May, 2009

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  • Minority report

    A male yellowhammer making himself heardI'm constantly amazed and hugely impressed by the work people put in to their community spaces around London. It puts my own garden efforts to shame.

    In the last week I've visited an inspiring allotment site where the imagination of the allotment holders add magic to what had once been a brownfield site. It's now full of wildlife, flowers, fruit and veg. I also heard about a community who lost their orchard to development but are carving out new green spaces where wildlife is once again showing signs of a recovery.

    I'm never sure what I find more inspiring, whether it's the conservation side of things or the fact that a bunch of people got together and worked damn hard to create fantastic shared places. The combination of these two factors, where people and nature come together, make these spaces really exciting for me. If you make space for it, nature will come billowing in; slowly at first but the pace soon quickens.

    I still haven't lifted most of the concrete slabs we inherited in out garden, but the new hedge, trees and nectar rich wild flowers are drawing in birds you rarely see. I have my woodpeckers and jays and now, in the last week, my partner's spotted yellowhammers too.

    I don't want to give a false impression though. All is not rosy in London's green spaces and gardens. We're still losing a range of species. Whether you blame development or climate change one thing's for sure. You can normally trace the cause back to human action.

    The 2009 revised version of the 2002 Birds of Conservation Concern is out this week and is expected to show an increase in the number of species included in the red (most threatened) list. Look out for it on our webpages. Common London species such as house sparrow and starling are already on that list. With the present financial crisis, it' s never been quite so important to invest in conservation. We're losing bits of nature, add you voice to ours to demand faster and better action from our policy-makers.

    King Henry's Walk and Leabank Square are typical of people doing excellent things, but they're in the minority. Let's make it the norm. If you've got a good thing going-on in a communal space, share details with me to build a network of sites across London offering practical examples of schemes that work. 

  • Let history be the judge

    Cutsey blue tit - not afraid of the Grenadier Guards and constantly breaches security by flying over the walls.Our office is in central London and we look out on to a building site at the back and, at the front the imposing concrete bulk of Wellington barracks; presently home of the Grenadier Guards.

    It's not the sort of place you'd expect much biodiversity. This year, we've recorded a leap forward. Not only do we have blue tits and great tits nesting in the tree-lined street at the front, we've breeding blackbirds in an unpromising light-well at the rear of the building.

    The tenants in the basement recently came to report what appeared to be a bird in distress in this light-well. It turned out to be a baby blackbird that had tumbled from its nest. Mum and Dad were nearby and delivering food so we reassured the staff that the bird was well and best left alone. Happy with this information, they were then free to relax, watch and enjoy the drama of a young bird's first few days and weeks of life out of the nest.

    We humans seem to have a pre-programmed desire to intervene. We see small birds or animals and want to "do something" about them. It's the same with plants. We take cuttings or seeds to grow our own or, at the other end of the scale, we name them weeds and try to wipe them out of existence.

    Some kind soul, unable to look after their goldfish, dumped them in ponds in Islington's Gillespie Park. The fish have spawned and done well, but sadly the mix of dragonflies the pond was managed to support has not only dwindled in population, but some dragonfly species have been gobbled out of existence! That's an act of ignorance but shows how every act must be thought through.

    Male black redstart - see its red tail feathers?The truth is, we humans rarely leave anything to run truly wild and unmanaged. Mind you, without the mosaic of habitats that surround us, we wouldn't have the huge range of plants and creatures to watch and enjoy, particularly in London. Where else could you have chalk grassland next to reedbeds, or salty mudflats supporting redshank alongside scrubby brownfield sites favoured by black redstarts.

    Getting the balance right between conserving this great mix of places and species or over-managing a site in favour of a threatened species to the detriment of others, is never easy. Only history can really show whether correct choices are made.

    History shows that humankind's curent priorities never outlast the environmental priorities. That's a good reason for demanding MP's change the Marine Bill to put environmental priorities over socio-economic ones. This is one of the many campaign's where the RSPB is speaking up for nature. It's also a great opportunity for MP's to go down in history for doing the right thing rather than being remembered for their expense claims.

  • From Africa on a rush of wind

    They're here, they're noisy and they're most welcome. Swifts are once again soaring, swirling and diving over my home. It's amazing that they find their way back here year after year, all the way from their African wintering grounds. I like Hackney, but you have to ask, why do swifts come here?

    The answer is that with the watery, damp riches of both Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes and the River Lee nearby, there are plenty of insects buzzing around. The other big attraction is the old (mostly Victorian) housing, which provides suitable nest sites; although modern renovations are removing the nooks and crannies in the eaves where swifts build their nests. How on earth did the species survive before we started building two storey homes, church towers and castles?

    Sand martin at a nest hole.If graceful migrants are your "thing", then come and see us at the Lee Valley Spring Wildlife Weekend on Saturday and Sunday (16 & 17 May at the Waterworks nature reserve off the Lee Bridge Road, nearest train station is Clapton). There's a sand martin bank on the reserve and if the birds aren't put off by all the human activity, you should be able to get a good view of them. We'll have an information stand where you can find out more about our work in London and our house sparrow parks research project. The Waterworks is one of twenty house sparrow research sites across Greater London.

    Our Mind the Bird photo competition continues with some stunning images submitted. The idea is to capture and image of some of the variety of birds found in London; within a five minute walk of a tube station! I've been impressed by the submissions to date but feel we haven't yet heard from a lot of under 18's. Come on, get snapping.