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Across the skyline: Bird-watching in London

Updated Tuesday 2nd November 2010

On Friday 15th October 2010 the Saving Species team met with Ian Wallace, a pioneer of ornithology in this country, on Primrose Hill, just north of Regent’s Park in London. The plan was to observe the day’s bird migration for one hour, just as Ian had done in 1960 when forty observers took on the task of counting the numbers and species of birds flying across the city    

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A seagull flies past the Palace of Westminster Creative commons image Icon stevec77 under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license A seagull swoops above The Thames Copyright The Open University


Presenter:  This morning we’re up early and among Londoners as the City wakes up and people start about the business of getting to work.  I’m at Primrose Hill with Ian Wallace and in front of us is the most spectacular view of the City.  It’s a wonderful vantage point.  There’s the enormous green bowl of Regents Park sweeping away in the near distance and if you look beyond the treetops now they’re sort of turning beautiful autumn colours, we can see the unique London skyline, and it’s very familiar to you, Ian, isn’t it, because you were here fifty years ago?

Ian:  Indeed I was and what we’re trying to do this morning is re-enact just one of the watches out of fifty-one that we conducted day-to-day in the Autumn of 1960 to try and discover how many birds moved over London in autumn movements.  

Presenter:  How often did you come here and what times of day?

Ian:  Well normally Regents Park was my garden.  I lived in Marylebone High Street.  My office was in Finsbury Park.  So I used to squeeze in some naughty bird watching on the way to work, nearly every day, and on this particular day, the 15th October, between three and four migrant birds per minute went over the hill.  I think I got 19 species on the move that day.  But the main bulk was of the common winter visitors to Britain, the finches, the chaffinch, for example, and the winter thrushes, particularly fieldfare and redwing, skylarks and in some ways the two surprises, big numbers of starlings and big numbers of woodpigeon, which nobody had ever seen on migration before we really sussed them out in London at that time.

Presenter:  Woodpigeons are familiar to all of us I think now.  You don’t think of them as a migrating bird.

Ian:  No, and we didn’t then, and it took us quite a tussle to get them accepted as migrants.

Presenter:  Where are the pigeons going?

Ian:  We don’t actually know that.  But we do know from some other work done near Sheffield that they’re also charging about right in the middle of England, not just within a few miles of the coast because London is basically not that far away from the coast.  But some of the guys who watch south of Sheffield have seen hundreds of thousands moving over the Peak District for example.  Now it may just be huge population surges producing later dispersal movements.  It’s still a bit of a mystery and thank god we’ve got some left.

  Absolutely.  Well I’m going to stop talking to you now, Ian.

Ian:  Okay, excellent.

Presenter:  And we’ll see what we can spot.

Ian:  Okay.  Well I’m going to sit on the seat because then I can look up a bit.

Presenter:  Okay.

  First two birds, folks, two redwings have just come up on the back of the hill and dropped into the hawthorn trees about two hundred yards over there.  So there is something going on.

Presenter:  I didn’t even see them in there.

Ian:  It’s quite interesting, I can hear a chaffinch calling over on my right here, towards St John’s Wood, and it’s not calling with the normal chaffinch call, it’s an anxious migrant looking for fellows to travel with.  It’s giving sort of an alarm call saying hang on, I’ve got lost, is there anybody I can meet and travel onwards – and it’s about two hundred yards over there.

Presenter:  Tell me a little bit more, Ian, about how the watch was organised in 1960.

Ian:  Well we had, as you’ve said, 40 members of the ornithological section scattered right across the 40-mile diameter of the London recording area, and they were all issued with standard forms, and they were asked to do at least half an hour on weekdays and hopefully three hours on Saturdays and Sundays, and then they basically had a proforma which against a time discipline they wrote down all the species and the numbers of those species that they saw in their watch period, and then right at the end of the watch, Tony Gibbs, who was the co-organiser, and I analysed all the sheets together.  We found that there were 14 where people had really been just totally religious about it, and that gave us a really good database, and it was that that we made the then quite famous estimate that over that autumn, well, the 51 days, four million birds had gone over London.

Presenter:  Four million birds.

Ian:  Four million birds and the peak was today and tomorrow, fifty years ago, when something like 400,000 went over in just two days.  I think we ended up with something like 70 species proved to be migrating over London in that period.

Oh, we have birds.  We have birds.  We’ve got a flock of chaffinches, three, six, oh, got to be 20.  Can you see them moving over the trees?

Presenter:  Yes, absolutely.

Ian:  And doing just what I said, moving into wind and climbing away, going towards Hampstead Heath this lot.  Oh that’s wonderful.  They’re still at it.  Brilliant.  Fantastic.

Presenter:  So it’s slightly dipping sort of flight.

Ian:  Yes, slightly dipping flight because they have little burst of wing beats, then close up and float on, burst of wing beats, and they keep that up and they go for hundreds of miles at a time.  Those birds, where are we now, nearly eight o’clock, so they’ve probably been on the wing from an hour and maybe landfall last night on the South Coast and they’ve come up towards London.  Well there you go.  Oh that’s tremendous.  That really was.

Presenter:  And so the one that was calling earlier will now be able to join them.

