Spring is a great time of year for a spot of bird watching in the Royal Parks. Many of the parks’ feathered visitors return from around the world on their spring migrations to enjoy the milder British weather and to raise their young. If you look closely in the treetops and among the bushes and grasses of The Regent’s Park, you might be lucky enough to spot some of the following.
Grey herons are one of the UK's largest and most iconic birds, easily recognisable with their long legs and neck, long, sharp beak and black-and-grey feathers. They can be spotted roosting in trees, stalking through the shallow water, or soaring above our lakes.
Today more than 40 herons live in The Regent’s Park. After the population dipped around a decade ago when the Elm trees on their favourite ‘Heron Island’ succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease, we took action to provide alternative nesting sites. To encourage them to nest in a new location, artificial nests, or heron baskets, were installed in the trees on ‘Bandstand Island’, to a specially-made design. The installation was successful, and of the original eight baskets, five were used, so we installed more on both Heron Island and Bandstand Island.
The Bandstand Island population dipped between 2016 and 2018, as visitor feeding of the waterfowl had attracted a regular group of carrion crows, which deterred the herons from nesting in the area. We ask visitors not to feed the birds in the Royal Parks as they get the best nutrition from their natural diet of things like invertebrates, amphibians and small fish. The main item on the menu for heron chicks is small amphibians, such as froglets! The food chains in our ponds and lakes help to keep the ecosystems balanced.
We are delighted that the herons have chosen to remain in The Regent’s Park, nesting on both Bandstand Island and Heron Island. You may be able to spot them from the lakeside banks, roosting in the trees, or wading in the shallows stalking fish. Their favourite nesting tree is currently a horse chestnut that last year had ten occupied nests, five noted to contain chicks!
The stonechat is a migrant that winters in Southern Europe and arrives back in the UK in March, usually to nest in heathland and coastal habitats. It is so-called for its call, which is said to sound like two stones being hit together.
Stonechat are robin-sized small birds and like robins, have an orangey-red breast – bright on the males, and a lighter apricot on the females. Males have a distinctive black head, with white patches on the neck.
Stonechat were once very scarce visitors to The Regent's Park, but since planting clumps of gorse – their favourite plant – they can be regularly spotted in the park sitting atop of the gorse bushes.
You can find these areas of gorse and scrub planting to the north of the lake, between the lake and the sports pitches. We keep the areas fenced to encourage hedgerow and bramble species to grow and to give the birds a safe place to breed away from the public. Please do keep your distance, and enjoy these gorgeous little birds from afar.
The green woodpecker is one of the UK’s most colourful birds, with its grass-green wings, pale green body, red crown and black face. It also has a bright yellow rump, which becomes visible during its bouncy, undulating flight. Males also have distinctive red ‘moustache’ stripes either side of their beaks.
Despite their name, green woodpeckers rarely drum on trees like other woodpecker species, but instead spend most of their time in the long grass, looking for insects – particularly ants. They will use their strong beaks to dig into ant colonies and eat the inhabitants. Keep a look out for these beautiful birds foraging in our areas of long grass and meadow.
This species was a very scarce visitor to inner London until the 1990s, as most of the grass in the city’s parks was kept cut short. This meant that the anthill habitat that the green woodpecker loves to feed on was mostly absent. Since then biodiversity has become increasingly on-the-radar in green space management, with The Regent’s Park one of the first London parks to begin introducing relaxed mowing regimes in the early 1980s.
Today we have at least four pairs of green woodpecker in The Regent’s Park, and similar numbers in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Keep an ear out for their distinctive laughing 'yaffle' call, and if you are lucky you may see them hopping through the grasslands, or catch a glimpse of their low flight as they head off in to the trees.
Kestrels are on the UK Amber List for birds (meaning that their conservation status is of moderate concern), but can be found in the Royal Parks, including The Regent’s Park. The reason for their decline is likely to be related to lack of prey, of which the house sparrow was one of one of the most abundant. The population of sparrows in the UK crashed in the early 1980s, and at the same time sightings of kestrels rapidly declined.
As we have increasingly managed the parks with biodiversity in mind, we have seen a return of kestrels to The Regent’s Park. The areas of meadow and rough grassland that provide a home for invertebrates, amphibians and small mammals serve as excellent hunting grounds for kestrels. In the late 1980s we erected kestrel nest boxes in the Longbridge Sanctuary on Primrose Hill, and these have been used almost every year since.
The best places to spot kestrels in The Regent’s Park is hovering above areas of scrub or long grass, as they look for mice, shrews and other small prey. When hovering they are able to use their tails and wings to keep their body and head almost completely still, even in winds, and with their amazing eyesight can spot even a beetle from 50 metres away. Up close, the males are ginger-brown with a creamy underside speckled with black, and a grey head and tail with a prominent black band. Females have a more uniform colour across their back and head, with dark banding on the tail.
Adult kestrels often leave the park in early autumn, with the male returning towards the end of the year and the female putting in an appearance around early February. We are not sure where they go but we look forward to their return each year!