Key Birds to look out for
Grey Heron, Peregrine Falcon, Kestrel, Little Owl, Green Woodpecker, Stock Dove, Reed Warbler and during passage periods Honey Buzzard, Osprey, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Common Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Green Sandpiper and Wryneck.
Regent’s Park has for many years been observed by several keen ornithologists i.e W.H Hudson, Stanley Cramp and Ian Wallace to just a few. These people kept detailed records and submitted data to The London Natural History Society. I joined The Royal Parks in 1977 and in my early years passed my sightings to John Widgery who watched the park early mornings before going to work and at lunchtimes. Within 3 years of starting as an assistant bird keeper to Guy Taplin I was lucky enough to become the Senior bird keeper as Guy moved on to become a famous bird sculptor. Once in charge I was able to change the park’s philosophy and make areas more appealing for wildlife. This meant improving wooded areas, planting reed beds, creating wildlife enclosures and linking areas up by allowing grass to grow thus creating wildlife corridors. These projects were often quite small however it allowed insects many of which had never been recorded in the park before to stay and breed. These species then enabled birds like the Reed Warbler to become an annual summer visitor. There are now as many as 16 pairs breeding in the reed beds dotted around the lake and in Queen Mary’s Gardens.
The park isn’t on a classic migration route, it’s not on coastal headland, river valley or by a large water body. It is more a stepping-stone for birds, they follow the green open spaces as they cross London. If the weather turns nasty they can drop down into a suitable habitat. In spring the main migration route is south west to north east and in the autumn north east to south west. This varies slightly with some of the birds that winter in the UK during the winter. They are hoping on an easterly wind in Europe to blow them across the North Sea and the look to cross at the narrowest point. We can then have largish movements of winter thrushes, Redwings and Fieldfares.
Where to look
Being slightly further north than most of London’s tourist attractions, the park gives visitors the chance to get way from the hustle and bustle of life in the capital. As with most birding the first two or three hours after daybreak is normally the best time to visit. This is when our pair of Little Owls are slightly easier to see particularly when they are feeding their young. They frequent the area east of the Ready Money Drinking Fountain, that is situated on The Broadwalk – a path that runs north to south from Regent’s Park Station to London Zoo). Birders, some skeptical, are surprised when told that the list of birds recorded in the park stands at over 210 species. It boasts some real surprises i.e Gannet, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Black Kite, Montagu’s Harrier, Red footed Falcon, Spotted Redshank, Little Ringed Plover, Hoopoe,
Wryneck, Tawny Pipit, Melodious Warbler, and Black-headed Bunting. Spending lunchtimes or an hour before work has shown that there are on occasions good numbers of raptors passing overhead. In March Red Kites from the Chilterns drift over, looking to expand their present range. These are followed by Common Buzzards in April. As Ospreys become more widespread it is good to be on the alert for this species and Marsh Harrier. From August to through to the end of September UK raptors numbers are boosted by birds from the continent. This means there is greater chance of seeing an Osprey, Honey Buzzard or Hoby. There are times during the autumn, depending on the weather when the true spectacle of migration can be observed whether it contains hundreds of Swallows and Martins heading south or large numbers of winter thrushes and finches heading west. If you don’t want to climb to the top of Primrose Hill then standing by or close to the Hub (café and changing room) is equally as good and will allow you to grab a coffee. The end of the year can be a quiet period but cold weather can change all that, back in the 1970’s I witnessed over 1300 Skylarks heading west. It is also the best time to get Woodcock on your list, with birds being flushed from any available cover offering warmth and possibly food.
Bird numbers in the UK as we all know have declined alarming since the 1970’s, some species by over 80%. This means that every year bird sightings become fewer and the joys of House Martins, Swallows and Swifts skimming the surface of the lake catching insects now rarely happens and if it does it’s not birds in their hundreds – it involves as few as 40 birds.
On entering the park at Clarence Gate, the nearest entrance to Baker St tube, I am sure that one of the first birds you will see apart from a gathering of Feral Pigeons will be Coots, Canada, Greylag and Egyptian Geese. Duck numbers have dropped in recent years due to predation by foxes and crows. You should still see Tufted Duck, Pochard and Mallard. Grey Heron breed in the park, and several birds can be seen standing on the edge of the lake.
