January, 2013

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South East

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  • Finding our wings

    After noting the few birds in my own garden for last weekend's Birdwatch I'd developed an itch for something more adventurous, so the opportunity to scratch that itch was like finding a scrunched-up ten pound note in a coat pocket.

    Courtesy of the Gardening Leave charity, I joined a group of Chelsea Pensioners and forces veterans in the very large grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea; an oasis of calm and green in the chaos and concrete of central London.

    Carefully crafted nestboxes We split into four groups, one to the allotments, one around the feeders (lucky bunch got to stay in the heated garden shed equipped with kettle, tea and biscuits!). A third team set-off to more open spaces and I was escorted by Col (only his Mum calls him Colin) and Joanna Wise from Gardening Leave. We didn't get the warm shed, but we certainly hadn't drwan the short-straw as we spotted the greatest variety of birds. 

    Before we'd started, there was an opportunity to inspect some sturdy nest boxes made and decorated by In-Pensioners of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The boxes will be installed by tree-surgeons around the grounds in the near future. It was as we left their greenhouse workshop that we saw a grey heron overhead, being chased away by a crow. The spectacle reminded Joanna to tell me about a woodpecker we'd probably see on our walk past a line of London Plane trees.

    First on the recording sheet was a pair of magpies as we strolled towards Ranelagh Gardens. Col admitted to previously being indifferent to nature and wildlife. Born in London, he'd drifted into other interests but realised it was time to move on or be sucked into a life that would destroy him. He escaped north, joined-up and ended up being a southerner in a northern regiment. After seeing action abroad he's re-entering civilian life and exploring new options which connect him with the natural world, He's already almost single-handedly created a new vegetable garden on an old bramble patch within the hospital grounds. It's a journey he should be proud of.

    Ian (left) and Col, keeping track of sightings.

    Half way round we were joined by another veteran, Ian, who now works for Gardening Leave. Both he and Col admitted it was harder to spot birds than it had been to spot danger during their time in the forces. I know which challenge I'd rather accept. Birds are equipped to survive a hostile world, but they're not out to cause harm.

    There were the usual suspects for west London. Crows aplenty, pigeons, robins, a solitary house sparrow (poor lonely thing). A variety of tits and some blackbirds. A formation of ring necked-parakeets screeched between the trees and then there was one sighting which kept us guessing for a while. After much head scratching and trawling through books we agreed the tiny birds we'd strained to see close-up were young goldcrests. We walked back past the row of plane trees hoping to crown our birdwatch with a confirmed sighting of the woodpecker. We'd almost given up when the squat wings of a bird in flight raised hopes. It landed high-up and vanished from view. Our hour was over and the warm shed and a mug of tea awaited.

    Once everyone's Big Garden Birdwatch sightings have been reported from across the UK, we'll start working out tables of results and aim to report back in March. Meanwhile, there's still plenty to see. Robins are rearing young on their nests and London's warm climate continues to attract unusual and unexpected wildlife. We've got bearded tits in Hyde Park, muntjac deer in central London, hedgehogs roaming our parks and seals swimming in the Thames. Then there are the unexpected encounters, Like Londoner Andrea Boatswain's southbank encounter with a tame barn owl near Blackfriars bridge. You never know what you'll come across.

    Andrea and barn owl at Blackfriars Bridge on the Southbank

  • Swimming against the tide

    Weekdays, my commute to and from work runs alongside the Thames and every time I’m alongside the river, the pedals turn more slowly. It’s an inspiring way to top and tail the day.

    London Eye and Big Ben on a hazy dayThe colours of the water constantly change, covering a range somewhere between a greenish-yellow broccoli and stilton coloured soup through to a deep brown onion consommé. At night, from my northbank cycle route, it’s a riot of colour with the illuminated buildings of the southbank reflected on its dark water.

    I love the Thames, its history, its ecology and its industry. I wear my Je Thames pinbadge with pride (available from RSPB reserves along the river). What I love most about the Thames is its potential.

