Urban Nature

Last Wednesday, I caught the train to Hammersmith to meet up with Zahrah and embark on another of our wildlife excursions. Today we visited the London Wetland Centre, something I’d heard lots of good things about but never been.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis)

Upon arrival we were greeted by a lovely volunteer who explained the site map to us. Taking her advice, we began on the south route which would take us to various hides that we could spend time in. Halfway down the foliage-lined path Zahrah spotted a warbler, but neither of us could be certain which species the bird was. As we stood stock still squinting into the dense undergrowth another volunteer passed. We told him what we were studying at university and explained how much we loved birds. It must have been refreshing for a wildlife veteran to stumble across two young people with the same interest. He began telling us all about the wildlife at the site, and the best places to view it. He showed us the WWF hide, where sand martins (Riparia riparia) performed an avian display for us, swooping down to the water’s edge and snatching midges from the surface. At this time of year, with no courtship taking place, the water was relatively calm with little activity. A lone mute swan (Cygnus olor) foraged in the shallows while a female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) shepherded her young back to the nest. A lone moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) waded through the lily pads, pausing beside the pearly white buds.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
Coot (Fulica atra)

As the scene here was subdued, Bryn showed us the Peacock Tower, where we met up with another volunteer with a profound knowledge and passion for birds. Apparently a pair of peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) were nesting in a building nearby, and had been seen flying over the site. While we sat overlooking the lake with our lunch, the volunteer let us borrow his telescope to watch a family of tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula) and a lone gadwall (Anas strepera). Unsurprisingly, Zahrah had the lens trained on a pair of herons (Ardea cinerea), shoulders hunched like sulking old men. Grey herons hold a particularly special place in Zahrah’s heart; it never ceases to amaze me how touched she is by these gangly lake dwellers.

Female Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
Female Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) 
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

The fountain of knowledge that was our telescope-bearer told us one of his favourite birds was the long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus). What I didn’t know was that in each group of these beautiful little birds, only the dominant female breeds. All other females act as child minders, sacrificing their own reproductive ability to care for another’s young.


Before long it was nearly two o’clock and the otters were about to be fed on the south route. We left the Peacock Tower with plenty of time, but ended up speed walking after a sharp-eyed photographer pointed out a common lizard (Zootoca vivipara) basking in the hot city sunshine. This naturally required us to stop and snap away for a few minutes, as our model was posing so beautifully.

Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) 

The above invertebrate is a dragonfly, as its wings are positioned perpendicular to its body. A damselfly’s wings are parallel along its body. The individual I photographed is a male; the female is yellow with black markings.


The otters were Asian short-clawed (Amblonyx cinereus), the smallest species of otter in the world weighing less than 5kg. In addition to its size, this species differs from the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) in that it has blunt claws on some toes, if any. We watched them feed for a while, diving into the water of their enclosure for scraps of fish. After feasting, they rolled in the soil to dry their fur and proceeded to grip fragments of shell in their paws, looking painfully adorable.


By now the sun was high in the sky and the day was sweltering. After watching the otters slip into their holt and out of sight, we wandered around the rest of the wetland centre and visited the more exotic species that inhabited the site. We sat for a while and watched buffleheads, hooded mergansers and more. While they all looked extravagant, the humble moorhen stole the show with its characteristic screech that made me jump on several occasions. I must say, British species will always fascinate me just as much as their foreign relatives. The weather was perfect for our visit to the London Wetland Centre, and I was thrilled to find a new wildlife hotspot.

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)
Female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)