Helen Babbs talks about the joys of urban wildlife watching with broadcaster and birder David Lindo.
Wormwood Scrubs in west London is David Lindo’s patch. He’s been birding there for 17 years and talks about the site with an affection and familiarity that shows he’s devoted to the place.
“I was doing some research for a bird book, the Scrubs were close to where I worked and so I decided to spend some time there. I went for seven lunchtimes in a row and didn’t see a thing, but then on the eighth day I discovered a tree pipit on migration and on the ninth I spotted a pied flycatcher. It felt as if the Scrubs were suddenly opening up their secrets to me, so I became a follower and have been going there religiously ever since.”
The urban birder
David styles himself as the ‘Urban Birder’, an accessible ornithologist encouraging people to explore the middle of somewhere instead of the middle of nowhere. David’s love of nature appears to have come from nowhere. Growing up in a black Irish neighbourhood in 1970s London, he says he was surrounded by people who weren’t at all interested in the natural world. “I didn’t have any peers with an interest in wildlife, my parents didn’t have an interest, but for some reason I did. I used to watch birds out of the window at home and give them all my own names.”
His bird naming habits led to an interest in studying field guides. Long hours spent with a book of the birds of the UK, Europe and north Africa led to a love for the ring ouzel, a type of thrush that looks similar to the blackbird but has a white crescent on its chest and is far rarer. “The ring ouzel stuck out because it epitomised total wilderness. At the time, as a kid studying a bird book, I thought I would never see one, but I was desperate to because they seemed so wild and romantic to me. And then I saw my first one in London and now every August a ring ouzel turns up at the Scrubs!”
Good birders carry ‘bins’
I ask the Urban Birder what his favourite London walks are, hoping to get some ideas for strolls this summer. He says he’s still drawn to Fryant Country Park in Wembley where he used to do cross country at school, and also likes walking from his Notting Hill home up the canal to Alperton, or in Osterley and Richmond Parks. But really he doesn’t have one favourite walk, seeing every venture as a bird watching opportunity.
“Any good birder takes their ‘bins’ wherever they go, I’ve even used them in Oxford Street before.” Do people think he’s a bit strange, or suspicious even, when he pulls his binoculars out in central London?
“They’ve always thought I was strange! Once, at Brent Reservoir, I was looking through the fence of a plant nursery and a police car drove past, then screeched to a halt and reversed back at high speed. They rolled down their window and demanded to know what I was doing. I just reeled off a list of species I was looking for and they drove off! I used to get funny looks quite a lot, now it’s completely different, people are really interested. When I take people out and show them birds I try and make it as entertaining as possible.”
Urban wildlife watching isn’t restricted to London – there’s lots to see in other world cities in the most extraordinary places, especially at night.
“I was in Rome recently watching the football. It was twilight and there were absolutely loads of moths about – when I sat down a huge moth flew out of my chair. And there were swifts flying about the stadium, hawking the moths. As it got darker I looked up and saw tonnes and tonnes of moths flying around above the flood lights and loads of gulls above them. It was fantastic to watch. While everyone was watching the game, there was a wildlife spectacle going on above them and they had no idea.”
David’s enthusiasm for urban exploration is infectious. I even found myself trying to do a bit of novice bird watching from the top of the bus on my way home from meeting him. So, fellow Londoners, what have you spotted today?
David Lindo is a writer and broadcaster. He runs www.theurbanbirder.com and writes for publications like BBC Wildlife and Birdwatching magazine. His next article in the August issue of BBC Wildlife magazine is all about London. Recent TV projects include wildlife slots on ‘The One Show’ on BBC 1.
This article appears in the summer 2009 issue of Wild London magazine.