WATER BIRDS AND LONDON’S ASPHALT
London is a city of traffic, bricks, and hidden treasures. My travel buddy Kate and I recently found the Rosetta Stone and other wonders in the British Museum, and our host drove us past the cemetery where Karl Marx spends eternity. We could have attended a free Elvis Costello/ Ray Davies concert except for time constraints. Our favorite discovery by far was London Wetlands Center.
It was odd, looking over the Marsh to South London’s brick buildings. ”Who made that whistling sound?” Kate exclaimed, jerking her brown haired head around to find the musician.
“It wasn’t the moorhens,” I replied. One of these chubby, black water bird waddled over to a fluffy, adolescent looking chick who squawked and clicked its beak against the adult bird’s, begging for a mouthful of water plants. The parent retreated then darted its sharp head towards the youngster, hissing.
“That’s a lousy mommy,” Kate quipped.
“Maybe she’s trying to get the chick to start foraging for itself,” I reply. “She might think it’s getting big and spoiled. Hey, did that black swan whistle?”
“Nope,” Kate said. “The field guide calls it a ‘mute swan’. Notice the red beak. Hey, it was that blue footed duck!”
The fulvous whistling duck strutted past us, whistling again, and flashed its orange/tan chest. Swifts and sand martins zipped over the marsh, changing direction every third second. Gray herons stalked their prey through tall, olive green reeds. Green headed mallard ducks were the only species we recognized, reminding us that we were still on our home planet.
THE CENTRE’S ORIGIN
Sir Peter Scott, who founded Britain’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in 1947, dreamed of an urban wetland that would be accessible to Londoners and travelers. The only child of Antarctic explorer Robert Scott and sculptor Kathleen Scott, he was part of England’s long tradition of naturalists. He wrote over thirty books, was a world traveler, and was a champion skater and glider pilot.
The London Wetlands Center is a 53 hectare series of constructed pools, marshes, lakes, reed beds, and wet fen marshes. A series of sluice gates connect these water bodies, and control the water flow from and back to the Thames. WWT focused an old reservoir in London’s Barnes district in 1989, shortly before Scott’s death. Negotiations with other agencies led to an agreement to use this site, and workers began to drain the reservoir in 1995. Clay at the reservoir’s bottom gathered and held water to greet arriving birds.
Old concrete blocks were used to mimic reefs for nesting fish; others were crushed and recycled to line paths and provide a base for grasslands. By 1997, volunteers were planting 300,000 aquatic plants, 250,000 shrubs and flowers such as southern marsh orchid. Sir David Attenborough spoke at the Center’s opening in 2000. He stated that the Center was the ideal example of how humans and nature “could live together in the 21st century.”
We began our visit at the Visitor’s Center, which offered a range of exhibits about wetland ecology. My favorite was a computer based presentation about the range of living things in marshes. Projectors shone images of insect larvae, aquatic worms, and other small creatures scurrying across the floor. “Look out, fish!” Kate gasped, and pointed at a model of a heron’s head, poking its long beak through a pane of glass that mimicked the water’s skin.
A trail from the visitor’s center took us to a series of created marshes that copied wetlands in many parts of the world. “After all our travels, we finally made it to Hawaii!” I laughed as we watched Hawaiian geese, also known as ney-neys waddle through their London habitat. These Canada goose sized birds, with black faces and bodies covered with barred gray and black feathers were once common on all the islands. Now they are considered the world’s sixth most endangered waterfowl species.
Predation by introduced pigs, mongooses, rats, and dogs have shrunk their populations. Loss of the native plants they eat and collisions with cars contribute to their being limited to Kauai and Maui. Sir Peter Scott’s captive breeding program at the Wetlands Center is one factor that has saved them from extinction.
This is only one of many captive breeding initiatives WWT maintains. Spoon billed sandpipers‘s populations have shrunk to fewer than 100 breeding pairs. These unique shore birds use their scoop shaped beaks to gather and shovel invertebrates from coastal regions. They breed on Eastern Russia’s harsh coast, and migrate 8,000 miles to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Illegal hunting kills many young birds before they can leave Russia. Others are caught in nets as they approach their southern range.
Conservationists work with local populations on the birds ‘range, encouraging them to respect these small travelers. WWT scientists work with Russian scientists to gather each breeding pair’s first eggs each season. The scientists raise the young from these eggs. Their disappearance encourages breeding pairs to lay a second brood. This policy has been successful; one breeding pair recently produced six healthy youngsters, which is six times the average survival rate. WWT also maintains a captive breeding program at the Slimbridge Centre in Gloucestershire to ensure the species’ long-term survival.
