From red kites to grey herons: Meet the birds of Hampstead

Swans on Hampstead Heath. Picture: Michael Hammerson

Swans on Hampstead Heath. Picture: Michael Hammerson - Credit: Archant

I sometimes get asked what I’m looking for on top of Parliament Hill.

Baby Kestrels on Hampstead Heath

Baby Kestrels on Hampstead Heath - Credit: Archant

Resisting the urge to joke about philosophy or the meaning of life, I usually reply “birds” or at certain times of the year “migrants”.

If the conversation continues there is usually a question about numbers of species (or hours spent staring at the sky).

Since 2006, I have seen 118 species on, or flying over, the Heath.

This surprises many, and I think proves that despite the tremendous challenges facing wildlife of all kinds there is still much to be enjoyed and fought for.

With experience, you can predict what might be seen during a certain month, even in a particular tree.

Spotted flycatchers, a lovely but declining migrant, now only pass through the Heath to somewhere quieter and more insect filled.

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Years ago, they would have nested here, but alas no longer. I’ve never seen one in the spring, but when returning south in late August they are virtually guaranteed.

There are two oak trees I check religiously.

Both have dead branches at least 30 feet up, and dovetail with long hedgerows.

To a flycatcher, not only a safe perch but plenty of passing insects.

Occasionally, they can be found feeding low down (cemeteries are another favourite place) but on the Heath, it pays to look up high, on still days, just before carnival.

Although the Heath has plenty of standing water – including the famous bathing ponds – it is not noted for waders.

Ducks, swans, gulls, yes, grey herons, even kingfishers, but waders, no: waders like mud.

The short priced favourite amongst this tribe is common sandpiper and the best months are July and August.

Quite often heard first: a ringing “swee swee swee” call followed by the bird itself, brown above, white below, flicking clockwork wings inches over the water and then lost behind some bulrushes.

I expect to see them (but don’t) annually, as many pass through London and can even be heard migrating at night.

Recently, we have been luckier with raptors.

Red kites and buzzards are now regularly seen over Parliament Hill where the topography produces impressive thermals. They are mobbed relentlessly by local Crows.

Kestrels are often seen hovering over fields, looking for voles. Sparrowhawks spend more time concealed in trees, rather than perched on them.

The males take finches, tits and thrushes but the larger females will take woodpigeons.

I’ve seen three other falcons on the Heath.

Peregrines are famous for their speed, but actually spend hours sitting on top of high rises, such as Tate Modern.

Their out-of-town habitat includes quarries and cliff edges, so tall buildings suit them down to the ground.

In London, they are surrounded by pigeons, which also suit, though research has shown they take a wide variety of other species including ring-necked parakeets.

Hobbies are summer migrants and also rather pacy – they catch swifts and swallows, which make up part of their diet, but also dragonflies and beetles, holding them between the feet and pulling them apart mid-flight.

Merlins are the hardest of the three to see. They pass through in October and November, generally without stopping.

Woodcocks feed mostly at night on earthworms and beetles.

Their huge eyes are positioned on the top of the head, which gives them an almost 360-degree view and protection from foxes.

Only rarely do you see one up close, as they have superb cryptic plumage – more often they fly out from under your feet.

Little egrets are small, graceful, white herons that really add to the avifauna, so I hope they continue to multiply.

So far I have only seen them flying over the Heath but that may change in the future.

Last year I added black redstart and hawfinch to my growing list, which includes turtle dove, marsh harrier, goosander, bittern and pomarine skua.

Perhaps these were one-time birds, but who knows?