From Birding

Lifebirds #106-115 – England Day 7: MBS!

We invited ourselves

Not the Parliament Hill Cafe.About a week before we flew to London, while searching online for checklists of birds we might expect to see during our stay, I came across a link to the MBS (Marylebone Birdwatching Society) website. On it I read that the public was invited to join them for their weekly walks. So I sent an email message and asked if it would be okay for a couple of novice birders from America to tag along with them. Within two hours I received an enthusiastic reply from Marion H. She not only assured us we would be welcomed, but sent us helpful directions for taking the tube and buses from central London to Hampstead Heath. With this encouragement, we made plans to be there.

Thumbnails are not displayed for all 19 photos in gallery. Please click on any image to access it and its informative captions.

Meeting Beryl

Joann and Beryl.So on Tuesday morning, July 25 (my birthday), we took the tube from Queensway station in Bayswater to the Kentish Town station and caught the number 214 bus north from there to the Parliament Hill entrance to Hampstead Heath. But we missed our stop. So we got off at the next one and walked the quarter of mile or so back to the cafe we found near an entrance to the park. Unfortunately, we didn’t read our map carefully, and while this was a cafe, it was not the Parliament Hill Cafe where the group was set to meet. So we were unaware that the group was gathering in another location as we waited for them. Just when it appeared no one would show, we saw a single lady wearing binoculars enter at the gate. We asked her if she was with the MBS and to our relief she answered “yes!” We introduced ourselves, and she told us her name was Beryl and that because of an earlier appointment, she was unable to meet the group as she usually did at the Parliament Hill Cafe. She planned to wait on a bench just inside the gate where we were standing and join the party as it passed the spot. She expected them to arrive at any moment. We felt so very fortunate to have met up with her. If she hadn’t entered where and when she did, we may have missed the group entirely.

Map of Hampstead Heath.We had a short and very pleasant conversation with Beryl while we waited for the group. She seemed pleased to meet us and we were thrilled to meet her. We learned she had been birdwatching on Hampstead Heath for 30 or 40 years!

While we we sat, a man and his leashed dog approached. The dog sniffed the ground near the end of the bench where Beryl sat and, satisfied with the spot, lifted a leg and drizzled. Beryl was silent during the small dog’s visit. After it and its human left, Beryl said to our delight and with undisguised distaste, “Cheeky of him to let his dog spend a penny right there.”

Soon, just as Beryl expected, the rest of the group could be seen walking up the path towards where we sat.

The gang’s all here

Members of the MBS, birdwatching on Hampstead Heath.Seven or eight birders arrived. Among them were Alix, Barbara, Charles, Nicole, Teresa, and Sheila. Philip joined the group at almost the same time we did. He had walked in from another direction and reported to us that he’d seen a kingfisher with a fish in its mouth. Soon Sylvia joined the group, and later Valerie rode in on a bicycle.

Rose-ringed Parakeet.For the next two-and-a-half hours we walked through the park. Right away we saw lots of Carrion Crows, a few Eurasian Magpies and, of course, some Rock Pigeons. One of the first new birds was saw was an Eurasian Kestrel. And not just one kestrel, but we saw several early in our walk, perched high in trees and soaring over our heads. We saw a Rose-ringed Parakeet early. Meanwhile, we were enjoying the company of our hosts as they treated us as celebrities. Like Beryl, most of the members knew very little about Minnesota. One person confidently asserted, “Ah yes, the home of Motor City,” thinking of Michigan. Sheila knew Bob Dylan and the Coen brothers were from Minnesota. Another lady told us of her son who lives in Seattle where he designs and cultivates English Gardens.

Eurasian KestrelPhilip gleefully showed us a newspaper clipping about an American Robin that had recently visited Britain. The article told of “twitchers” (a somewhat derisive English term for birdwatchers) who traveled from all around the country to catch a glimpse of this trans-Atlantic vagrant. While the twitchers looked on, a Sparrowhawk (a medium-sized raptor similar to our Cooper’s Hawk) swooped down and killed the wayward bird. Philip seemed to swell with British pride as I read of the American bird’s demise at the claws of the English flyer.

Birds: hits and misses

During much of this socializing, Teresa was walking ahead of or away from the group and seeing small birds. Charles would follow when she homed in on one, and soon Joann and I learned to do the same. Often Teresa would be the first to spot a bird, and Charles would identify it. She found several small birds in a large tree, and we were all able to see Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits in it. Teresa was the first to spot an Eurasian Jay, and we were able to get pretty good looks at the underside of it. It’s a shame we didn’t get a better look at the bird’s head and back.

Tufted Ducks.We soon arrived at the pond where Philip had reported seeing the Common Kingfisher. Unfortunately, we did not see it. We did see some ducks on this pond, including several Tufted Ducks and their young. Philip and Charles brought our attention to the singing of a Reed Warbler near this pond. We do not count “heard birds” on our list, so this was a miss for us.

