London's secret exotic birds

Just 20 minutes from central London lies the largest and wildest of its parks–a royal hunting ground that is now a haven for red deer and a wonderful variety of birds including exotic parrots.

Visit Richmond Park in autumn soon after dawn and nothing seems to have changed since its creation in the 17th century. Autumn is the time of the red deer rut, when roaring stags test their strength with clashing antlers in the morning mists—a primal scene that would have been familiar to the English kings who once hunted here. Yet high in the ancient trees, there is often a bustle and shrill screeching that is distinctly exotic.

Hidden among the autumn leaves are hundreds of parrots. They are ring-necked parakeets—originally escapees from captivity, these parrots now thrive and breed in the wild, especially in outer London. At the end of the breeding season, they gather in noisy flocks to roost in the park’s trees for the night. Their presence demonstrates one of the charms of this magnificent parkland—a visit is often full of delightful surprises.

parakeet sits on a branch in the park

Richmond Park was once an area of scrubby woodland, small farms, and pasture with scattered trees. Then in 1637 Charles I decided to enclose some 33⁄4 sq miles as a deer park. The local farmers were forced to move out beyond the high brick walls—an eviction that did nothing for the king’s already shaky popularity—and some 2,000 red deer and fallow deer were moved in. Charles had little time to enjoy his new playground, for within five years England was in the grip of civil war. The park and walls remained, though, and by degrees the nibbling deer eliminated any new tree growth and transformed the scrubby landscape into grassland with tall trees.

Later, new woods were planted within protective fences and a number of ponds were excavated, resulting in the current patchwork of semi-natural acidic grassland, areas of bog and bracken, wetland, woodland and hundreds of ancient parkland oaks—many of which were mature in 1637. The whole park is now a National Nature Reserve.

 

Insect life

Richmond Park at dusk

The varied habitats of Richmond Park provide refuges for a rich variety of plant and animal life, including more than 1,350 species of beetle and many other insects, such as moths and butterflies, various flies, grasshoppers, ants and dragonflies. These, in turn, attract birds, including green woodpeckers that use their long tongues to probe anthills for prey, while stonechats perch on bushes watching for insects to snatch out of the grass.

Meadow pipits feed in the rough turf, bursting up from underfoot with characteristically squeaky calls, and in spring perform parachuting song-flights. Their efforts are, however, eclipsed by the seemingly endless songs of the skylarks that soar overhead. Meanwhile, scurrying voles and other small mammals are sought by hovering kestrels, and by the little owls that often hunt by day from favoured perches among the trees.

In the many woodlands, a steady drumming sound may betray a great spotted woodpecker chiselling into timber to dig out wood-boring beetle grubs. These include the larvae of stag beetles, which feed deep in the decaying timber of the ancient oak trees. The woods also provide a home for the much rarer and smaller lesser spotted woodpecker, although it usually forages out of sight high in the trees. A ringing ‘chwit chwit’ signals that a nuthatch may be feeding acrobatically among the branches, but it is harder to spot the slim brown treecreeper as it spirals up tree trunks in search of bark-dwelling insects and spiders.

 

Welcome visitors

parakeet perching on some pink blossom

The inviting green haven of the park attracts a lot of visiting birds, which may either stay for a season or drop in on passage. In all, more than 140 species have been recorded here. Summer visitors include reed warblers and sedge warblers, which come to nest in the reed-bed at Pen Ponds, the divided lake created in the centre of the park in 1746. Dragonflies hatching from the ponds are pursued by summer-visiting hobbies that catch and eat them on the wing, and these agile raptors may even hunt the swallows and sand martins that hawk for midges over the water.

Winter brings migrant wildfowl to the ponds, including wigeon and gadwall. They join the resident mallard, pochard and tufted duck. There may even be the occasional fish-eating goosander. Most spectacular are the resident male mandarin ducks (below). Their ornate plumage looks like the product of artificial breeding but is completely natural. Other winter visitors may include redwings and fieldfares—colourful thrushes that arrive from the far north to feast on berry crops in the park alongside the native thrushes and blackbirds. Up in the trees at this time, flocks of siskins and redpolls may be active, especially among birches and alders.

mandarin duck gently floating on the river

The real rarities, however, tend to turn up during the migration periods of spring and autumn. The great grey shrike, barred warbler and ortolan bunting have even been recorded on occasion. Although the big gates close at dusk, walkers can remain in the park as long as they wish. Staying on after sundown in early summer can be a magical experience as the shrieking swifts fade into the upper air and the last calls of wildfowl echo across the lake. As darkness falls bats emerge, tawny owls in the woodlands begin to hoot, and time stands still.

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