Spring is the time of year when the parks' feathered visitors return from around the world to enjoy the milder British weather and raise their young. If you look closely in the treetops and among the bushes as you walk around The Regent's Park you may well spot the following:
Today Regent's Park's Heron population is reasonably stable (at around 20 to 24 pairs) but not so long ago there was a drop in numbers after the Elm trees died on their favourite island: "Heron Island". To encourage them to nest in a new location on the Bandstand Island several artificial nests were made by a company on the Somerset Levels to a design drawn up by The Senior Wildlife Officer for the park. Out of eight nests installed on the two islands five were used, and since then others have been installed.
The birds add natural materials to the basket, and after several years the basket becomes swamped but is still usable. The main colony on the Bandstand Island dipped between 2016 and 2018 due to pressures from Carrion Crows attracted to the area by inappropriate feeding of the waterfowl, Herons and other species. Thankfully, with various habitat improvements in the park; reed beds, shallow ponds, and ditches the birds chose to stay and have now gone back to Heron Island where a small group have always been.
Their tree of choice is a Horse Chestnut that at the moment has ten occupied nests, and five of these have chicks in. The oldest youngsters hatched in late January, meaning that the eggs were laid early in the New Year. The main item on the menu for the youngsters are amphibians, which can be a sad sight but it is what they would feed on naturally.
While we say that there are 20 to 24 pairs it may be more! We can't be sure if the pairs breeding now have a second brood, or if there are other birds that are unable to find a nest site for one reason or another and wait until a nest becomes vacant. We have known young to be in the nest in August and September on a regular basis.
The Stonechat is a migrant that winters in Southern Europe and arrives back in the UK in March. It is bird of heathland and coast, and was a very scarce visitor to The Regent's Park until small clumps of gorse were planted and now, thankfully, fenced.
The fencing is to encourage park hedge and bramble species and offer a safe place to breed away from the public. Gorse is the favourite plant of the Stonechat. It is why three of these fenced off areas are now known locally as Chat Bushes, Chat Enclosure and The Trianglular Pen. These are locations where at the right time of the year and when this species is migrating you stand a good chance of seeing this beautiful little (Robin sized) bird. Adult males look like little soldiers.
This year from the 4th to the 11th March we had our best year on record with 11 birds being seen. In spring they only stay for a day and then they are gone.
This species was a very scarce visitor to The Regent's Park and the other Inner London parks until the mid 1990s.
Why? Because up until then all grassy areas in the parks were cut very short, meaning the ideal ant hill habitat that Green Woodpeckers like wasn't there. Biodiversity and habitat management wasn't on many people's agendas at the time, but in the 1990s this began to change. In fact, in The Regent's Park it had been going on since the early 1980s thanks to the park's Bird Keeper.
Wildlife Officers followed in the 1990s, and developed areas of the park where the waterfowl collection was kept. Today there is still a lack of ant hills in the parks but in The Regent's Park we now have at least four pairs of Green Woodpecker, and a similar number in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Before Rose-ringed Parakeets became so numerous members of the public often mistook the bright green Woodpeckers for Parrots. Little did they know that an invasion of parakeets was coming!
When House Sparrows thrived so did the Kestrel. That's because until the early 1980s House Sparrows were very numerous - breeding and feeding almost everywhere. They even bred in the bottom of the Heron's nests!
When the Sparrow population crashed so did the pairs of Kestrels that bred in the parks and on the buildings in London. House Sparrows were easy prey for the Kestrel and there were no other birds of prey in the capital apart from the Tawny Owl. Without them (and because there were very few insects or amphibians that the Kestrel could feed on) the population declined. We only saw the Kestrels return after a few years of the parks leaving aside areas of rough grassland - serving as a refuge for amphibians and an increasing number of insects. In The Regent's Park when sightings became regular in the late 1980s it was decided that nest boxes would be erected in the Longbridge Sanctuary on Primrose Hill. They have been used almost annually ever since.
The adults often disappear in early autumn, with the male returning towards the end of the year and the female putting in an appearance normally in early February. We are not sure where they go but we look forward to their return.