Birds of the Thames
Updated: Mar 28, 2022
One of the best things about any trip in the great outdoors is the chance to see the local wildlife, and paddling with Active360 Richmond is no exception. Over the next few blog posts we will talk about the wide variety of fauna you can see when out on the water. In this post we’ll look at one of my favourites, the birds of the Thames! All drawings from the RSPB’s excellent website. A great resource for identification.
One of the most elegant birds that you’ll see on the Thames has to be the mute swan. These magnificent creatures are resident in the UK all year. Depending on who you ask, they are the heaviest flying bird in the UK (the other is the Great Bustard). Swans need at least 30 yards of space in order to take off, so a nice long stretch of river like ours (especially near Ham House) is ideal for them. Despite being the star of The Ugly Duckling, we find that cygnets are one of the most popular chicks seen by our paddlers in the early summer season!
All mute swans in the UK are technically owned by the monarchy, and it is a criminal offence to interfere with a swan’s nest, so give them space and enjoy watching them feeding and swimming. Contrary to popular belief, a swan cannot ‘break your arm’ (flying birds have very hollow bones and would struggle to snap a human bone), but it doesn’t hurt to give these graceful avians a wide berth as you wouldn’t want to get an angry phone call from the Queen checking up on her swans!
The cormorant adds a hint of Jurassic Park to any trip on the Thames. When not in the water these large black birds will typically be seen standing on the gunwales of moored boats or perched in trees with their wings outstretched. They do this to dry out their feathers before diving for fish in the river. When the water is clear you may be able to spot them swimming under the surface. Hunting dives typically last for 30 seconds to a minute, so keep your eyes peeled and you might see them pop up with a tasty perch in their mouth. These birds are resident all year round, and you are certain to see them out with Active360 Richmond. In fact, just look across to Corporation Island from the riverbank, and there they’ll be.
The tallest bird you’ll see on this stretch of water. The European grey heron has an almost pterodactyl-like quality in flight with large wings flapping languidly as it flies low along the bankside. Keep an eye on any shallow sand/gravel bars - this is where you will see the birds slowly stalking their prey. Herons will typically allow you to get within in a few metres if you’re quiet, and they afford you an excellent chance to watch nature in action. Despite their exotic appearance these birds are resident in the UK all year, and are one of our earliest nesting birds. They build incredibly large nests known as heronries high in the trees from February onwards, and these are always a sign that spring is on the way (again, look towards Corporation Island and you will see them). Their chicks stay in the nest for up to 7 weeks before fledging, as such you’re unlikely to see small heron chicks on the water. Juvenile herons have a mottled appearance, and male adults are distinguished from females by the longer aigrets (plumes) on their heads.
Great Crested Grebe
A true waterbird, far more likely to be seen in the water than in the air or on land. Great crested grebes have exotic red plumage on their heads during the summer months, returning to a more muted grey and white over winter. Similar in shape, but smaller and much more colourful than a cormorant, these can be seen on any stretch of the Thames from Richmond. These are great birds to watch as they frequently attempt to eat fish that are close to a third of their size, and the ensuing struggle is often entertaining! In spring you will regularly see grebe chicks hitching a ride on a parent’s back as they cross the river. Watch out for grebe nests in grassy banks as these birds like to nest on floating pontoons on the water. Anecdotally, it seems the 2020 lockdown and subsequent lack of river traffic creating chop on the water had a positive effect on grebe numbers.
‘The Duck’. If you ask someone to imagine a waterbird in the UK, there’s a high chance they’re going to think of the mallard. These are remarkably resilient and adaptable birds, being seen in large numbers wherever there is water in the UK. Be careful if you are walking along a towpath or a riverbank - mallards like to nest in depressions in the ground within walking distance (for a duck) of water. Nesting begins in March and from around April you will see female mallards with up to 12 chicks in tow. The breeding season lasts until July, so it’s not uncommon to still be seeing chicks in August. Male mallards can be distinguished by the iridescent feathers on their heads in the summer months. These can look purple or green depending on how the light catches them.