Birders on the move.After leaving the pond we walked through a densely-wooded area where we were lucky to get a better look at an Eurasian Robin than we did of our lifer a few days earlier in Kensington Gardens. Nicole remarked that the American Robin and birds in other parts of the world were named after it because of their orange breasts and not because of any close relationship to it. It’s true that, other than the breast, the Eurasian Robin looks nothing like its adopted American cousin. While in these woods we heard an Eurasian Hobby. Everyone in the group was very excited and hopeful of getting a look at it. It flew over us, and several members of the party saw its shadow. I believe Alix caught a glimpse of the bird, and she remarked that this raptor has been teasing her for awhile now, and that she was determined to see it. Another close miss for us.

MBS birders and Joann.One of the last birds we saw before we left the wooded area was a Blackcap. Joann and I had a very good look at one of these in Kensington Gardens on the previous Thursday. It’s a bird that reminded us a lot of an American bird, the Gray Catbird. The bird we saw earlier sang almost continuously for at least five minutes, but this one on Hampstead Health only chirped sporadically.

Other birds we saw during our time on the Heath that I haven’t mentioned were Great-crested Grebes, a Great Cormorant, a Mute Swan, Canada Geese, Mallards, a Wood Pigeon, a singing Eurasian Wren (conspecific with North America’s Winter Wren at the time, but not now), Common Blackbirds, and Great Tits[1]. We heard a Green Woodpecker (it was identified by others, of course) and some members of the party saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker, but Joann and I did not.

A civilized end to the walk

Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath.At length we passed through the woods and onto a field that opened up to a spectacular view of Kenwood House atop a hill. This stately home dates from the 1600s and and now features a a museum and two cafes with nice outdoor seating and spectacular views. Members of our party told us they frequently see celebrities taking tea here, and they mentioned the actress Emma Thompson and others.[2] Most of the group left before we reached the house to walk home or to nearby bus stations. We said our goodbyes to them. Alix, Philip, Nicole, and Teresa took us to one of the cafes. I had a Young’s Bitter Ale (in a bottle) and Joann had a Diet Coke. I don’t believe anyone had tea.

Whilst relaxing with our drinks we saw one more lifer. Soaring and tumbling overhead were a dozen or more Common Swifts.

An amusingly tiny car.We said more goodbyes at the cafe, and then walked with Nicole to a nearby bus stop. She took a northbound bus on one side of the road, and we took a southbound bus on the other. It was a great experience for us, and we are very grateful to all of the members of the Marylebone Birdwatching Society who were so kind to us. If we ever are in London again (and we hope to be!)[3], we will be sure to show up at the Parliament Hill Cafe at 10:00 on a Tuesday morning. We’d love to do it again–for the birds, the gorgeous scenery and, mostly, for the wonderful people.

Dessert at The Regent’s Park

Ruddy Duck.One might suppose that Joann and I were “birded out” at this point. But one would suppose wrongly. The walk lasted for two-and-a-half hours. Later, after nice naps in our cozy and warm hotel room (clothing optional!), we kept my birthday celebration going with Indian food, a visit to 22B Baker Street (sorta), and a leisurely stroll in Regent’s Park. Other than to note that we saw a dizzying array of uncountable hybrids and escaped and out-of-territory waterfowl and two dubious lifebirds in the park–a putative Common Shelduck and an invasive Ruddy Duck–I will leave the account of these afternoon ramblings for another post.

Species  Eurasian Kestrel / Falco tinnunculus
Species  Rose-ringed Parakeet / Psittacula krameri
Species  Long-tailed Tit / Aegithalos caudatus
Species  Eurasian Blue Tit / Cyanistes caeruleus
Species  Eurasian Jay / Garrulus glandarius
Species  Tufted Duck / Aythya fuligula
Species  Common Pochard / Aythya ferina
Species  Common Swift / Apus apus
Where UK-ENG-Greater London-Hampstead Heath
Species  Common Shelduck / Tadorna tadorna
Species  Ruddy Duck / Oxyura jamaicensis
Where UK-ENG-Greater London-Regent’s Park
When Jul 25 2006
Who Joann and members of the Marylebone Birdwatching Society
Numbers 106-115

See lifebird index.

England swings, 2006
England Day 1 – London’s Burning
Lifebirds #87-88 – England Day 1
England Day 2 – Take me to the River
Lifebirds #89-100 – England Day 2
England Days 3-4 – Brighton and Stratford
England Days 5-6 – Cambridge and Bath
Lifebirds #101-105 – England Days 3-6
England Days 7-8 – Parks and the Tower
Lifebirds #106-115 – England Day 7: MBS!


  1. No wiseguy, we did not train our binoculars on the Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond! [^]
  2. Emma Thompson may have visited Kenwood House to wax nostalgic on the subject of her role in the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility, scenes of which were filmed in an around it. Who can say? [^]
  3. Sigh. (If I didn’t despise emojis, a “frowny face” would be used here.) [^]