Moving on quickly we cross the bridge and follow the edge of the lake past the Bandstand. We stop when we can see the Central London Mosque as this location gives you a chance to scan the lake for less common species of waterfowl that visit the park i.e. Wigeon, Teal and Pintail. They are attracted to the area closer to the island opposite as it is far enough away to make them feel more confident. The main Heronry can be seen particularly early in the year in the trees on the island to your right. At least 24 pairs breed annually in the park. It is a good place to see feral Mandarin Ducks and Red Crested Pochards. They both now breed in the park, with their numbers increasing during the winter period to around the ninety mark. From this position you can go through the gulls for looking for something out of the ordinary. Mediterranean and Yellow-legged Gulls do occur at certain times of the year. The banks and edges to the lake are not ideal for waders apart from Common Sandpipers that turn up in May and from mid-July to early September.
Leaving the lake, we head up the hill to the Inner Circle, Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is across the road. This walk doesn’t take in this location but if you have time it can be worth a look. (It does attract migrants particularly during the autumn when the shrubbery on the western side of the rose wheel can hold the commoner warblers and the odd Spotted Flycatcher. This is normally best when the early morning sunshine hits these bushes warming up the insects that in turn attract the birds).
Follow the Inner Circle to the left, entering the park at the next entrance. Turn right immediately and follow the path until you come to a small enclosure (The Cricket Pen) with a mixture of trees: pine, birch, alder and hornbeam are the main ones. Resident park birds are drawn here due to the bird feeding station that is sited here. As well as the typical garden birds these feeders have attracted scare visitors such as Brambling and Reed Bunting. Sparrowhawks can sometimes be seen hunting here looking for easy targets. The bramble patches also provide food for autumn migrants and are home to the parks only breeding Common Whitethroats. In the south-east corner of the pen an Elm thicket has proved a draw to resident and passage migrants. It can, if the weather has been bad, provide areas for birds to bathe and drink from. While you are in this part of the park, also take time to look at the island at the end of the lake. The reed beds bordering it have breeding Reed Warbler, which can also be seen or heard by standing by the set of double gates looking towards the scrape (The Wetland Pen). This area, though not open to the public, has produced Green Sandpiper, Jack and Common Snipe as well as Water Rail.
Leave this area by following the path around the end of the lake, cutting across the area of rough grassland, avoiding the wildflower patches. The new Chat Enclosure, named as the area was planted with Gorse bushes to attract the two rarest members of the chat family that visit the park, the Whinchat and Stonechat. This and another enclosure further west have been very successful, attracting both species annually along with Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Ring Ouzel and even Grasshopper Warbler.
We are heading for the Hub Café, a good place for some refreshments. Weather permitting, scan the skies for diurnal bird movements, particularly during the autumn when large numbers of Swallows pass overhead. It is also a good spot for raptor watching, as you have good views in all directions. The sports fields close to the Hub, particularly the cricket squares, are the best location for seeing Northern Wheatears and occasionally wagtails and pipits settle for a few minutes.
Once refreshed, walk north-west to the small enclosure that was once part of a tennis and golf school. This and the area bordering the Leaf Yard Wood which is a short walk to the west allow you to spend some time without too much disturbance birding. If your luck is in, then this can be quite a magical location. Birds that occur here regularly are Sparrowhawk, Woodpeckers, Winter thrushes and Ring Ouzel, Common Redstart, Wood Warbler, at least seven other species of warbler, Spotted and Pied Flycatcher. It has also become one of the more reliable areas in the park to stand a chance of seeing Firecrest. The birds are attracted to the Holme Oaks and ivy-covered trees that offer shelter to insects which in turn feed several pairs of Goldcrest with which the Firecrest loosely associate.
We leave this area heading south west towards Hanover Bridges (Blue Bridges) and areas of reed bed that in early autumn have an area cut that has enabled visiting birders the chance to view on occasions up to three Water Rails. These birds are attracted to a feeding station that is situated far enough away so that if the birds turn up, they can feed without being flushed. There is a semi-circular set of seats positioned behind one of the reed beds at this end of the lake that allows stunning views of singing Reed Warblers (several pairs breed here) during the late spring and early summer. In 2019 the park’s first breeding record for Cetti’s Warbler came from this area. From the viewpoint at the end of the island you can if you are lucky watch the passage of hirundines, pipits, wagtails and finches particularly during the autumn as they head south-west. The more you visit the greater chance of a something more exceptional like Osprey, Hobby, Whimbrel or Greenshank – all these have been seen from here.
This is the last point on the walk before you head back. Continue over the last bridge and along the edge of the lake to Clarence Gate and your starting point. Always keep an eye out as you go: a Black Tern once spent several hours hawking insects over the lake and you will get good views of several of the Grey Heron nests, particularly during the first 5 months of the year.