About the author of this page Dave is a local birder with almost 40 years’ experience who often leads groups of people with an interest in birdwatching on walks at sites around south-east London. Walking with Dave is an education because of his ability to recognise a huge variety of bird calls and to associate species with habitat and terrain. He’s been kind enough to write this page for Kent Walks Near London about the birdlife where these walks take place – in the Darent Valley, around Downe, and on the greensand ridge near Sevenoaks. Dave prefers to remain anonymous, not because he features regularly on Crimewatch or supports West Ham Utd, but through perfectly legitimate reasons too tiresome to bore you with
Quite apart from relaxation, fresh air, history and greenery, these walks give us a fantastic chance to open our eyes and ears to a wonderful range of birds.
The reason so many species make this part of west Kent their home, whether breeding, wintering or just passing though, is the diversity of habitats in the area. The underlying geology – chalk, greensands (a strain of sandstone from the mid-cretaceous epoch) and clays – has influenced local land use over the centuries and the walks take you through fields of arable farming, sheep grazing, grasslands with wild flowers (such as at the Kent Wildlife Trust reserve at Fackenham Down, Shoreham), ancient and modern woodlands, Knole’s open parkland, water meadows by the Darent river, escarpment ridges, orchards, copses and old hedgerows. Such a mosaic of habitats means you are never very far from a range of interesting birds.
Perhaps what is most remarkable is how a slowly changing landscape, essentially medieval in origin and layout, provides the backdrop to such a dynamic mix of bird species and fluctuating populations. For instance, every walk is an opportunity to see buzzards wheeling overhead, yet 20 years ago this species was rarely recorded in London or Kent, let alone breeding near Ide Hill and Shoreham. Similarly, a winter walk by the Darent might reveal a dazzling white little egret, a species recently colonising Britain from southern Europe (one can often be seen from the main bridge in Shoreham village). Yet those species which colonised Britain’s first woodlands thousands of years ago, such as nuthatch, great spotted woodpeckers, goldcrests and chaffinches are still all here today and may be found with many other species where a walk goes through ancient woodlands of oak, beech and ash and stands of pine.
Ancient woodland: is it really that old? And why’s it so special?
Ancient woodland, defined either as “ancient semi-natural woodland” or “ancient replanted woodland” is a key landscape feature of many of the walks. Although hardly primeval forests (!) these woods are pretty old and both indicate continuous wooded cover since at least 1600 and possibly much earlier.
Ancient semi-natural woodland has mainly deciduous, native trees but will have been heavily managed (for example, by coppicing). It retains a complex native woodland ecosystem hundreds of years in the making. Ancient semi-natural woods at Downe, One Tree Hill and near Igtham have oaks and stands of beech and yew and patches of thick shrub layers below the tree canopy. These woods have an aura of mystery about them: in the spring and summer blackcaps seem to warble from every direction, with something approaching nightingale quality – although no one has ever written an ode to them. Blackbirds also sing brightly from these woods – but you might notice that they are much more shy than the confident birds in gardens and parks.
In ancient replanted woodland the original tree cover has been replaced or supplemented with newer plantings (although these may still be from the 19th century or after the first world war) and often includes non-native species (such as conifers). They sometimes have a more planned and regular appearance, although many plant species found in ancient woodland remain. Walks at Ide Hill, and on sections of the Otford-Romney Street-Shoreham route cross ARW. Here, walkers might hear the frantic squawks and yelps of jays as sparrowhawks whip through the trees and woodland edges, or hear coal tits singing high in the pines. All ancient woodland types are very important for birds and some naturalists believe a richer range of bird species exist precisely because of human interference in this habitat over the centuries. Much of the woodland around Sevenoaks, Orpington and Bromley took the brunt of the 1987 hurricane and on all the walks you can see the remains of felled trees from that wild October night. Green woodpeckers are among species that have thrived (unexpectedly) among the suddenly created glades and rotting wood of the aftermath.