    Its waters are part of an important migration and spawning ground for Eel, Bass, Flounder, Dover Sole and Mullet. Salmon pass through and all these fish attract cormorants and other water loving birds, right into the centre of our Capital city. High above, often too high to see, are thousands more birds using its contours to navigate their way along age-old migration routes.

    The Thames is a complex eco-system that through geography and indifference we are largely excluded from; and what we don’t see, we don’t value. The river powers past both the square mile and Canary Wharf. Its currents far deeper and its ‘worth’ far greater than the noisy money markets.

    The Thames snakes past the Square Mile  and on to Canary Wharf

    The RSPB is seeking partners from along the Thames estuary to help nurture and evolve its potential. We’re already working with ports, commercial fishing interests, shipping companies, farmers, leisure users and many more to combine resources to clean-up and make the most of the river. We’re always interested in new connections, so do contact us if you can play a part in safeguarding the future of the Thames Estuary’s communities and economies.

    It’s come a long way since the great stink of 1856 which often forced Parliament to be abandoned.  Sewage still ends up in the Thames far too regularly but 1641.SuDS report Jan13.pdf plans are in hand to address this. The river is generally far cleaner than you’d think. Already this year (2013) we’ve had sightings of common seal on the eastern edges of London; near our Rainham Marshes nature reserve at Purfleet. There are also regular sightings further upstream around the O2 Arena.You lookin' at me? Seal at Rainham (c) Louise Moss

    Heavy rains continue to threaten the river’s fragile ecosystem. The volume of water overwhelms drains, causing emergency overflows to release heavily polluted water and raw sewage into the Thames and its tributaries. This often ends up killing thousands of fish with a knock-on effect on other wildlife. It’s at this point that it becomes a threat to people too with unacceptable levels of e-coli bacteria and other dangers.

    The Thames doesn’t need taming. It needs recognition for being an amazing resource, rich in wildlife. By working with others along the river, we can protect against flooding, generate energy, lock away carbon, transport goods and people and provide a new playground for water sports and leisure.

    It’s not a crazy vision; it’s the reality we can create if we all come together for the love of the Thames [#Je Thames].

  • A worthwhile year

    The Christmas dinner leftovers have been eaten and the overflowing recycling box collected, drawing a line under the festive excesses.

    Last year, my youngest daughter still played with the empty cardboard boxes her presents had arrived in. At one point this year she did hurl into the air the corn-starch foamy pieces packed around jars of pickle and oil from a box of posh food gifts. They littered the floor like a snow drift, reminding me of white Christmases long gone. This done, her attention turned to the telly, and the moment passed.

    This innocent enjoyment of objects seen by the rest of us as material that requires problematic processing inspired me to re-set my social conscience. You can’t wrap a russet-hued sunset or a sparkly frosty-white cobweb, but I value the rare moments where I can stop, stare and wonder at these free and amazing gifts.

    It will be the most troubled person who worried over how much their Christmas dinner cost in terms of money. The most contented people treasured every tasty mouthful and appreciated the effort spent delivering the food to the plate.

    Food is a basic of life, alongside clean water and fresh air. We often forget but all three of these are influenced by one powerful group of individuals in the UK; farmers.

    A new report called "Farming's value to society", commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference and sponsored by Burges Salmon, the RSPB and animal nutrition specialists, Volac was published this week. Conference chair Mike Gooding said: “Our farmers have the skills and geographical reach to address some of society's fundamental challenges such as health, well-being and self-sustaining communities; but turning that opportunity into reality requires a better connection between wider society and farmers, and it is a two-way process”.

    From my urban vantage point in sunny Hackney, it’s far too easy to forget the contribution farmers make to my life. There’s obviously food, but there are also the rolling hills of middle England. The moors of Scotland, the fluffy white sheep grazing the Welsh mountains and the beef and dairy products of Northern Ireland. There are the coastal paths, woodlands, rivers full of fish and the maintenance of the natural systems that support all life on earth.

    How worthless life would be without all this. Please do share your images of special places by uploading them to Flickr, Instagram or our online RSPB Community, then tag them with #getoutdoors.