Watching Winter in the Natural History Museum Wildlife Garden

As we work through the Wildlife Garden on seasonal tasks – completing the clearance and shredding the huge numbers of London plane tree leaves, coppicing and hedge-laying – there are always plenty of wildlife distractions to remind us of the value of this urban oasis. Wildlife gardener/Ecologist Joe Beale describes recent avian activity in the garden:

Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker

‘As the autumn progressed, flying insects and flowers naturally become harder to find and birds  replaced them as the most noticeable feature of the Wildlife Garden.

Our volunteers are often accompanied by Britain’s National Bird as they work on maintaining the habitats. The Robin (Erithacus rubecula) is one of the few UK species to sing routinely throughout the winter, and its melancholy song is a characteristic feature of the Wildlife Garden even on dark winter days, continuing long after the sun sets.

We saw two Woodpecker species in November. A beautiful female Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) turned up, feeding in the trees at the edge of the Garden and showing well. A male Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) rested for a while in one of the Poplars to survey the scene. Birds will often use these tall Poplars as a vantage point to check out the area below before making a decision about where to go next.


Since the leaves have largely fallen, Dunnocks (Prunella modularis) have become more noticeable as they hop around the hedgerows and their slightly discordant call reveals the presence of this unobtrusive species. It is also a good time to find hyperactive little Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes), which are that bit more noticeable with the reduced cover,  but still best located by voice –  either the beautiful and surprisingly loud trilling song or the scolding anxiety call. If you know the Moomin stories, to my mind they always resemble the character Little Mi!


Our Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) and Greenfinches (Carduelis chloris) are regularly visiting the bird feeders but they have to be careful as a Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus) visits from time to time. The remains of an unfortunate male Greenfinch were found on a plucking post (wooden stump) near the shed, and the hawk returned later to finish off its meal. The other day I saw one catch a Redwing Turdus iliacus (see below) and for a couple of minutes I was able to see its fierce yellow-eyed glare and fine, barred plumage as it rested in a tree with it prey. It’s all part of the drama of nature in the city.

The Goldcrest Regulus regulus is the smallest UK bird (along with the Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla). Two Goldcrests have been present for several weeks now; they are not shy but can be unobtrusive. Once you learn their ringing call it helps track them down and then you can see their golden crown and the plain facial pattern, which gives them a slightly glum appearance. They seem to have a fondness for our Field Maple trees which are still holding on to some of their golden leaves. The combination of Goldcrest and maple leaves is an aesthetically pleasing image!

Goldcrest (c) Russell Ritchin 8.3.16
Goldcrest © Russell Ritchin

Up to six flying teaspoons, aka Long-tailed Tits Aegithalos caudatus, pass through most days in a follow-the-leader flock, doing a circuit of the garden as they search for food in the bushes and trees. With them may be other species including one of the regular Coal Tits Periparus ater with their distinctive white badger stripe down the nape (back of the neck) – though these are easier to see at the bird feeders. Moorhens Gallinula chloropus are also tempted by the spilled bird seed under the feeders as well as the invertebrate-rich, sheep-cropped grassland of the main meadow. Two of this year’s young, identifiable by their drab bills, are still hanging around, as well as the two adults (with their bright red and yellow bills).

5 Long-tailed-tit
Long tailed tit

Redwings Turdus iliacus are one of the real signs of autumn and winter in this part of the world, their “zeet” calls being a characteristic background sound from October to early April. They are small thrushes with bold cream supercilia (“eyebrows”), streaking below and orange-red flanks and underwings. We had a flock of about 20 moving through on 8th November, still on the move west and not stopping. On 5th December, at least two birds were present and rested in the Poplars and since then they have become an increasingly noticeable feature of the Wildlife Garden. As I write there are at least 25 in the Garden. A flock is busily devouring the Holly berries outside the garden shed, and others are lurking in holly by the meadow or dropping down onto the meadow itself to look for invertebrate food. Fieldfares Turdus pilaris are, like Redwings, winter visitors but tend to be a bit shyer and less likely to visit small urban spaces unless the weather is harsh. The 8 or so flying west on 30th October was, then, a typical sighting – the birds were on migration (part of a bigger movement that morning) at a typical late autumn date.

Redwing (Turdus iliacus)

It’s not just birds, of course. As I type a healthy-looking Fox (Vulpes vulpes) is passing by. We are finding reassuringly large numbers of amphibians in the leaf litter and log piles, mainly Common Toads (Bufo bufo) and Common Frogs (Rana temporaria) but also one or two Smooth Newts (Lissotriton vulgaris). The bizarre and beautiful Earthstars (Geastrum triplex) and (Geastrum fimbriatum) are still very much visible and releasing spores – we are finding more and more in the wooded areas as we undertake our work and we make sure they are left undamaged to continue releasing spores throughout the winter.’

Thank you Joe.

In our next blog we’ll tell you more about other recent finds.


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