WREN) with the winter wetland bird survey (WeBS) and all numbers were very low as most of the park’s lakes were frozen over. I did, however, get a question answered (about how they survive winter) as I watched a kingfisher perform an apparent kamikaze dive towards the ice only to pull up at the last second and deftly scoop some food item (a frozen insect?) off the surface of the ice.

Even with the much warmer temperatures this weekend, some of the ice has melted stubbornly slowly. I listened to the creaking, squeaking, and splintering of thin ice under the weight of gulls:

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‘British’ Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

(Increasingly un)common birds

We are incredibly lucky on the patch to get a range of interesting, and sometimes rare, avian visitors, but when I think of the patch, I think of Skylark and Meadow Pipit. These year-round residents breed in the long grass of the ‘Flats’ – one of the closest points to central London where you can reliably find these birds. Last year, I remember seeing seven skylark regularly moving from one part of the Flats to another. This year I don’t believe that anyone has seen more than three at any one time.

And so it was, that I finally ticked off Skylark for my patch list for the year (last year I did it within an hour of being on the patch) by watching three flushed from the long grass by a dog land on a football pitch literally a few metres away from runners and footballs:

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Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly before this I watched seven Meadow Pipit (I am not sure a bigger number has been seen on the patch this year either, despite frequently gathering in larger and more numerous groups last year) also flushed by a dog, fly up to the relative safety of a tree:

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

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Same bird, different neck: poised for flight

Another bird I ticked off my year list was Linnet – I found six feeding on the short and gravelly grass known as the ‘Police Scrape’. Like Skylark and Meadow Pipit, their numbers have been falling drastically in the last 30-40 years (Linnet and Skylark are both ‘Red’ conservation status and Meadow Pipit is ‘Amber’):

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Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

This brings me to the topic of ‘conservation’. Whilst I am no ecologist, Meadow Pipits, Linnet and, more particularly, Skylarks  seem to be clinging on in London. If anything tips them over the edge, one of the most important sites for nature in the capital could lose its iconic birds forever and that could be a step towards a reasonable chance that these three birds will simply cease breeding in London. A solution seems relatively straightforward to me and some of the local birders:

  1. Reduce the number of football pitches – I am not just being a killjoy. There are currently 60 and rarely  close to half are even in use at one time. I believe this is a loss-making activity for the City of London and so they could let some of the pitches grow wild again in strategic places to give greater space for many species of invertebrates, mammals and the breeding birds to have a chance. The CoL would save money, footballers wouldn’t lose out at all, and wildlife would have a rare minor victory.
  1. Protect the breeding areas from dogs – It won’t be long before breeding season again, and a handful of pairs of Skylark and a few more Meadow Pipits will attempt to breed and raise young in the long grass. If a person treads on a single nest, or a dog eats or breaks the eggs, that is significant proportion of the population of Skylarks destroyed. (To put this into context, there are 2 million people in East London, around 250,000 dogs, and probably only ten or twenty breeding skylark – that is 10-20, not 10,000-20,000!) So maybe the CoL could use some of the money saved from reduced pitch maintenance and from fining the pitch users who leave the ground looking like a plastic landfill site (credit to Nick Croft for the idea) to erect proper fencing or cordons to protect these delicately balanced sites – the signs put up last year were frequently vandalised by people who, one can only imagine, were angry at being told they couldn’t take their dog “wherever the f*** I like”.

OK, I have climbed back off my soap box now

Switching from birds we would expect to see, but increasingly aren’t, to a bird we wouldn’t normally see on the patch at this time of year… I was pleased to catch up with a single Stonechat which has been seen for a few weeks now just a stone’s throw (I couldn’t resist that) from my house:

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Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus)

…To a bird we really shouldn’t see in East London

Picture the scene: me in my local Bush Wood armed, as always, with binoculars and camera… Smiling at the sound of early-season song from Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, and Great Tit… furrowing my brow at the signs of invasive (only first discovered in the UK less than 20 years ago) Holm Oak leaf mining moth:

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Leaf mines from Ectoedemia heringella moth

…Furrowing my brow even more at the sight of almost industrial quantities of beer cans discarded (I would have posted a picture as there were hundreds but there was someone relieving himself nearby – don’t ask! – which made me reluctant to point my camera in that direction)… raising my eyes back up at the sight and sound of some disturbed Magpies… pondering on what might have disturbed them and then seeing the Turaco:

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White-cheeked Turaco (Tauraco leucotis)

The light was fading due to the onset of dusk, but my eyes did not deceive me. This was my first time coming face to face (Literally. The Turaco perched directly above me and peered at me expectantly, but I did not have any fruit on me) with this now-famous Wanstead resident (Jono and others have seen this escapee on and off for around six years now).

