Garden birdwatching is, on the whole, a routine matter, and not one where you expect rarities or great surprises – yet my own experience on one small suburban plot has included both, and now that it has come to an end, I miss it greatly. This is my celebration of it, or, if you like, my lament for its passing.
In March 2021, my wife Jo and I left the house in which we had lived for 28 years. It was a four-bedroomed, terraced, Victorian house with a converted loft, built in 1896, about 1 km from Richmond upon Thames town centre, which itself is 13 km from central London. The house was about 150 m from the A316, the dual carriageway which is the main road to the M3 and the southwest, and directly under the southerly flightpath into Heathrow airport for planes landing from the west, as most of them do. Thus, it was in a pretty built-up area, and you might expect that you would not see that much in terms of birds in our medium-sized rear garden, which measured 14 x 7 m – but you would be wrong.
For one thing, there was a substantial amount of greenery close by. We were about 300 m from the southernmost gate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and even closer to the Old Deer Park, the playing fields and rugby grounds which now cover what remains of the parkland once attached to Richmond Palace; and we were about 1 km from the River Thames in one direction and, in the other, about 1.5 km from Richmond Park, a 10 km2, semi-wild landscape of acid grassland and oak woods, which is the largest of the royal parks. Furthermore, the streets of old Victorian houses on the borders of Richmond and Kew were themselves very leafy.
For another thing, we made conscious efforts to attract wildlife. We had a series of bird feeders, a wide variety of plants, and a certain amount of the scruffiness that nature requires to flourish (the balance between scruffiness and neatness in such a case being a delicate matter, largely of taste though sometimes of argument). We had a pond with Marsh-marigolds Caltha palustris and Yellow Flag Irises Iris pseudacorus, and at different times, frogs and newts; we had three mature trees, a cherry Prunus (which eventually rotted and had to come down), a Bramley Malus domestica seedling, which in some years provided hundreds of cannonball-sized cooking apples, and a Cotoneaster, which stretched over the pond. As we are butterfly enthusiasts, we had five separate Buddleia bushes, and two Alder Buckthorn Frangula alnus shrubs, which constitute the larval foodplants of that most dazzling of spring insects, the Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni. Various wildflowers, from Garlic Mustard Alliaria petiolata to Foxgloves Digitalispurpurea would sometimes spontaneously appear.
The avifauna was at first glance what you might call ‘standard suburban’. The four most frequently seen passerine species were Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus, Great Tit Parus major, Robin Erithacus rubecula and Blackbird Turdus merula, followed closely by Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, a marker of the remarkable transformation in status brought about by the arrival of Niger Guizotia abyssinica seed; sometimes the long, buzzing twitter of Goldfinches was the ambient sound in the garden. Next in frequency were Wren Troglodytes troglodytes, Dunnock Prunella modularis and Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris. But perhaps more interesting, as regards the common birds, were the absences.
When I grew up in the suburbs of Birkenhead, Cheshire & Wirral, in the 1960s, our lawn seemed to be covered with Song Thrushes Turdus philomelos, Mistle Thrushes T. viscivorus, House Sparrows Passer domesticus and Tree Sparrows P. montanus. Today, of course, the Tree Sparrows have long gone; but never once in our 28 years did I see a House Sparrow on our Richmond property. This may be a function of the disappearance of sparrows from London, which I wrote about extensively for The Independent; but I think it also reflects the sedentary nature of the bird, which Denis Summers-Smith, the great sparrow expert who died last year, used to insist was its most remarkable characteristic. There was once a small colony of House Sparrows at the far end of our road, and there is one today three streets away; but the birds have never wandered the couple of hundred metres to us, at least so far as I am aware. The thrushes have been similarly absent: both Song and Mistle breed in Kew Gardens, but I have never seen the latter, and on one occasion only seen the former, on our lawn.
The other surprising absence has been the Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs – we never had one, although until about ten years ago we did get Greenfinches Chloris chloris. Now, of course, that species has undergone a rapid decline in numbers. However, in the winter, we would see Siskins Spinus spinus and Lesser Redpolls Acanthis cabaretand two more tit species, Coal Tit Periparus ater and Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus; and to complete the small-passerine picture, we would get the odd Goldcrest Regulus regulus, Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita and Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla.
It was with a Curruca warbler, however, that we got our greatest surprise. Franko Maroevic, who is fairly well known in the birding community, was a near neighbour. Franko sometimes watches from his roof, which he refers to as ‘the Richmond bird observatory’ and alerts me to interesting items. One day in the autumn of 2016, he knocked on our door and said: ‘D’you know what you’ve got in your back garden?’ I did not. It turned out to be a Lesser Whitethroat, Curruca curruca, which would have been exciting enough; but this was a ‘Siberian Lesser Whitethroat’ C. c. blythi/halimodendri. It was easily twitchable and, with our agreement, Franko put news of it online; and for the next few months we would come down to breakfast to see cagouled figures peering into our garden with binoculars from the alley at the back. I christened it ‘Shura’ and it spent the whole winter with us, living in the garden, and was a charming bird. We felt honoured by its presence.
Three sightings from our Richmond garden have given me the most pleasure of all, the first two being the winter thrushes, Redwing T. iliacus and Fieldfare T. pilaris. Our Cotoneaster tree produced thousands of bright-red berries, and every winter for the last few years we had a flock of 20 to 30 Redwings devouring them. They tended to come just after Christmas and spend about a month feasting, and it was wonderful to see them for so long at such close quarters. Even more terrific were the Fieldfares: a flock of eight flew into the garden during a period of snow in January 2013 and some of them perched in the apple tree, close to the kitchen window. The view of them was spectacular – I had always enjoyed the grey head and the brown back, but I had never been near enough before to appreciate the throat colour, the thrilling orange which runs into the yellow of the bill.
But the best sighting of all in our garden came in the last few months. On 17th September 2020, at 11 am, I looked out of the kitchen window and going up the old gnarled trunk of the apple tree was a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor. I could scarcely believe my eyes; I felt an overpowering surge of joy. Suh a wonderful, charismatic, beautiful bird, and so rare now; I watched it for perhaps 20 seconds, from 4.5 m away, until it flew off. I think, looking back, that it was the best bird sighting of my life. Like many people I have had thrilling bird experiences – being surrounded by diving Northern Gannets Morus bassanus, hearing a Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos sing at midnight deep in a woodland, having a Barn Owl Tyto alba flutter around me in the gloaming like a great, white moth, being in a Spanish field filled with swooping European Bee-eaters Merops apiaster and Hoopoes Upupa epops – and, for a long time, my birding Holy Grail was the Resplendent Quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno, which I eventually saw in Costa Rica; but I now think that my garden sighting of this Lesser Spotted Woodpecker tops the lot. It was a special creature, made more wondrous still by the mundane domesticity of where I saw it, and it represents for me all the joy which birds brought to our small suburban patch of ground over our 28 years there. Such delight there was, not in Extremadura, or on St Kilda, or in the rainforest, but merely in TW9; I shall miss it for the rest of my life.
Michael McCarthy, Dorset
Michael McCarthy is a writer and journalist, the former Environment Correspondent of The Times and Environment Editor of The Independent. He is the author of Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo (2009), The Moth Snowstorm: nature and joy (2015) and, most recently, The Consolation of Nature: spring in the time of coronavirus (2020) written with Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren.