Guided Birdwatching Walk at Burgess Park, Southwark 27/1/24

Burgess Park (Alison Gibson)
A January walk at Burgess Park has become a popular annual fixture in our calendar (Photo of Jan 2022 walk, Alison Gibson)

A hugely enjoyable guided walk on a fine winter’s day during which we saw and/or heard 39 species as we strolled around a variety of habitats. The loud, distinctive call of a Cetti’s Warbler, a Song Thrush singing beautifully and a sighting of a Greenfinch were some of the highlights.

Thirty of us assembled for our annual January walk in Burgess Park, Southwark, led by two of our members, Dave Clark and Czech Conroy, and co-organised with the Friends of Burgess Park.

Burgess Park is an excellent example of what can be done to make a municipal park in inner London a home for a variety of birds and other wildlife. The park has quite a large lake that attracts substantial numbers of wildfowl and gulls, particularly in the winter months. On this walk we were also on the lookout for winter thrushes as well as resident birds.

We gathered outside the café near the Albany Road entrance to the park at 9am – our start and end point. House Sparrows provided a glimmer of spring as they darted over us towards the café building where they appeared to be already nesting or prospecting for nests under the roof. Blue Tits had commandeered a hole in the wall of the adjacent building.

Three Egyptian Geese flew over and were later seen on top of two tall buildings. This surprised some people, but as these are tree-nesting birds it wasn’t as unusual as it appeared.

Egyptian Goose on St George’s Church (Laura Kor)

Shortly into the walk, after dodging between a long line of runners to cross a path, we stopped on open grassed fields where Carrion Crows are often seen – though, obviously, not when birdwatchers come to see them – and Dave gave his first “species briefing” of the day, telling us lots of interesting facts about crows such as their intelligence and their ability to recognise their own reflection.

Although crows appear to be entirely black, Dave urged us to pay more attention in spring to observe the array of iridescent colours in their feathers.

In the distance a couple of us saw a crow mobbing a smallish bird of prey that was too far away to be identifiable; later on we saw a Kestrel fly over. Some people were surprised to learn that birds of prey were present in an inner-city location like this, but on a previous trip we’ve also seen Peregrine Falcon and Sparrowhawk flying over the park.

Greenfinch (Ben Andrew, rspb-images.com)

We moved on from grass to unkempt scrub, where Dave explained its importance as a habitat for wildlife. “Scrub is good” was the memorable take-home message, emphatically delivered. As if to reinforce the message, we heard lots of resident birds singing and calling, including Robins, Wrens and Great Tits. A more uncommon call, one that most of the group had not heard before, stopped us in our tracks. It was a Greenfinch, perched near the top of a tree, a species that is at present red-listed in the UK as a bird of conservation concern.

While pausing to look at the Greenfinch and listen to another of Dave’s ornithological briefings, we had an excellent view of a fox that suddenly emerged from the bushes. We appeared to be blocking its route, as it nonchalantly walked halfway round our circle before disappearing into the scrub. It didn’t even look up at us.

The Red Fox (Laura Kor)

We saw four members of the thrush family – Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Blackbird and Redwing. The Mistle Thrush, seen on a fenced sports field, was a very welcome sight, as numbers have declined considerably; it was the first of the year for both Dave and Czech, and probably many others in the group.

Walking along a tree-lined path, Collared Dove and Woodpigeon were both heard – a good opportunity for beginners to learn the difference between the two. Dave’s advice was simple: Collared Dove, three notes; Woodpigeon, five notes. (To hear their calls, look them up on the RSPB website at rspb.org.uk in the Birds and wildlife A-Z.)

On the footbridge looking at waterbirds (Laura Kor)

Heading towards the lake, we passed through another habitat – a small woodland partly carpeted with snowdrops – then walked along the side of the lake. An explosive burst of notes suddenly rose from the undergrowth on the other side of the path. A Cetti’s Warbler. We listened for a while, though true to form it remained hidden from view. It may be loud but it is also a shy bird, and being small, brown and grey can be hard to spot. It is a relatively new resident in the UK, having first bred here in 1972.

As we stood on the footbridge across the lake, looking down at the Tufted Ducks and a Great Crested Grebe, a Song Thrush provided a beautiful soundtrack from the nearby trees.

Great Crested Grebe (Laura Kor)
Cormorant and Black-headed Gulls (Laura Kor)

There were lots of geese (Canada, Greylag and Egyptian) on the lake, as well as several Cormorants – often perched on rafts with their wings outstretched – three species of gulls (Black-headed, Herring and Lesser Black-backed), and two Mute Swans.

Greylag/Canada Goose hybrid (Laura Kor)

Some visiting winter ducks that have been seen here before, such as Goldeneye, were notably absent, probably because of the unusually mild weather we’ve been having recently. Just one Shoveler was present, a female, which was our last sighting, although with her bill tucked into her feathers as she floated asleep on the lake we didn’t have a full view of her.

At this point the sighting of the warm and cosy café brought our walk to a close, and we capped off a very enjoyable morning with coffee and chat.

You’re never too young to start birdwatching! Our youngest participant was back after also joining the walk last year, during which she spotted a Robin and said “bird”. This year she can name several species. Perhaps in future she’ll be leading the walks (Alison Gibson)

A big thank you to our guides for giving their time and generously sharing their knowledge, and not least for the humour.

A full list of the species seen on our walk is available on eBird here.

This popular walk was fully booked with a waitlist. To enjoy future events like this do consider becoming a member of the RSPB Central London Local Group for priority booking, or join the Friends of Burgess Park. Everyone is welcome – and early birds get the tickets!

Report by Czech Conroy and Alison Gibson with bird species list compiled by Tom Rogers