I scurried off home quickly to chop up some fruit and returned. I briefly watched the spectacular tropical bird open its red wings and glide deeper into the woodland. As I left, I placed some strategically skewered fruit on a tree or two – but I did not see it again. Instead I was left with a small, but unmistakeable, gnawing of sadness. Perhaps I was anthropomorphising, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this bird feels lonely as it glides from garden to woodland and back again in a country where it has no chance of ever meeting another member of its own species for year after year (just imagine being stranded somewhere on your own for the rest of your life where the closest relative to humans present was a squirrel monkey). But I realise many feel this is an acceptable price to pay to enable people the ‘right’ to own exotic pets. Oops! I just climbed back on to my soap box. I had better get off it now at last and go to bed, and will leave you with a photo of an observer Tim and I had whilst counting water birds for our survey:

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Secret London: Part VI – The Secret Garden

Squeezed between modern financial services buildings in the City, a small lane leads to what appears to be an old church, St Dunstan in the East. But all is not as it first seems…

St Dunstan in the East is an example of what can be created and achieved from the ruins of disaster. The original church dated back to Saxon London of 950 AD. Situated only a few hundred feet from the start of the Great Fire of London – Pudding Lane – meant it didn’t stand a chance and was raised to the ground in 1666. But this meant that the greatest architect of the time, Sir Christopher Wren (designer of St Paul’s Cathedral) built a new church in its place, and his tower still stands proud today (see above).

But the rest of the body, or nave, of the church is now just an exposed shell – it was destroyed by a German bomb in the Blitz. However, as London was gradually repaired through the ’50s and ’60s this bomb-damaged husk was turned into something beautiful by making it into a public walled garden.

Secret London: scratching beneath the surface

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” – Samuel Johnson

The quotation above is in danger of becoming tired itself it is so often repeated. But, as with many clichés, it has gained its status by being so accurate.

I am perhaps not well-travelled enough to be justified in making such a bold statement, but I believe London is the most incredible city in the world. It would be difficult to claim that it was the most beautiful city in the world, it is obviously not even close to being the oldest (Jericho and Damascus tend to be rivals for that title), and nor do I think it is the friendliest place to be, but its diverse richness of culture and history make it the most interesting place to live. Also:

  • London is the largest, and most populous, urban zone in Europe
  • Over 300 languages are spoken by people living in London
  • The London metropolitan area generates around 30% of the UK’s total GDP
  • London is not actually ‘one’ city, but an urbanised area containing the City of London and the City of Westminster. The old ‘City of London’, which is now largely the financial centre, gave its name to rest of the sprawling mass officially called ‘Greater London’.

But most people know all of this. Everyone also knows about Big Ben (even if they do confuse the name of the Bell with the Westminster Clock Tower itself), Buckingham Palace, and the dreadful Leicester Square (can anyone tell me the point of Leicester square other than as a place to stage film premières?). But there is much of London that remains hidden and unknown, even to many of us who have lived here for years.

It is this ‘secret’ London that I intend to occasionally uncover through photography. There is no time like the present, so here are some photo-trivia to get us started…

The City Walls

There was almost certainly settlement activity around London’s part of the Thames long before the Romans (in fact recent archaeological finds suggest there was a bridge across the Thames in 1500BC(!), but the first significant settlement that we know of was built by the good old Romans in 43AD (only 10 years after they had crucified a rather well-known Jewish carpenter at the other end of their empire).

As we know from other parts of the country, the Romans liked to build walls to stop the baddies (or locals as we might call them) from getting in.

The old Roman walls have largely been built over, or incorporated into, the foundations of newer walls and so can’t be seen, but the Blitz exposed some of these ancient structures. In the photos above (from left to right) you can see the archaeological site with WWII-ruined Victorian walls on top of the old Roman walls [digression: you can also see one of the Barbican towers in the distance and the modern building on the right is my former office]. In the middle you can see the stone outline of a fort built into the city wall. Finally, there is a close-up showing clearly how Victorian brick was built directly on top of the old Roman walls.

London’s burning

Only 17 years after Londinium was settled by the Romans, one of those locals/natives/baddies, Boudica the queen of the Iceni (sometimes called Boadicea), got a bit stroppy and burned the whole place to the ground. The Romans didn’t give up though and re-built it with some bigger walls (like the ones shown in my photos) to deter such unpleasantness. The fire was so comprehensive and destructive, that archaeologists still use the layer of ash in the earth as an accurate date-line.

This was not the only time London was to burn. Under the great wall-builder, Emperor Hadrian, the city was almost completely wiped out again (122AD). There were big fires in 675, 982 and 989 under the Saxons. In 1087 under William II another huge fire destroyed the original St Paul’s Cathedral amongst other things. In 1135 and 1212 there were two more enormous fires which are believed to have killed thousands of Londoners who, nevertheless, continued to live crammed in to rickety wooden houses until the ‘Great Fire of London’ in 1666.

Immediately after the Great Fire of London, some poor mad French chap foolishly confessed to starting the fire. He was promptly executed before people worked out that he wasn’t even in London when the fire started. Astronomers and Catholics also got blamed for the causes (in a karmic, rather than literal, way) of the fire until the City elders decided that the sin of gluttony was to blame. To make their point, they put up this chubby little golden chappy below on the corner of the aptly named Cock Lane:

As nearly everyone knows, London didn’t burn so comprehensively again until the Germans dropped firebombs on London in the Blitz of the Second World War. What a lot of people don’t know is that, if you look carefully enough, the scars of war are still present in London 70 years later:

On the ruined Christ Church at Greyfriars (left), you can still see the scorch marks after the church took a direct hit from a bomb in 1940. On the right are two examples of many shrapnel holes in St Bart’s hospital after bombs fell nearby.

Thanks for reading! I promise to make future updates on ‘London’s Secrets’ more about the photos and less about me babbling on. I think I got a little overexcited with all the history. I am going to have a little lie down now.