The 10 Most Unlikely Bird Watching Spots In London

By Londonist Last edited 22 months ago
The 10 Most Unlikely Bird Watching Spots In London

Thought London ate wildlife for breakfast? Think again. You can see plenty of remarkable birds here — and in some surprising locations too. Birdwatcher and author David Darrell-Lambert chooses 10 unusual places to go spotting in the capital (and just outside).

1. Tree sparrows at a sewage farm

Tree sparrows at Beddington
Tree sparrows at Beddington

Officially this is now called Beddington Farmlands, but it was created back in the 1860s for the treatment of sewage sludge, and now has the added glamour of a waste incinerator. The place teems with gulls, and also hosts one of Greater London's last populations of Tree Sparrows. A permit is required to visit.

2. Skylarks at a landfill site

Rainham Marshes, a favourite spot for birdwatchers in London
Rainham Marshes, a favourite spot for birdwatchers in London

Alongside the A12 east of Rainham is a conical green hill. Large tipper trucks still visit the part that remains a working landfill site. But the rest has been capped and grassed over, and the top is a fabulous vantage-point from which to survey the Thames and Rainham Marshes. Great for viewing skylarks high up in the heavens, or a Raven cronking through the sky.  

3. Yellowhammers at the Battle of Britain Aerodrome

A yellowhammer in Hornchurch
A yellowhammer in Hornchurch

During the second world war, this was RAF Hornchurch, home to squadrons of Spitfires. Richard Hillary, author of wartime memoir The Last Enemy, was shot down in 1940 after taking off from here. It's since been landscaped as Hornchurch Country Park, and opened as a nature reserve in 2015. The farmland at the edge offers a chance of seeing the rare yellowhammer.

4. Turnstones at Southend Pier

A turnstone enjoys the sea air at Southend. Which we admit, isn't strictly London.
A turnstone enjoys the sea air at Southend. Which we admit, isn't strictly London.

Southend might not strictly be in London but it's under an hour from Fenchurch Street or Liverpool Street, and remarkably rich in birdlife. Brent Geese congregate on the foreshore around the pier, and if you walk out along its prodigious length you'll see turnstones perched tamely on the railings.

5. Peregrine falcons at Battersea Power Station

Peregrine falcons: there are more than you might think in central London

Or Tate Modern, or even the Houses of Parliament: Peregrines don't see an art deco masterpiece or Victorian gothic revival: just a tall cliff handy for a nesting-place. London's Peregrine population is booming, with over 30 pairs breeding. The capital's ambient light helps them catch other birds migrating through at night.

6. Bearded tits at an old MoD firing range

Rainham Marshes, where the birds no longer risk being shot. Image: Shutterstock

Since 2006 Rainham Marshes has been the RSPB's flagship reserve in Greater London, but previously it was an MoD firing range. The old shooting targets have been preserved, and the reedbeds alongside are the best place to find the beautiful bearded tit.

7. Firecrests at a cemetery

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

One of seven around London's sprawling Magnificent Seven, Tower Hamlets Cemetery saw its last burial in 1966, and now trees and spring snowdrops surround its grand gravestones and mausoleums. Look out for a glimpse of the tiny but spectacular firecrest.

8. Whinchats and stonechats at a prison

A whinchat keeps guard over Wormwood Scrubs

Wormwood Scrubs is the name of not only the fortress-like prison from which George Blake was sprung, but also the 200 acres of open space alongside. Its scrubby areas are great for chats — predominantly moorland dwellers like the whinchat and stonechat.

9. Black-tailed godwits at the D-Day mulberry harbour

Godwits converge on Mulberry Harbour
Godwits converge on a mulberry harbour

The so-called Stone Barges marooned on the east bank of the Thames near Rainham are neither barges nor made of stone. They're the remains of an unused mulberry harbour constructed for the D-Day Landings in 1944 to bring supplies ashore in Normandy. It's now home to black-tailed godwits with their long, upcurved bills.

10. Jackdaws on the back of a deer

Deers at Richmond Park, which in this case, don't have jackdaws on their backs
Deers at Richmond Park, wearing jackdaw accoutrements

Not the Serengeti: Richmond Park. The herds of deer here tolerate the jackdaws sitting on their backs because they pick tiny insects and mites off them. Must be rather relaxing really.

Birdwatching London by David Darrell-Lambert is published by Safe Haven Books, RRP £12.99

Last Updated 08 April 2022