Rise and fall of species
The Kent Ornithological Society (KOS) bird atlases provide a fascinating picture of loss and gain over almost 50 years. Only a few years ago the Shoreham Circular walk would reveal turtle doves “purring” in spinneys and wild hedgerows but this species’ steep decline, like that of spotted flycatcher and grey partridge suggests they have all but gone from the area. But have they? Luck, weather and timing might still give walkers glimpses of the past, with recent sightings of turtle dove at Shoreham and spotted flycatchers at Igtham Mote and redstarts in the gnarled oaks of Sevenoaks’ Knole Park.
The atlases and personal sightings from other walkers give a great insight to the birds of the area – 70+ species regularly use the area with 40+ regularly breeding. These include skylarks (very prevalent at Lullingstone and throughout the Darent Valley), whitethroats from Africa, bullfinches and yellowhammers (the latter often seen among fields and hedgerows around Downe and Shoreham and Otford), while a bit of luck might mean wintering finches such as siskins and bramblings – alder trees (often encountered along the Darent) might hold the former and beech the latter. Different times of day pay dividends too – try a dusk walk at Ide Hill for woodcock, or One Tree Hill, Knole and Underriver for tawny owl and little owl. The woods between Hill Hoath and Wilderness Farm on the Hever circular walk are particularly species rich. The grassland and disused golf course on walk 14, east of Shoreham, is also great habitat. Sadly, it is a long time since I saw a greenfinch on any of the walks. A once common bird that’s increasingly rare because of disease.
Whichever walks you take you’re sure to see or hear something that reflects the local landscape, and don’t forget the big skies and long views too – and the chance to marvel at long-range migrant swallows and house martins, finches, fieldfares and redwings passing by overhead in the autumn. Perhaps you might get really lucky? A red kite at Otford and crossbills flying over Romney Street have been two particularly special recent migrant sightings in the area.
Whatever birds you encounter make sure you enjoy them and, if you get the chance, let others know what you’ve seen. The more birds and wildlife we discover on these walks the richer they become and will help us all enjoy and value this marvellous countryside so close to London.
Want to know more?
A fascinating database of habitats is maintained by NaturalEngland – try the MAGIC site and zoom in on west Kent for some very detailed maps giving specific descriptions of terrain types (who knew that Knole Park was rare ‘lowland dry acid grassland‘?). Paul Morrison’s Bird Habitats of Great Britain and Ireland: a new approach to birdwatching, although a little dated, is also a good introduction to the subject, as is Rob Fuller’s Bird Habitats in Britain. For more information on ancient woodland visit the Woodland Trust.
You can also find out more about the birds of the Kent/London borders by visiting the Kent Wildlife Trust, Kent Ornithological Society and London Natural History (London Birdclub) websites, where you can also look for recent bird sightings or report your own. The KOS sightings site for Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve is one of many offering recent, sometimes daily sightings.
Adam’s five personal favourite sitings on these walks
Black redstart – with Dave’s help that one, in Knole.
Tawny owl – I never usually see them, although they aren’t rare, but saw two together at Knole Park, one at One Tree Hill and one on the woodland fringe near the final field of the Downe circular – all in 2016. Very often heard in most of the woodland on these walks around dusk.
Woodcock – on the Eynsford/Lullingstone route. It flew up from grassland a few feet ahead of me and my sons and circled us for a minute, somewhat haphazardly.
Crossbills – with Dave’s help near Romney Street; several flew overhead, September
Buzzards – not rare, but I’ve got very close to a pair of these gorgeous birds at Point 2 on Walk 14 (Shoreham east). Buzzards can be seen on all the walks. Polhill and Meenfield woods is good for them particularly, as is Fackenden Down where they enjoy the rising thermals.
My all-time favourite bird sighting was not on these walks but near Brockley train station, on the pedestrian bridge in 2014, when a red kite glided a few feet over my head.
I’ve also experienced a sparrowhawk swooping so close to my head that I sensed the disturbed airflow around my ear before seeing it. A small flock of sparrows was its intended prey. They got away, escaping into a bush. This was not in the countryside but in Bell Green, Lower Sydenham!
