Are you of the opinion that city birdwatching isn’t up to much?
Let David Lindo take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London.
He’ll show you something to make you change your mind.
Interview by Waterlife editor Malcolm Tait
The era was the 1970s, the place, a junior school in Harlesden, London. A small boy came running into the classroom, panting with excitement. ‘I’ve just seen a kestrel,’ he gasped at his teacher. The teacher smiled and shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, David,’ he said. ‘This is London. You don’t get birds like kestrels in London. They live in the countryside, you see.’
The young boy frowned, and walked away. ‘But I did see a kestrel,’ he thought to himself. ‘I’m sure it was a kestrel.’
More than 30 years later, David Lindo tells that tale with a smile. ‘The thing is,’ he says, ‘I was frustrated at the time, but I sort of understand where my teacher was coming from, now. Even today, if you ask many people what kinds of birds they’re likely to see in the middle of the capital, they’ll probably shrug and say, “pigeons, starlings, sparrows, a few ducks in the park, that sort of thing”. Well, they’re right (apart from the sparrows, which have been disappearing), but only a little bit right. Only a very, very little bit.’
The Urban Birder, for that is how David is now known, is a phenomenon. He’s made it his mission to show the world that birdwatching in towns and cities can be every bit as rewarding as in the woodlands, lakes, moors, marshes and various other environments most usually associated with the hobby.
‘To begin with,’ he says, ‘birds behave differently in the urban environment. Woodpigeons, for example, while still wary, allow you to get much closer in cities than they do out in the fields. You can walk down city streets and see pied wagtails weaving in and out of people’s feet on the pavement, but you’d never get that close to them even in your own garden. Out in more rural areas, birds have to be wary of all sorts of predators, but when they move into the city environment, as long as they keep out of the way of cats, they can afford to be more confident. Many of them adapt really well to the human hustle and bustle around them, and reap the rewards that come with it.’ This is good stuff, but it only scratches the surface of the urban version of the hobby.
There’s another advantage that urban birders have over their rural counterparts and, ironically, it’s the very element that would actually appear to be a disadvantage. ‘When a bird is flying over, say, Norfolk,’ says David, ‘and it needs a rest, or a drink, or a refuel, then it’s got a host of sites to drop in at. Birds flying over London, however, can’t afford to be so choosy. If you make sure you’re at a good spot, the birds, sooner or later, are bound to drop in.’ The London Wetland Centre is, of course, a prime example of such a site, and David knows it
very well indeed. ‘I’ve been coming here since long before it was even mooted as a wetland centre,’ he says. ‘Back in the day, when this was Barn Elms Reservoir, I used to visit to watch birds. When I first heard that Sir Peter Scott had identified it as a prime spot to build an urban centre, I smiled. He was a canny man, Sir Peter. It wasn’t just a matter of “Build it and they will come” – some of the birds we now see are already here. More, I suppose, “Build it where they come”.
This sense of identifying the right site, and then devoting yourself to it, is very much part of David’s urban philosophy, and it forms a large part of his current birding habits. David’s own patch might raise the odd eyebrow, but he wouldn’t swap it for the world. He’s heard all the jokes, too. But then, when your patch is Wormwood Scrubs, it’s hardly surprising. ‘When I was a kid growing up in London, and I’d mention that I was interested in birds, then, “The feathered kind, I hope” was the standard response. Now I’m doing my birdwatching at the Scrubs, I get all the jailbird jokes.’
But why Wormwood Scrubs? ‘I live in Notting Hill, so it’s pretty easy to get to, for a start,’ he explains, ‘but it really is the most astonishing patch for birdwatching.
It’s an oasis for birds in that part of London, and there isn’t a month that goes by without something of interest and variety going on. During the migratory season, I see more warblers fly through than my mates who are birding up in Norfolk manage to see, because they’re so concentrated here: 25 chiffchaffs passing through one bush, for example, is an incredible sight. Oystercatchers and little ringed plovers on the football pitch, nesting meadow pipits… there’s always something unexpected to see.’
And that goes for rarities, too. Do you have ortolan bunting, little bunting and Richard’s pipit on your tick list? David does, and all seen within his 174-hectare patch at the Scrubs. ‘The key is to make sure you really get to know your patch well,’ he says. ‘Keep visiting it, and it will reward you. I always say to people, find somewhere to love, and then love it with all your might.’
In fact, it’s a message that David is spreading to an ever-widening audience. A wildlife presenter on BBC’s The One Show, and a regular contributor to birdwatching magazines, he takes every opportunity to show people that urban wildlife-watching is something anyone can do, and that it will always be an enriching experience.
He’s not just talking about London, either. The Urban Birder truly lives up to his name, and has already explored some 15 cities across Britain, and many more around the world, too. ‘I love seeing what cities that are new to me have to offer,’ he says. ‘There’s always a surprise in store, and I do mean surprise. Hawfinches in the middle of Prague; golden plovers roosting on the roof of a building in Bradford town centre; rufous-backed thrushes in the middle of madness in Mexico City. There’s not a single urban centre that hasn’t given me something astonishing as a reward for my visit.’
David has made it his mission to
show the world that birdwatching
in towns and cities can be every bit
as rewarding as in the woodlands,
lakes, moors, marshes and various
other environments most usually
associated with the hobby
Equally rewarding can be the reactions of those he’s encouraging to join in. ‘Recently, I was invited by Southwark Council to run a birdwatching course for teenagers. I met up with the kids, of all colours, all creeds, with my bins around my neck, and I could see their faces fall. This did not look like their ideal day out, they reckoned. A few days later, I checked one of their blogs.
One kid had written that, since that day out, he’d been walking along the Thames with a friend who had said something about the seagulls there. My student-for-a-day was proud of the fact that he’d been able to correct his mate, and point out the mix of black-headed gulls, herring gulls and so on. It was great. ‘Then there was the time in Wembley when I was trying to get a group of kids interested in wildlife in general.
They weren’t really biting, so I found this old log and rolled it over. There was a frog there, all sorts of spiders and insects, and I looked up and saw that all the kids were filming the wildlife on their mobiles.
The modern world and the natural world meeting in one glorious moment.’
If David has his way, then one day that glorious moment will be on a global scale. A few months ago, he launched the Tower 42 project, in which regular recording and filming of birds takes place on the roof of London’s Tower 42 – formerly known as the NatWest Tower. ‘Every year, the migration of woodpigeons in huge numbers is a great urban sight,’ he says, ‘and it struck me that it would be great to see it from above. I contacted the management of Tower 42, and they were great about letting me set up a Bird Study Group, and it’s been building ever since. The Empire State Building, a magnificent rooftop in Colombo – there are wonderful, almost aerial, sites like this across the cities of the world, and my ambition is to set up a global rooftop link-up, in which the urban birders of the world share their tales and film a 24-hour record of high-rise birding.
We need more green roofs out there for the birds and other wildlife to be able to use within urban jungles, and this would be a great way of highlighting that cause.’ David’s passion is infectious, and if anyone could pull off such an international network, then he’s the man.
To him, every city visit is a new horizon. ‘I feel like Livingstone each time,’ he says. ‘I could see anything.’ True: but only if, like David, you’re prepared to look.
David Lindo will be presenting a number of items on urban wildlife later this year. Find out more about his work at theurbanbirder.com. For tours of the capital’s own London Wetland Centre, visit wwt.org.uk