There is a nip in the air and gusts are shaking the trees awake. The morning sun is hidden behind an overcast sky, its sullen grey mirrored by the lake stretched out before me. As I scan the Serpentine’s waters, something familiar catches my eye: a rufous-and-cream bird, with its mating-season feathered ruff around its head, surfing the lake, preening its feathers.
“A great crested grebe,” I squeal with excitement. The stunning red-eyed bird has eluded me for a year, ever since I first set eyes on it. It would pop up on my camera viewfinder out of nowhere, quickly dive underwater and resurface somewhere further off, only to disappear again. Finding food was its priority. Paparazzi can wait. Well, not today.
When the grebe finishes grooming it swims in a frenzy, as if looking for something—there’s another nearby. The two swim towards each other and, before I know it, erupt into a courtship dance. They drift away and come back, and fervently shake their heads—crests raised and frills spread out. Then one dives under, emerging with its dagger-like bill full of pondweed. But it gets rid of the weed soon and dives again. This time the other grebe follows, and both resurface with their beaks full. They shake and bob their ruff-lined heads, paddle rapidly and hoist themselves up—bellies visible above the surface—with gifts of weed dangling from their beaks. This impressive mating display, aptly called a ‘weed dance,’ is a sight to behold. What is even more incredible is the fact that these birds survive today in urban lakes such as the Serpentine, after having bounced back from near-extinction in the 19th century.
Not far from bustling Oxford Street, the Serpentine snakes through Hyde Park, a 142-hectare swathe of green smack in the heart of London. The lake is a lifeline for people and wildlife alike. Fish swim in its murky waters, and thanks to a fresh supply of food, herons nest on a wooded island in its midst. Grey squirrels scurry up and down the trees that hug the lake and rabbits munch on the untrodden grass on its banks. In spring and summer, tourists with suitcases in tow enjoy a boat ride on the lake. Sun-deprived locals bask on the wildflower meadows overlooking the lake, a stretch of which is open for swimming alongside swans, mallards and geese. Children learn to skate and ride a horse on the path that runs along its north bank while joggers and dog walkers flock here year-round.
Few pause to notice the grebes, which have now parted ways and are probably searching for a suitable place to nest. Most sites are taken. Swans and coots have already laid claim to the reed beds. So, the grebes keep looking. I leave them be and make a pit stop at one of the cafés by the lake. A battle between two coots breaks out outside. They are attacking each other, splashing water everywhere. A starling in its iridescent breeding plumage hops from table to table in the outdoor dining area, looking for crumbs, while parent coots with seven hungry mouths to feed scramble for food. Hyde Park’s urban wildlife, tame as it may be, seems to be doing well.
The distinctive rapid drumming of a woodpecker rings through the chestnuts, sycamores and willows, inviting me deeper into the woods. I am an hour away from Hyde Park, at east London’s Wanstead Park. The 48-hectare woodland is part of Epping Forest, which extends all the way up to the town of Epping in Essex in the north. The prospect of seeing a woodpecker distracts me from the Eurasian jay that’s perched on a branch overhead. I choose to follow the woodpecker’s drumming over the moustached and more colourful cousin of the crow that I am seeing for the first time. As I make my way through a path where deadwood is dotted with withering fungi, the drumming gets louder, and then stops abruptly. From a clearing, I see a small bird spiral up a leafless tree in the distance, and zoom in with my binoculars. There it is—black, white and red plumage gleaming in the spring light—a great spotted woodpecker, one of three found in the U.K.
Early spring is the perfect time to see these colourful drummers. The trees are barren; their new leaves still snuggled up inside buds, waiting out the cold and giving away any visitors. I spot two more great spotted before I head to Chalet Wood, a shaded area in Wanstead where a sea of bluebells awaits me. To get to the flowers blooming on the forest floor, I cut through an open patch. The last leg of this grassland is overrun with nests of the yellow meadow ants. As I inch closer, two green woodpeckers flush out of the grass covering the ant nests. The birds were probably feeding on the ants when I unwittingly spooked them.
To the southwest of London, a two-hour drive from Wanstead, is Richmond Park—a wildlife sanctuary that promises sightings of wild fallow and red deer. After meandering through the undulating grassland, and a brief encounter with a fallow deer that ran for its life on seeing me, I chance upon an undergrowth of bracken. Sticking out from the fresh green scrub are several antlers and under the massive antlers, pairs of beady eyes peek at the visitors walking past.
When the red deer rise up, I am petrified to be in the presence of the U.K.’s largest land mammal, not to mention the branched antlers. But the grazers then bring some much-needed comic relief: a few have bracken tangled in their antlers, running down their face like unruly tresses.
It might look funny to the human eye but the tangle of vegetation makes a stag appear bigger to his competitors, especially in autumn. With the turning of the leaves, stags battle it out for a harem of females in an annual mating period known as a rut. It isn’t rut season yet but two stags start a fight nonetheless, butting their heads. The sound of their antlers crashing can be heard from afar—and distance one must keep, even during a play fight.
London’s green cover, be it an ancient woodland in the east or a deer sanctuary in the west, supports an array of wildlife. It is only fitting that a city that appreciates the value of its green spaces—for both people and wildlife—is about to become the world’s first National Park City this summer.
The parks are well-connected by public transport. To plan your commute, visit tfl.gov.uk
Richa Malhotra writes about the weird and wonderful life we share our planet with. When not writing about tear-drinking moths, head-hunting flies and dental-flossing monkeys, she can be found sipping tea and watching birds.