My local patch is Ruislip Woods, a sprawling semi-ancient woodland in the London Borough of Hillingdon. At its centre lies a sizeable lake, Ruislip Lido, which can be a rewarding site for migratory wildfowl in winter. Besides visiting my London patch, I travel to the United Arab Emirates every year to meet family, and Dubai has some impressive sites too! There, my patch is Ra’s al-Khor, a vast expanse of mangrove forest and saltmarsh near the Persian Gulf. Here, I will share my experiences of these two very different worlds, their habitats, and the many weird and wonderful species that thrive there.
Ruislip Woods is the largest continuous woodland in the whole of London, and is designated as a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It’s a two-minute drive from my home in Eastcote, and boasts a variety of habitats. It consists of four woods: Park Wood, Copse Wood, Mad Bess Wood (named after a fierce landowner), and Bayhurst Wood Country Park, separated from the main reserve by a motorway. I have yet to visit most of the woodland habitat, and hope to do so in the near future. In its centre lies Ruislip Lido, a large lake with one of the capital’s only beaches, so it can become very busy at times! The Lido started life as a reservoir, supplying drinking water to Paddington over 100 years ago. In winter, this lake is home to hundreds of wildfowl, including Shovelers Spatula clypeata, Eurasian Wigeons Mareca penelope,Eurasian Teals Anas crecca, and an occasional Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula. Besides the ducks, when the water levels are low or the lake is frozen, waders such as Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago can be seen. At the north of the Lido lies a small marsh, which provides habitat for the odd Water Rail Rallus aquaticus, and in the nearby trees Marsh Tits Poecile palustris and Lesser Redpolls Acanthis cabaret can be heard. Beside Copse Wood lies a large pasture and scrubland, known as Poor’s Field, which is home to breeding Common Whitethroats Sylvia communis and Garden Warblers S. borin. The woods have breeding Eurasian Sparrowhawks Accipiter nisus, and are alive with the song of Blackcaps S. atricapilla, Common Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita and other warblers in summer. Mad Bess and Bayhurst Woods are less accessible than the rest of the site, with circular paths running around the edges of the woods; they are superb for butterflies and a variety of mammals.
Ra’s al-Khor is a complex of mangrove forest and lagoons, and is one of Dubai Municipality’s most protected conservation areas, designated as a Ramsar site and an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area by BirdLife International. It lies within sight of the iconic Downtown Dubai, which includes the Dubai Mall and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The reserve does not have any trails or boardwalks, but three hides: the Mangrove Hide, the Flamingo Hide and the new Lagoon Hide, opened in December 2018. These hides are probably some of the best in the UAE, with huge scopes, guards offering free drinking water, and air conditioning! During the summer and winter months, the lagoons fill with thousands of waders, including Pacific Golden Plovers Pluvialis fulva, Kentish Plovers Charadrius alexandrinus and Broad-billed Sandpipers Calidris falcinellus. Many Great Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo can be seen above the dense mangrove forests, a habitat which provides a home for a variety of crustaceans. Unlike Ruislip Woods, which is open at all times, the Khor closes at 18.00 hrs every evening, making it harder to see its nocturnal wildlife. The late morning and early evening are the best times to visit, not just for the birds, but also because there are far fewer tourists: people from all over the world come to the reserve for its spectacular Greater Flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus, and few people seem to visit for the other species! The pockets of scrubland near the Lagoon Hide provide a home for species such as Pied Wheatear Oenanthe pleschanka and Crested Lark Galerida cristata, among other desert-dwelling birds.
Among the fantastic species found at both sites, there are a few I have seen over the years that have stood out. In the case of Ruislip Woods, these are not rare at all: the most unusual bird I have seen there is a Dunlin Calidris alpina! Other specialities that have turned up at the Lido and Woods in the last two decades include Woodcock Scolopax rusticola, Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus, Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea and Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes (during a nationwide influx). Though not impressive compared to other sites in London, the Woods have taught me to appreciate the common species, while Poor’s Field acts as a resting point for passage migrants. Although visitors may feel there is nothing else to see beyond the seemingly never-ending sea of pink, Ra’s al-Khor has brought some surprises too. In April 2018, I ran to the Flamingo Hide just as it was about to shut, hoping to see a variety of waders. Surprisingly, there were only two Greater Flamingos. Yet a few hundred metres away from the hide, there was an absolutely gigantic waterbird, which turned out to be the UAE’s tenth White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus! Remarkably, this bird stayed at the Khor from April to August. On one of my visits to the new Lagoon Hide last year, thousands of waders had gathered to feed in front of the shutters, including two beautiful Lesser Sand Plovers Charadrius mongolus, while circling above the scene was an Osprey Pandion haliaetus!
Ruislip Woods and Ra’s al-Khor might seem worlds apart as birding patches but both are fascinating. Both have improved my knowledge and passion for wildlife significantly. I intend to continue to explore both of these urban paradises and enjoy what I have on my doorstep; this is something that can definitely improve our wellbeing during these uncertain times.