February 2019

Vol. 47, No. 1

About Books: London Calling

Mark Lynch

How to be an Urban Birder. David Lindo. 2018. Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press.

"Urban birding is cool. Birding is cool. Birds are cool and you are cool to watch them." (p. 15)

Birders pine for far away locations. They dream of visiting remote forests, jungles, islands, and mountain ranges where they can rack up a long list of odd and colorful "lifers." Few birders achieve this dream, and far fewer get to visit these last wild places often. Most of us must be content to bird our local patch of woods, some nearby stretch of coast, or make a long haul every once in a while to tick some vagrant. The majority of us live in or near a city, which seems to be the worst possible place to bird: too many people, too many cars, too many buildings, and not enough bird habitat. But in most cities there have been a few birders who have embraced the urban habitat and even celebrated local urban birding.

In recent Massachusetts' birding history, people like Bob Stymeist, Soheil Zendeh, and a number of others have celebrated urban birding by leading trips to key birding hot spots in the Greater Boston and Cambridge area. These include well-known birding destinations like Belle Isle Marsh, the Boston Nature Center, Millennium Park, and of course Mount Auburn Cemetery. Boston is an easy city in which to embrace urban birding. Boston has a number of historical parks, a large coastline full of bays and inlets, and a great mass transportation system that encourages the Boston birder to leave the car at home.

Providence, Rhode Island, also has some very nice birding spots. These include the Seekonk River where, fall through spring, a variety of waterfowl can be found. Swan Point Cemetery, on the Seekonk, is still a premier spot in spring for urban birders to look for migrant passerines.

Not all New England cities are as obviously attractive to birders as Boston or Providence. Take Worcester, where I live. It is landlocked, and winters can be downright brutal here. Worcester is in the snow belt of Massachusetts and often racks up the highest snow totals of southern New England year after year. That makes winter birding here a real challenge. Yet Worcester boasts a number of large ponds and lakes which are attractive to waterfowl. There are also a number of interesting parks and cemeteries which yearly feature a variety of spring migrants. These are very good for spending some quality birding time before work in May. Worcester's premier birding spot is Broad Meadow Brook, a Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary with miles of trails and a decent chunk of forest, marsh, and stream habitat. So, even Worcester has some great urban birding possibilities. Over the years I have managed to see 250 species within the city limits of Worcester.

David Lindo is a natural historian, writer, broadcaster, photographer, educator, and tour leader. But Lindo is best known the world over as "The Urban Birder." His website has the same title. He has birded in cities around the world and has written a number of articles and books on urban birding, such as Tales from Concrete Jungles: Urban Birding Around the World. He is a champion for birding your city often. His enthusiasm for urban natural history is infectious. Lindo knows that "birds are everywhere" (p. 9), so his mantra is "Look up!" How to Be an Urban Birder is his latest book, and I think it's his best.

London is Lindo's home, specifically Notting Hill.

A fabled district of west London beloved by the ladies that lunch and the Versace pram-pushing yummy-mummy set, shrine to the worshippers of "Notting Hill" the film and the general home to cool meedja luvvies. (p. 7)

It is here that Lindo honed his passion for urban birds. By just looking around and particularly up, and visiting different habitats around London, Lindo began to see birds in many places you would not expect them. There are, of course, the ubiquitous urban birds. In London these are the House Sparrow, the Feral Pigeon, and quite unexpected to us in the United States, the Ring-necked Parakeet. Lindo writes about the odd decline in Britain of the House Sparrow, perhaps a preview of what may happen here. Theories abound as to the cause of the decline, but it may simply be that people are now building houses and buildings that are more resistant to their nesting. As to the parakeets, of course they are introduced, but there are several urban legends as to how they came to London. One of these involves Jimi Hendrix. I will leave it to readers of the book to discover this hoary legend.

How to Be an Urban Birder is basically a book about how to become a good birder, something that has been covered before by other authors, though perhaps not as well. The difference is that Lindo writes about these basics entirely through the lens of an urban birding experience. This makes this book a unique and an interesting read for birders of all skill levels. As with most beginning birding books, there are solid, helpful chapters on keeping field notes, what to do with your records, optics, field guides, birding attire, and apps. Lindo's section on making your yard appeal to birds does not assume you have a large suburban space for a garden. In How to Be an Urban Birder, you may only have room for a window box. For Lindo, the urban birder does what he or she can in the spaces that are available to improve the environment for birds.

