It’s no secret that Waltham Forest is packed with nature, but when, where and how can you spot the borough’s brilliant birdlife and try your hand at wildlife watching?
We asked some of our local nature enthusiasts, wildlife photographers and walking guides to share their top spots, species and tips…
The elusive water vole
Walthamstow Wetlands is home to a few water voles – but it’s rare to catch a glimpse of one yourself, says Peter Salter, Visitor Engagement Ranger for the London Wildlife Trust, which manages the site.
“You’d be very lucky to see one, as they are so shy!” he shares.
Sadly, they are an endangered species – much less common than their field vole counterparts – partly due to predatory American mink, but also due to habitat loss.
“The Wetlands has only a small amount of riverbank and the banks of the operational reservoirs are either concrete or too steep to be suitable habitat.”
Peter says it is being addressed here in the borough. “Planting of reedbeds, improving riparian vegetation and opening the Coppermill stream canopy are some of the ways the habitat has been improved. In the hope that it’ll increase the connectivity of the Wetlands to the water vole populations in the wider Lea Valley.”
These furry, chestnut-coloured creatures are active throughout the year, but spring or just after summer in autumn – when there are young voles about – is your best bet for a sighting:
“If you’re patient and quiet you have a chance! Walk slowly, scan for signs such as nibbled grass, latrines, or burrows at water’s edge – and listen out for a ‘plop’ into the water.”
More marvellous mammals
Though some of us will be able to spot (and hear!) grey squirrels and foxes in our own back gardens – to see a fox cub, you’ll want to visit the Wetlands during the summer months.
“Beyond that, mammals can be tricky, for two reasons, they are elusive, nocturnal or both!” Peter explains. “During the day, you may spot a weasel on your visit if you are lucky, but it will be almost always a quick glimpse of one as it dashes across the path.
“We do have hedgehogs, shrews, and plenty of bats – but they are all more active at night.”
Five species of bat currently reside at the Wetlands, including petite pipistrelles and Britain’s biggest bat: the noctule. Why so many bats, you might wonder? “The large amounts of water attract midges and other flying insects, providing a feast for the bats.” Ah, well that explains it.
They’re near-impossible to see on a regular, daytime visit – as they’re nocturnal – but luckily, the Wetlands offers guided bat walks from time to time, complete with bat detectors.
Keep an eye on Walthamstow Wetlands’ website for news.
Rare and beautiful birds
One thing the borough isn’t short on is incredible birdwatching opportunities – for beginners or expert twitchers.
Sarah Brocklehurst, who runs Wildlife Walk for Wellness at Leytonstone’s Hollow Ponds, provides walkers with expert commentary – as well as the know-how to begin birdwatching on their own.
The trick is to visit in the morning – and move cautiously.
“Birdwatching field craft works just like hunting, you need to be quiet, try to be as invisible as possible, to move slowly and to get your senses engaged” Sarah explains.
“Birds are most active in the mornings, they start singing at dawn, and activity will diminish as the sun starts to climb – so you’re better to go out early to enjoy the most amazing experience.
“In spring, the leaf cover can make it more difficult to see birds, but we have lots of spring migrants pushing up bird numbers. They make up for being harder to spot by singing – especially hard at this time to attract a mate, to warn rivals not to enter their territories.
“Now, you need to be alert. Look out for a leaf twitch, listen for a noise in a bush…”
There are plenty of wonderful species to spy nearby – Sarah has recorded 87 in total: parakeets, great spotted woodpeckers, robins and nuthatches among them. But one bird in particular holds a special place in her heart.
“The most exciting bird I’ve found at Hollow Ponds is the treecreeper, which is one of my favourites,” Sarah tells the Echo.
“I was talking to an elderly resident at the time, who was interested in my camera. He said, ‘you never see anything here but rats’ – and just at that moment the treecreeper flew onto the oak trunk behind him! He was too slow to see it, and sadly I was too slow to photograph it, and I’ve not seen it since.
“But in the midst of the mid-winter lockdown, I was visiting the site daily. It has been a particular joy to witness great spotted woodpeckers in the first flush of romance, darting around and around a copse together, whinnying like a woodpecker carousel. I call this area Woodpecker Wonderland.
“There is also Robin Runway, Greenfinch Gangway in the Gorse and Christopher’s Cathedral. Christopher, a wren, sings from one particular tree stump, loud and proud every morning – if you’re early enough. It’s in a clearing that looks like a cathedral. He’s often busy making up to ten nests with moss from the trees ready for a female to choose just one.”
Local wildlife enthusiast Deborah Williams recommends Cheshire Fields allotments for bird sightings.
“I love the contrast of the busy sounds from St James Park with the serenity and stillness on my plot,” she says. “As the foxes and birds gather for the anticipation of food, I feel privileged to enjoy this special place.”
Wildlife photographer Nicky Dean also recommends the Waterworks Nature Reserve and Middlesex Filter Beds as a hotspot.
“I spotted this grey wagtail recently,” he tells us of his close-up snap. “There was a pair hanging out. Very pleasant to see them both. I also like the Wetlands for water birds.”
At the Wetlands, June is generally considered the ‘quietest’ month for birds – but there is an opportunity for rarer sightings, Peter explains.
“June can be a month to find a rarity – two spoonbills were seen in 2020, and a long-tailed duck in 2018. However, you will see ducklings of pochard, tufted duck and many other waterbirds including shelduck and grebes.
“Juvenile peregrines are often seen and heard screeching for their parents at the top of pylons, and graceful common terns will be nesting on the rafts and feeding on the reservoirs diving for fish.”
Beyond June, mid-July is a wonderful time to spy waders. “There is always a chance of seeing a few waders such as redshank, common sandpiper, and oystercatcher as they pass through, beginning their autumn migration back southwards.”
And, of course, who could ever forget the common swift?
Regular Echo contributor David O’Driscoll tells us the best place to see them is in Walthamstow, “in the area around the Coppermill Water Treatment Centre and Walthamstow Wetlands, off Coppermill Lane.”
Look out for their ‘screaming parties’, too. “On some evenings, you see ‘screaming parties’ regularly featuring many hundreds of swifts, hunting insects. They are extraordinary mobile flyers and it is quite a sight to watch them at work.”
Catch them now, adds Peter, before they fly off for the winter. “This year, the first swift was seen during the last week of April and since, the numbers have built up into their hundreds.
“Their acrobatic flight and screams of joy as they wheel around the reservoirs has to be one of the best Wetlands experiences during the summer months, before the swifts migrate back to south of the Sahara in Africa. They start to do this from late July and most have left by September.”