Author Archives: Nigel

Urban birding, Soho-style

Our Soho Square bird list is nothing to boast about. Just 25 species in 11 years! But then we are in central London, without a blade of grass for miles, if you discount the obsessively manicured gardens of Soho Square itself. Even this little patch of green is barely visible underneath the masses of random, sun-seeking bodies that fill the square on sunny days, and it’s shaded by tall sterile plane trees that support a lot less microfauna than a good, solid native oak. Nevertheless, we’ve had our moments: the occasional Mallard strolling across the lawns looking for a puddle of water, a fly-over Grey Wagtail, Redwings migrating overhead in winter, and even a Willow Warbler once in August. A Sparrowhawk eating a pigeon caused quite a stir amongst the non-birding staff of our office, and has been seen a couple of times subsequently. A few years ago, a flock of 120 Waxwings descended on Fitzroy Square, just a few minutes to the north of us. This was sensational for Central London, and when we were walking back to the office a flock flew south along Charlotte Street towards Soho Square – but we weren’t there to get it on the list!

The Bloomsbury Sparrowhawk tucks into an unfortunate pigeon. Photo by Nick Humphrey.

This year, after years without an addition to the list, we’ve had two. A pair of Goldfinches has taken up residence in the square. They were first found by Jim, but are now to be heard singing or twittering on most days. Then, a snatch of song on 6th May alerted me to the presence of a Black Redstart in Frith Street. It did not show itself, and a frustrating few days went by before it was heard again. The next time it was a few streets away, but again it was not seen. Finally, I nailed it back in Frith Street, and I was lucky enough to actually see a pair. Since then, it’s been fairly regular in the Frith and Greek Street area, being recorded as far afield as Chinatown and Great Marlborough Street.

Black Redstart, taken earlier from the office window*. What a cracker.

We’d been hoping for this city speciality for some time. Jim thought he’d got one a couple of years ago, but it turned out to be someone’s Canary singing away from the balcony of a top floor flat! Black Redstart is a rare breeding bird in Britain. It only started breeding in Britain on bombsites in London in 1940, and its population remains fairly stable at only around 100 pairs in the entire country, mostly in towns or on power stations. So, it’s a pretty scarce bird, and to have a pair around your usually rather birdless office is quite a treat.

St Anne's Court, Soho. Scene of Jim's canary-based ID disgrace.

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*this is a lie.

A case of mistaken identity

Spring is a busy time for birders. This year, it got off to a slow start after the severe winter, but suddenly it was all happening! The trees burst into life and there was much to do in my kitchen garden. There were also the Timed Tetrad Visits to complete for the new BTO Atlas (this country-wide project is now more than half way through its four-year cycle). Then, as if that wasn’t enough, I had to go off on a Birdquest tour to Georgia and Armenia (I know that sounds tough, but someone has to do it – more about this later, if I get time). When I returned in late May, I was busier than ever. But there is only so much gardening and survey work that you can do, and a fix of local patch birding is what was needed to remedy this.

My local birding is largely confined to Rye Harbour and Dungeness, both of which are within easy reach of my home in East Sussex. I was spurred on by the welcome news that a pair of Purple Herons was nesting there. This southern European species is a regular spring overshoot to Britain, but it has never nested here before. I set off with the usual enthusiasm and confidence, but Purple Herons are well known for their secretive habits when breeding in dense reedbeds. I should have known better! I arrived at the site near Dungeness where the only other vehicle was a Winnebago containing three middle-aged men drinking tea. A camera on a tripod with a huge lens pointing at the reedbed indicated they must be birders, so I asked them if they’d seen the Purple Herons. Their response took me by surprise. They claimed not to know about any Purple Herons, so I assumed they were not serious birders who just happened to be at the precise locality for the herons. I scanned the reedbed and pools diligently until an old friend turned up. Ray Turley is a well-known figure at Dungeness. He lives just down the road and birdwatches there most days. We chatted for a bit, before he wandered over to the Winnebago. He seemed to know its occupants well, and then the penny dropped. These guys were serious birders after all, and they were pretending not to know about the herons in case I was a dodgy character! Maybe they thought I was there to disturb the birds or, worse, to try to steal the eggs. As it turned out, they were indeed part of the official round-the-clock rota that was put in place to protect the birds while the eggs were being incubated. Having cleared up this little misunderstanding, I stayed another hour, but the herons were not playing ball.

It took three more visits before I finally caught up with these elusive birds. Presumably they will become a little more obvious when they are feeding young, but during incubation they tend to keep well hidden. My visit last weekend was enhanced with another scarce European visitor. A first-summer male Red-footed Falcon spent a week in the area. I hadn’t seen one in Britain for more than 20 years, and it was a real pleasure to see this charming little falcon hunting insects over the marsh, though it actually spent most of its time perched on telegraph poles and wires. Although most of its plumage was blue-grey, it showed the dull red vent and bright red legs so characteristic of the adult male, but a broad buff collar indicated that this bird was only a year old. An interesting plumage.

Find out more about Nigel’s local patch in the brand new edition of Where to Watch Birds in Britain, due to be published at the end of June.

A birder in government

Not many people know this, but the newly appointed Deputy Chief Whip in the coalition government is a birder. He is John Randall, known to his closest friends as Alex. He’s an old chum of mine and was even best man at my first wedding, many years ago now. In those days, he used to lead a few birdwatching tours to places such as Hungary and Poland, and at that time I too was a Birdquest tour leader, in my pre-publishing days. We all had fewer commitments then before marriage and families intervened and we were free to travel to exotic destinations to watch birds.

Alex was elected as MP for Uxbridge in 1997, in a move that surprised even his closest friends. Since then he has diligently worked in the whips office in opposition, with rather little time for birding, though he does manage to get away on a few family holidays (for example a trip to Borneo last year with one of his sons).

I won’t bore you all with tales of lunches in the House of Commons, but Alex did send me the photo below recently. He’s on his way to the State Opening of Parliament (no, he doesn’t travel to work like that every day!). Apparently one of the perks of his new job is to ride in this fancy coach behind Her Majesty. How the other half lives!

If you want to find out more detail about John Randall, check out his entry in the latest edition of Who’s Who.

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