Ian:  Yes, well it may well have lifted off and joined them.  I didn’t actually see it do it but oh that’s tremendous.

Presenter:  Where are the chaffinch going for food if they’re crossing London from South to North?

Ian:  Well they’ll be looking for food sources basically on open farmland, and so stubbles, because there’s still stubbles at this time of the year, hedgerows with insects and seeds underneath them, any kind of wasteland where there’s a good rich store of seeds.  They’re essentially seed eaters so they’ll know how to pick out the habitat.  

Presenter:  Now if anybody wants to come out in London and actually look up into the skies and see some of these birds, how do you actually spot and how do you actually watch them?

Ian:  Well I think the important thing is to get a bit of height, as we’ve got here on Primrose Hill.  Make sure that you understand that essentially, although it’s not a complete rule, birds like to move into wind.  So probably pick yourself a North West wind and then take a sector of the sky and keep watching that carefully, let your eyes go back and forward across it.  Keep your ears open too because you might also hear calls from up top, and then you’ve got to learn, and it’s not a quick process, how to tell flight patterns and flight actions, ie the way that birds beat their wings and this sort of thing, because they all have little differences, and little by little you pick up a vocabulary of identification.  Which I have to say isn’t in field guides; you have to learn it with experience.

I’ve got another redwing, it’s moving in fact North East but at quite a good height.  So that’s another incoming migrant going over London looking for a winter habitat somewhere in England.  Wonderful.

Presenter:  Would you have expected to see them in flocks in 1960? You’re just talking about one bird now.

Ian:  Yes, the passage this morning, I have to say, is thin.  There clearly is something going on but there’s not the weight of birds and, as you say, there isn’t the obvious flocking that I would have expected fifty years ago.  But we are giving it a very ferocious test; just to pick one hour and a half and try and replicate fifty years ago is not easy.  

Presenter:  Redwings are very beautiful birds.  They’re like a thrush but they’re kind of more spectacular really in a way do you think?

Ian:  Oh, absolutely, and they’re one of my favourite birds.  They’ve got this wonderful white eye stripe over the eye and this lovely flush of really quite veracious red underneath the wing, which you can sometimes see in the flanks, which is how they get their name, and it’s a most charming, charming bird.  

Presenter:  They’re coming over.

Ian:  Oh now we’ve got a swirl of gull coming in from the North.  We have herring gulls here, black headed gulls and I’ve now found a common gull in this lot.  These could be migrants, and also what’s extremely interesting, as they’ve flown by, they’ve suddenly picked up a flock of starlings, and they’ve gone up and they’ve joined the gulls.  Now that’s very interesting because that means the starlings were having a rest and they saw some other birds on the move and they thought oh perhaps we should get moving again, and they’ve gone.  They’ve gone away to the North, wonderful.  It gets so exciting.

It is really exciting.

Ian:  The blood comes up and the adrenaline surges and you know that the world is going through this amazing resource strategy.  Migration and winter needs have got to be met and oh it’s fantastic.

The lovely thing about birds is they keep faith with you.  They never let you down.  I mean sometimes they go away, sadly, like things like turtle doves and spotted flycatcher becomes so rare.  But most of them are still here and they’re just such a joy and they’re there.  You can almost touch them every day and it’s such a solace.  

Well now, Ian, we’ve been out here for maybe an hour and a half.

Ian:  We’ve actually watched specifically for an hour precisely now.  It’s 08:42 and this is the time I stopped fifty years ago.  So shall we have a count up?

Presenter:  Let’s do that.

Ian:  All right, well we’ve had 38 true migrants from Europe; three redwings, a fieldfare, 29 chaffinches and 10 starlings.  Which is less then I’d hope for, but it shows that at least four small species of birds are migrating over London this morning, and then for me, slightly the surprise, we had that passage of gulls go through, 31 birds in all, four species and four common gulls did surprise me because it’s a fairly rare bird in the park, or was in my days, and so they were very interesting to me.

Presenter:  Now that’s eight species and in 1960 you saw 19 species.

Ian:  19 in the hour.

Presenter:  Does that worry you at all?

Ian:  Well it does but not because you can say that in one hour and one day we’ve really tested this autumn’s movement but because of what we know about the general decline in birds since 1975, when particularly farming practices throughout Europe just changed out of all recognition.  And the land is so clean now and bird populations have gone down, very sadly but they have, and we may have seen a reflection of that but it’s not fair to say that one hour’s test says we can all go home miserable.

London panorama skyline seen from Primrose hill Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Claudiodivizia |

London panorama skyline seen from Primrose hill

1960 2010
Bird watching results from 1960 and 2010
37 Lapwing 3 Redwing
34 Black headed gull 1 Fieldfare
4 Common gull 29 Chaffinch
2 Lesser black headed gull 10 Starling
620 Wood pigeon 4 species of gull including Common gull
120 Skylark  
15 Meadow pipit  
3 Linnet  
5 Redpoll  
1 Reed bunting  
6 House martin  
9 Song thrush  
54 Redwing  
4 Mistle thrush  
1 Blackbird  
71 Chaffinch  
10 Brambling  
2 Greenfinch  
4 Siskin  






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