Hampstead Heath

From Londonbirders

Map: [1]

How to Get There

Access to the Heath is pretty unrestricted and travel to the area is facilitated by Tube stations at Highgate, Hampstead and Golders Green (all on the Northern Line, each just a c.10 minute walk from the Heath itself). On the North London overland railway, there is the Hampstead Heath Station, which as the name suggests, stops in South End Green right next to the southwest corner of the Heath, and Gospel Oak, next to the Lido at the south of the Heath.

This is a surprisingly large area of open fields, hills, and deciduous woodland (substantially oak and beech) with two main groups of relatively small ponds/lakes on the Highgate side and near South End Green. The active management of the Heath by the Corporation of London has significantly improved both the grassland and the amount and variety of mature deciduous woodland in recent decades.

Because the site is in the heart of London, it does attract a lot of people, especially at weekends. If you are intending to visit for birding purposes, a good idea is therefore to arrive at, or even before, dawn before any birds have been disturbed by walkers (human or canine!). This is especially important during periods of passage as some shyer species may decide it is too busy for them and promptly 'move on' (vanish).

Although the site is large and in a large population centre, it does get surprisingly limited coverage (Bill Oddie used to state that it is his local patch, but to be fair, he lives very close). Visit reports on "Londonbirders" are strongly encouraged.

What to Look For

The days of breeding Yellowhammers and Red-backed Shrikes are sadly no more, but Red-backed Shrikes, a Dartford Warbler (and even a Stone Curlew!) have been seen on passage recently. Because of the elevated situation of Parliament Hill, it is a surprisingly good place to observe 'visible migration', especially early in the morning, with birds of prey including Hobby, Honey Buzzard and Osprey as well as the far more numerous passerines. In addition, the bushes and areas of grass around it, and the hedgerows leading away from it, are probably the best and easiest-worked areas for passage passerines. Occasionaly something really outstanding will pop up such as Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Little Bittern and Alpine Swift, all of which were 'good birds' not just for the site, but nationally.

In terms of more usual species, the Heath is good for all the woodland finches, tits, warblers etc, as well as all 3 species of woodpeckers, which breed here. Active management of the habitats around the ponds has also led to breeding Kingfishers, and reed beds that attract Reed and Sedge Warblers, as well as wintering Water Rails. Because of a relative lack of large water expanses for interesting winter duck, and marsh areas for waders, a "normal" year list could probably reach 70+ species, and c.100 for the particularly diligent (and fortunate) patch lister

As stated at the beginning, this is a large site, and even when it is 'busy', it may be possible to find a relatively quiet spot where it is easy to forget that you are close to the centre of London. In the last couple of years, the Heath has been colonised by Ring-necked Parakeets, especially at the Highgate side. It is obvious that they find the site to their liking, as their numbers have shown an almost alarming explosion. Non-birders are nearly always surprised to learn not only of their presence, but also exactly how many there are.

Where to Go

Be aware that if you are unfamiliar with the Heath, it is very easy to get lost: it really is a large area. Even if you know the Heath, it will take you a good half day to 'cover' it at all well, and it is more often best to break the Heath up into its 3 major constituent parts:

- East Heath. This includes Kenwood, Parliament Hill and all the large ponds. It is by far the largest area, and with the most varied habitat

- West Heath. This includes Golders Hill Park, and is best accessed from Golders Green. It is largely deciduous woodland, with a lot of mature birch and related bog.

- Sandy Heath and the Extension. Again, quickest accessed from Golders Green, this is the smallest area, and includes some surprisingly productive small ponds and tree lines between the playing fields

One point of warning regarding the East Heath should be mentioned. This area has been (in)famous amongst young gay men for at least 35 years as a place to pick up others with the same tastes and for this reason, should be avoided especially at dusk and at weekend evenings in the summer. (It is a relatively small area that isn't particularly outstanding ornithologically, so can easily be 'missed out' during your visit if you think that you would rather avoid an embarrassing encounter!).

For further reading we must mention 'Where to watch birds in the London Area' by Dominic Mitchell which covers the site more thoroughly than we do here. The Heath is also the subject of an ongoing survey by the LNHS who (along with the Marylebone Birdwatching Society and the Heath & Hampstead Society) regularly have field meetings visiting the Heath for those who might find an initial solo visit slightly intimidating.

Paul White/Sash Tusa

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