Diverse spectrum of wildlife in London’s Hampstead Heath

It’s a beautiful morning outside the window, the parakeets’ plumage a vivid green, their beaks very red, brighter than the red grapes over which they are having a barney with a starling, the plumage of which, in this light, is also exotic and lovely.

It’s a beautiful morning outside the window, the parakeets’ plumage a vivid green, their beaks very red, brighter than the red grapes over which they are having a barney with a starling, the plumage of which, in this light, is also exotic and lovely, writes Damien Enright.

The plumage of the familiar starling is much underrated but when winter sunlight catches its black shiny feathers, speckled with white dots, it is visually another bird.

Also, in the park beyond the window, there are thin people in shorts waving their limbs about, stretching and running on the spot, their legs a blur. Others, in heavy jackets, mufflers and wooly hats are striding past with determination, out for a healthy walk. Sporty mothers are running behind pushchairs, their babies cocooned within.

It seems a contradiction, parakeets vying with starlings, people wearing shorts, while others are wearing mufflers, but this is Hampstead Heath in north London, a Sunday parade of colourful diversity supporting Dr Johnson’s comment, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

In the last century, I sporadically enjoyed the same view when in London, but what I see today is entirely fresh and new.

New are the parakeets, in flocks, new is the diversity of multinational faces and races, new are the ardent young walkers and joggers, the acolytes of exercise; new are running mothers and men carrying babies in papooses on their chests. Never did I see such enthusiasm for the outdoors, never was London as cosmopolitan and colourful as it is now.

In summer, young couples came to the Heath to canoodle on the grass and in the groves, but in winter one saw few, or any. Heath walkers were generally Hampstead types of the older generation, such as Michael Foot, Sunday walker and long-lived leader of the Labour Party, or John Betjeman, poet. Naming a few amongst the many stellar Heath strollers of bygone years, we find John Keats, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson, and our own Count John McCormack.

Strolling there myself two days ago, I stopped to enjoy an outdoor coffee at the cafe and saw what I’ve never seen before, a white-speckled blackbird. This is not a ‘species’: it is a phenomenon. The phenomenon was foraging amongst dead leaves less than 10m from the cafe. I got excited and took pictures. Other customers, inured by familiarity or unimpressed, continued their conversations without a glance.

The speckled condition of the bird is not albinism but ‘leucism’, one of a variety of plumage abnormalities reported through a British Trust for Ornithology Abnormal Plumage Survey started five years ago. Albinism and melanism (where dark plumage replaces natural colours) is rare, accounting for 12% of records to date.

Albino birds have pink instead of dark eyes. Fewer than 50 partial albino blackbirds are reported annually, and fewer than 10 fully albino birds. In the survey, other all-black or mostly black species showing white feathers were Jackdaw (40) and Carrion Crow (49).

Individuals having an excess of dark feather pigmentation numbered only 28 in the survey. Black Blue Tits and Great Tits constituted 50% of these. Other strangely feathered species were a family of brown jackdaws in Antrim, an orange Greenfinch and a yellow-faced Goldfinch in mainland UK.

T

he Heath is replete with flora and fauna. Just over four miles from the heart of London with its 8.7 million humans, this natural wealth is a testament to time and the evolution of well-managed land. The extent is 390 hectares (790 acres). Since grazing stopped in the 19th century (but sheep grazing continued until 1956), the largely treeless heathland and agricultural landscape has been replaced in part by expanding woodland and scrub, along with grassland, hedgerows, ponds‘, and wetlands and remnant areas of the original heath.

There are 650 species of plants, 800 veteran trees, 500 fungi species. There are fish in the ponds, grass snakes, frogs, and alien terrapins. Alien also, but established, are muntjac deer, the size of a dog, with a mating call like a dog barking. Other mammals include moles, grey squirrels, hedgehogs, foxes, Natterer’s and Daubenton’s bats, noctules and all the species of pipistrelle.

More than 180 species of bird, including bitterns, woodcock, kingfishers, owls, terns, and hobby hawks are on record. Of winged insects — now in huge decline and threatening the survival of many wildlife species across Europe — 25 butterfly species and 17 dragon and damsel flies have been recorded, along with legion species of moths, midges and flies.

Every bit as fascinating as the wildlife is the human species diversity to be observed on the Heath, adding new colour and interest to this city of a hundred wonders.

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