Short-eared owl – another from Romney Street where there are many fallow fields as I write in early 2019. This bird was hunting low over the rewilding meadows in early February. On the same walk, the Fackenden Down route, we heard linnets and goldcrests (we were hoping for a firecrest) and saw bullfinches and coal tits.
Red kite – on the Downe cycle at Grays Rd; very low.
Yellowhammer – on the Pilgrims’ Way road, just south of the chalk escarpment between Biggin Hill and Brasted.
Kent Wildlife Trust reserves close to or on the walks on this site
- Bough Beech
- Downe Bank
- Fackenden Down
- Hewitt’s Chalk Bank
- Kemsing Down
- Ivy Hatch
- Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve
- The Warren (nr St Mary Cray)
- Also worth a visit is the excellent High Elms Country Park visitor centre near Downe and Orpington on the site of John Lubbock’s (friend of Darwin’s) old house
Birds on the walks: autumn and winter 2016-17 update (by Dave)
The birds found on in the vicinity of over the autumn and winter were an exciting and interesting mix, and it goes to show just what you might find, or what might find you on one of these strolls.
Although birds in woodland in the summer are not always easy to see, with many moulting and keeping a low profile, by autumn many adult and juvenile birds are on the move and there is every chance of running into small flocks of finches and tits. As the autumn of 2016 progressed, and the trees lost their leaves woodpeckers, nuthatches and treecreepers became more obvious, and the tiniest European birds – the Goldcrest and the much rarer Firecrest – were all encountered. These usually give themselves away by their thin, short high-pitched calls, so high pitched in fact as to be a challenge for more elderly ears, and numerous goldcrests and the odd firecrest were noted on Petts Wood and Chistlehurst walks. Goldcrests will nest in conifers in the spring, so when walking in Ide Hill, Knole Park and Downe listen out for these minute birds singing their short tinkling song, almost imperceptibly from the dark pines.
Many goldcrests and most firecrests are migrants, and among those departing or arriving in our walks area this autumn were swallows and house martins, with wheatears and even a hen harrier at Otford, and a woodcock at Petts Wood. Later in the autumn buzzards, meadow pipits, skylarks and grey wagtails were all encountered, many of them European birds. Some species were pretty thin on the ground however – if anyone caught up with redpolls or siskins along the river Darent on the Lullingstone walks let Adam know (editor – no need, I saw siskins there!).
Much commoner and obvious were migrant winter thrushes – fieldfares and redwings. Most will be heading back to Scandinavia by April but there were redwing flocks of 200+ at Chislehurst and 500+ at Petts Wood, while big flocks of fieldfares were noted near One Tree Hill, where two marsh tits were also seen.
Looking ahead – spring and summer
Spring and early summer provide lots of opportunities to see and hear many birds on the walks, with resident species joined by summer migrants. Look out for swallows zipping through the valleys at Shoreham –last year’s survivors back from southern Africa – as well as swifts over Downe, and perhaps, if you’re very lucky, turtle doves around Romney Street. And because the birds are in full song listen out for the bright warble of the blackcap coming from woodland walks, as well as the chiffchaff’s metallic, echoey zip-zap, zip-zap (or ‘chiff chaff, chiff chaff’) from the tops of the trees. Both these summer migrant warblers are quite common but although the songsters can probably see you, you will struggle to see them among the leaves.
A few walks, including those around Romney Street, Eynsford and Shoreham might see you bumping into yellowhammers, a species declining in the UK. These canary-yellow birds about size of a sparrow have a famous nasal-toned song, often transcribed as “A little bit o’bread and no cheese” with a wheeze on the “cheese”! So, your best bet of finding one of these is around lunchtime and not too far from one of the local pubs.
Want to know more? Check out the RSPB and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) website sites for information on different species, and the xeno-canto.org site for songs. Bird sightings from the Kent Walks near London area sometimes feature on the Kent Ornithological Society and London Bird Club wiki news websites.
What birds have you seen or hear on the Kent walks near London? Don’t forget to comment and let everyone know. Also, you can go to the Facebook page for this site and share your bird sightings there.
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