There is fabulous wildlife all around us and we need to encourage and conserve it in the places where it exists. Whether this be nurturing invertebrates within a tiny window box on the fifth floor of a block of flats, promoting small wild areas in our gardens, creating areas specifically for wildlife in our local parks, watching over a forgotten wild corner of our local neighborhood or starting a green roof project. (p. 9)

How to Be an Urban Birder has a long section on the various urban habitats and the birds that these spaces attract. Lindo urges the reader to start "thinking along the lines of how a bird might see a city environment" (p. 20-21). Certain urban birding habitats will be familiar to birders in the United States, especially in the Northeast. These include cemeteries, ponds and reservoirs, rivers, parks, and small woodlots. Private gardens have a long history in Britain. A recent study estimated that 87% of the households in Britain have some kind of garden, even if it is just a few potted plants on a balcony. But when added together that is more than 1,670 square miles of gardens (p. 25). Soccer pitches are a good place in London to look for wheatears or an odd wagtail in migration. Here in Massachusetts, I have found flocks of Killdeer, Ring-billed Gulls, and geese on these well manicured spaces. Lindo writes about sewage farms and landfills as magnets for species like gulls. Here in Massachusetts, old-style sewage farms are now almost extinct, but they do have a long history for attracting unusual species, particularly shorebirds. Almost all Worcester County records of Western Sandpiper are from the now-defunct Worcester sewer beds. Most inland landfills are now capped, but unless they are then topped with a solar panel field, they can attract grassland birds, including Grasshopper Sparrows.

Canals are common in England, and these often-abused waterways are magnets for birds. Canals are much less common here in New England, but it is interesting to note that the old Blackstone Canal that runs from Providence, Rhode Island, to Worcester, Massachusetts, has been turned into a national park accompanied by trails and a bikeway. These new parks are now outstanding places to bird at any time of the year. Some of the great parks in London fell into horrible neglect during the Thatcher years. Now, as Lindo describes them, many are being rehabilitated and are great and safer places to bird.

One of Lindo's prime urban habitats to bird is simply "the sky." Many birds fly over cities and are easy to pick up if you just look up. Some British birders have taken this a step further by doing what is called "vis migging" from atop certain high city buildings.

Visible migration watching, or ‘vis migging' as it is often referred to by keen birders, has become a very popular pastime. It is usually conducted by standing at a vantage point like a coastal headland or on top of high ground, in the path of a well-known migration route. Observers arrive pre-dawn and if the weather is favorable, could be treated to a continual stream of birds passing overhead. (p. 96)

Many of us do vis-migging along the coast or inland during hawk migration. But how many of us have attempted urban migration watching? Successful vis-migging from atop city buildings is best during peak migration periods and under certain weather conditions described in this book. In a recent interview with Lindo, he described vis-migging from a building top as being like sea watching. Birds will suddenly appear and then disappear, and there can be long stretches with no visible birds. Urban vis-migging for hawks has become popular in places such as Mexico, and most recently Ukraine. On October 10, 1999, I had a fantastic hour of urban vis-migging when I stood at an overlook of downtown Worcester at dawn and, with a front approaching, had many hundreds of robins, Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, and Yellow-rumped Warblers whiz by at eye level, many flying down into the city.

How to Be an Urban Birder has a long illustrated list of common urban birds of Britain (p.100-127). These include Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe, (Eurasian) Kestrel, and Tawny Owl. If you only have a few hours to bird in London, as long as you know where to go, you could rack up a nice species list. Some cities have more unique birding possibilities:

Perhaps the most famous inner city riverine birding experience in Britain has got to be the breeding Kittiwakes on the Tyne Bridge in the middle of Newcastle. (p. 34-35)

How to Be an Urban Birder is a beautifully designed book. It is profusely illustrated with color photographs, some by the author, that celebrate birds in a city environment. A photograph of a (Eurasian) Kingfisher perched on a small sign post in front of a crowd at a bus stop, or a coot nesting on floating trash, or a Grey Heron in front of a loading dock perfectly capture the spirit of this book. There are also some great shots of the author urban birding. These photographs are augmented by color illustrations by Steph Thorpe. Even the cover photograph of a Jackdaw with a mouthful of fries is perfect. I hope future projects for Lindo include fine-tuning urban birding guides for other cities on other continents.

Through books like How to Be an Urban Birder, David Lindo has become an important voice for urban natural history education for everyone.

Birding should be about sharing knowledge and enthusing others and not about having the best bird lists or indulging in constant one-upsmanship. (p. 10)

As Jamie Oliver, host of the legendary British cooking show The Naked Chef, long-time advocate for teaching school children how to eat more healthfully, and author of the foreword to How to Be an Urban Birder wrote:

I love David's passion, and his belief that anyone should be able to love and appreciate nature and the serenity that surrounds birds and their habitats. (p. 5)

REFERENCES

  • Lindo, David. 2015. Tales from Concrete Jungles: Urban Birding Around the World. London, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Natural History.

To access my interview with David Lindo via the WICN "on demand" part of their website, go to: https://www.wicn.org/podcasts/audio/david-lindo-how-be-urban-birder



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