July, 2007

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  • Your country needs you ... to garden for wildlife

    I can hear the jays, I've seen the blackbirds pecking the food scraps on the bird table, seen chaffinch on the hawthorn and watched swifts overhead, but house sparrows and tits are still conspicuous by their absence from my urban garden.

    It's not much at present, we only recently moved in but there are big plans to create a wildlife haven in my patch of inner London. My old home only had an overshadowed concrete patch too small to swing a mouse in, let alone a cat! The attraction of my new home was that there is light and space outdoors for me to pretend I have a nature reserve and for  my children to have space to play - and for my partner to sit-down in the sun and read the papers. Okay, it's a vision of the urban idyll that may never come to pass, but I can have a stab at it, can't I?

    Moulting is underway. That's why I'm missing some of the garden birds I should be seeing, others have cleared off for a holiday in the food-rich suburbs or countryside. My main blackbird vanished for a while, but he's back looking trim and neat. Here in east London we've been busy picking fat juicy blackberries before the insects get at them. I'm always amazed at how soon they ripen here and I'm conscious that the birds lifecycles do seem a little out of kilter with the early fruiting.

    So, this is the frontline of conservation in London; the urban garden. This is where individual actions can and do make a difference. London is a big green city full of public spaces but it's our gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies that join it all together and allow wildlife to move around the Capital; aided of course by canal, rail and road verges.

    London's gardens have taken a bit of a batterring though. We've lost land equivalent in size to sixteen times that of the Olympic development just through decking, hard landscaping for patio's and car parking and back garden developments. This is an enormous loss of land in such a small area. No wonder our urban wildlife is feeling stressed and numbers of starlings and house sparows have dropped. Most of my garden is laid to concrete paving slabs at present, not by choice. One day there will be a nice lawn that drifts off into wildflower meadow with boundary hedges and maybe a water feature. It will be a space I share with as wide a variety of birds, insects and plants as I can manage to squeeze in to this tiny patch.

    Back in the really exciting world, the peregrines have been well-behaved down at the Tate Modern and only went absent for one day last week. The rest of the time they've been on show for everyone to see. They are spectacular in their size and power. Everyone who's stopped to look at them, through our telescopes set-up by the Millennium Bridge, has expressed either surprise or wonder that they should be so content, sitting high up on the Tate's chimney, with all the hustle, noise and movement of London-life all around them.

    Soon we'll be naming the male peregrine that our female, Misty, has taken up with. Watch this space to discover whose entry is drawn from the hat of suggestions. Will it be witty and wry, silly or something plain. Next week we'll find out! Bookmark this page, NOW.

    If you'd like to help us at the Tate by volunteering, them please contact Jo Bunner in the RSPB London Office on 020 7808 1260. If you'd like to help but don't have much free time, you can volunteer to help with our fundraising. Call Susan Sutton on 020 7808 1260. Email us at: london@rspb.org.uk


  • Who's your Daddy?

    Okay, you're alone at home, minding your own business and happen to look out the window where you are shocked to see the beady, sparkling eye of a foot-tall bird of prey, its feathers ruffled by the wind, its sharp talons twisted round the metalwork of the balcony - it's a peregrine!

    This is exactly what happened to Peter Kenyon, who lives in central London close to our Aren't birds brilliant! Peregrine watch at the Tate Modern. You can see one, maybe two, or if you're lucky, upto FIVE of these amazing birds through our Nikon telescopes at the Tate Modern anyday from noon until 7 pm (8 pm Fridays) right through to the Mayor's Thames Festival on Sunday 16 September. Don't forget, last week I asked you to help name the new peregrine male at the Tate - come and visit us to take part.

    When we arrived to set-up the other day, the adult male made a food pass to one of his offspring mid-flight. Later, the three young males were play-fighting up above. The female chose to sit out the fight.

    To see this action in Central London is absolutely amazing. We're witnessing the changing habits of a wild species. Of the 1,400 or so pairs of breeding pregrines in the UK some 60+ are now known to live on man-made structures. They are increasingly taking advantage of our high rise buildings and relics from our industrial heritage, such as old chimneys and pylons. These sites are ideal for peregrines; they're high-up and surrounded by a bountiful larder full of tasty peregrine snacks, such as pigeons!

    Last week I said I'm hoping we'll have 12 breeding pairs of peregrines in London in time for the 2012 Olympics. I cling to that hope but would ask for as much help to achieve this goal as you can give. By adopting wildlife-friendly gardening techniques, you can have a huge impact on the wildlife sharing our Capital. We've lost land 16 times the size of the Olympic development to hard surfacing in the past decade in London. This doesn't include land taken up by development, just gardens lost to decking, patios and car parking spaces. Here are some good reasons for acting now:

    • hard surfaces lead to fast run-off of rain, causing increased flood problems in sudden downpours - grassed areas or softer surfaces help absorb water, reducing the threat of flash floods
    • Hard surfaces increase air and surface temperature so London's always warmer than the surrounding countryside
    • More grassy areas, shrubs and hedges means more insects, more birds and more good wildlife in general, helping to keep wildlife pests under control.

    See our wildlife gardening pages for more information and advice. Oh, and keep watching the skies. A colleague just told me he saw three hobbies flying over Green Park next to Buckingham Palace last week! It's amazing what you see when you start looking.

  • Houdini escapes and children caught red-handed

    Last year, while we were all busy talking to people about the peregrines that perch on the Tate Modern's chimney, a pair of heavily made-up, dark clad Goths having a romantic picnic behind our trailer were interupted by one of the birds hungrily snatching a pigeon right in front of them! Of course we, armed with telescopes, cameras and binoculars, completely missed it.

    On Friday I stopped off on the South Bank on my cycle ride home to ensure all's well for this year's Aren't birds brilliant! Peregrine Watch at the Tate. Sure enough, one of the two birds was there perched high up on the protruding brickwork of the chimney, waiting for us to turn up on July 21 with our kit. It was Misty, the female, which means I still haven't had a chance to see the new man in her life.

    Yes, Misty has dumped her old mate and taken up with another peregrine. We'll be having a competition to Name the Daddy when our Abb! opens at the end of this week. Her old mate, Houdini, has escaped unseen so we're also trying to track him down. There are now five pairs of peregrines living wild in London. Their territories are smaller than those of their rural cousins (lots of pigeons to eat). It may be a futile goal but I'm hoping for 12 breeding pairs come the 2012 games.

    Today was spent with a dozen year 4 and year 6 primary school pupils on a biodiversity cycle ride across Hackney Marshes, to the Lee Valley Trust's Waterworks nature reserve. They've recently relocated hundreds of newts from the Olympic development site to a specially built pond in the reserve. It's the old Essex Water Filter Beds and there's a huge wooden hide in the centre, surrounded by a different habitat on each filter bed - water meadow, reed bed and pond. The filter beds used to purify drinking water for Londoners but they are now a great site for spotting grey herons, a fast moving kingfisher, grebe, pochard and more than 20 other breeding bird species plus seasonal migrants.

    A couple of years ago, sitting at one of the hide windows, I looked down to find a grass snake basking in the sun at my feet. It's one of the best places I know in London for dragonfly spotting, matched only by our Rainham Marshes reserve. It's amazing what thrives on these old industrial sites and introducing school children to our native wildlife is always a pleasure and a delight. I was just worried that the children's parents would freak when we returned them to school with red stains on their hands and around their mouths - not from a cycling accident - but from the blackberries they'd devoured on the walk to the hide.