Black Headed Gulls
The most common gull in the UK, and much smaller than the herring or black-backed gulls seen mostly on the coast. Resident all year round, in the summer these birds will have dark brown/black heads, but this plumage is lost in the winter months. An incredibly adaptive species that can be found more or less anywhere inland where there is a body of water. Form very large flocks, and feed predominantly by skimming fish from the water. The success of these birds has had a negative effect on the common tern population as they compete for similar resources.
A true favourite of bird watchers on the Thames. Often seen as a lightning blue flash skimming the water out of the corner of your eye. These small birds have iridescent electric blue wings with rust red chests. A resident in the UK, but not overly numerous. On a trip with Active360 Richmond your best chance to see a kingfisher is on the Middlesex side of either Corporation or Glover’s Islands. If you want to see one from the front it’s best to approach sites quietly, otherwise you will spend a long time seeing the back of them flying away from you! They are best seen in the early morning where, if you are lucky, you will see them diving for minnows in the shallows.
Not likely to be seen over the water, but keep an eye on Terrace Field on Richmond Hill, or above Petersham Meadows. These small brownish birds of prey are identified by their ability to hover over their hunting grounds. Watch one for long enough and you’ll see them swoop down to trap small rodents or ground nesting birds.
A familiar sight on the water. Black with white bills and frontal shield on forehead, they are resident all year round, with numbers boosted by immigrants from Europe over winter. On a trip from Richmond you will see their nests on floating rafts near the river bank. The birds’ wide feet mean they are very efficient at spreading their weight and can ‘walk on water’ over floating leaves and twigs.
On the Thames at least, very similar in behaviour and habitat to the coot. They are slightly smaller and less plump than the coot, but their main distinguishing feature is their red beaks. Can often be heard rustling in the reed beds or in undergrowth near the riverbank. Along with grebes and coots, another bird that seems to have benefitted from the decrease in river traffic during the 2020 Lockdown. Look out for them on the Middlesex bank between Glover’s Island and Hammerton’s Ferry.
If you think that the mandarin looks a little too colourful for a duck from these isles, then you would be correct. These birds were introduced from China in the 1700s, but it is believed that the current wild populations are descended from 20th century escapees from private wildfowl collections.
Introduced to England in the 17th Century, these colourful geese are pinkish brown overall, with a white face and a dark patch around the eye. The most vibrant goose you will see out on the Thames, they are rarely seen in the UK away from Greater London and East Anglia. They form large flocks in late summer, and in the spring will breed in hollowed out tree trunks. One of the earliest birds to take their young out for a swim, you will see these cute chicks from April onwards.
Another introduced species, this is the most common goose in southern Britain and has been a regular on our shores for 300 years. Much less colourful than the Egyptian goose, they have a large brown body, black neck and white chinstrap. Will regularly be seen on our trips either in pairs or large flocks.
Often a cause of surprise to visitors from outside the south-east of England, these bright green and tropical looking small parrots can often appear incongruous in the suburbs of London. There are numerous theories as to how the birds arrived in the UK, including escapees from menageries, film sets, or even released by Jimi Hendrix himself! In the evening, look for the birds flying southwest towards Esher. It has the largest roost in the country, with 7000 birds staying there overnight.
These delicate, elegant birds can look like small gulls to the untrained eye, but they have sharper, more angular wings, a longer slender bill. These can visit the UK all summer but typically arrive in Richmond around May and leave in early August. Like many of our visitors they overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, making a journey of thousands of miles before deciding to stop on our patch of the Thames. Typically feed by skimming over water or occasionally diving for fish. Makes a distinctive ‘kee-arr’ sound!
Another extreme traveller, swifts spend their winters in the tropics but then head north for the summer months. They spend most of their life on the wing, even mating and sleeping in mid-air. Often confused for swallows, they lack the long tail ‘streamers’ of the swallow, with a stiff, pointed tail in flight. Can be seen flying very high above the trees with outstretched wings, but the best time to see them on the water is when they are skimming across the surface on a warm, wet, balmy summer evening!
Similar to swifts, but with a red face and pale underparts, the aforementioned tail streamers are the key identifier. The winner of the ‘furthest distance travelled’ award as they come to our reach all the way from southern Africa. More likely to be seen flying low over ground than the swift. You will see them from April to October either directly over the water or near cattle and fences in adjoining fields such as Petersham Meadow.