REACHING THE PUBLIC
Wetlands have been unappreciated habitats in many areas. Communities in the United States have historically seen them as good spots for landfills. Others have paved them as sites for shopping malls or housing developments. Educators and activists work hard to show that wetlands are vital habitats for many species. They also filter pollution from flowing groundwater, along with providing other benefits.
Carolyn Roberts, WWT’s Learning Advisor, describes the organization’s efforts to educate students about British wetlands. She says, “In terms of young people’s opinions of wetlands, we work with a wide range of schools, some coming from very urban environments, others from more rural settings. As a result, their awareness of wetlands varies greatly – some schools visit with little or no awareness and limited opinion. Others have started to explore wetlands as a habitat and generally feel positive towards them, largely influenced by the animals that live in wetlands, particularly otters!”
Asian short clawed otters are the smallest of the world’s 13 otter species. Natives of India, the Philippines, and China, they burrow near rivers and feed on a range of aquatic animals. While they are not listed as endangered, pollution, hunting and habitat loss impact on their populations. They are social mammals, living in family groups. Their diurnal habits make them easier to observe than England’s native otters. We watched them from a dock where adults and children stood and pointed at each swimming mammal as they feasted on fish.
We left the worldwide wetlands section, and wandered through reconstructed British wetlands. We listened unsuccessfully for splashes that would announce the presence of water voles. These large swimming rodents are Britain’s most quickly declining mammal species. Habitat loss and the introduction of predatory American minks. They have furry tails, unlike rats, mice, and muskrats. Piles of chewed grass and other plants often show the location of their river burrows. We were sorry not to see them, but appreciated the Center for preserving a population.
We regretted missing the Summer Wetlands Festival, collaboration between the London Center’s educators and the BBC. Guests helped staff with a wildlife survey, and heard BBC journalists interview naturalists. Youngsters heard stories and made bird
crafts. Adults and kids joined wetlands walks and explored sustainable gardens, hearing how they could attract wildlife to their own patches of the earth.
The Center’s preschool classes include a challenge where children discover the process of building a nest by making their own. They use their ears and audio equipment to consider the sounds of a wetland, and try to decide which animal produced each call. School aged students work with dip nets and underwater cameras to discover marsh invertebrates. . Another class for older kids encourages them to dress like birds to mimic their body structure, feeding strategies, and adaptations to the wetland.
“Our education programme continues to be popular with schools, “Carolyn Robertson said. “We’ve been delivering a schools service since WWT was founded in the 1940’s. Since then over 2.2 million learners have visited us for a learning session (on average around 50,000 school children each year). Our most popular session by far is pond dipping as this really brings to life science topics including adaptations, life-cycles, ecosystems etc. which teachers otherwise find difficult to bring to life in a classroom setting.”
She continued, “As an organization we’re in the process of modernizing our education service, trying to move away from prescriptive, ‘traditional’ learning experiences where we might have ‘told’ learners about the value of wetlands and why they’re important. Now we want to act more as facilitators and allow learners to discover for themselves the value of wetlands through more learner led activities. This may involve, for example, providing basic kit for learners to carry out water quality experiments to help them understand the functional role of wetlands, or providing learners with listening equipment to enhance their sensory experiences in wetlands hopefully leading to emotional connections.
“We’re still finding our feet with this learner-led approach, but feel it’s important to give learners more cognitive space and greater opportunity to connect and understand wetlands in a way that’s relevant to them, particularly in the context of them building positive opinions about wetlands.”
EXPLORING BRITISH WETLANDS
“Look at that moth! It is wearing a mask!” Kate pointed at a cream colored moth, streaked moth. It’s called a Mother Shipton moth since many observers think it resembles a thirteenth century sorceress’ face. Blue tailed dragonflies and hairy dragonflies dodged swifts and swallows while white veined butterflies drifted past. We didn’t find any crab spiders; a small sign told us that they are camouflaged on leaves and flowers. Some species can change colors as they move among backgrounds.
“Those moorhens are insane!” Kate exclaimed. Two males grabbed each other by their long, lobed toes; each tried to push his opponent under the water. The victor would be able to nest in this area, while chasing the loser to another place.
“I’ve seen coots do that in the States, and these birds are close relatives,” I said. A European coot, with an ivory beak that extended from high on its forehead quietly swam by. Shovelers, who have not nested at the Center before this summer swam past with their ducklings, joined by gadwalls and their young. None of these birds seemed concerned with the moorhen fight.
We found ourselves at the Center’s sand martin bank. These small relatives of swifts and swallows burrow into mud banks near rivers and wetlands. Loss of habitat has impacted on their populations. The Center maintains this shelter they use in winter and spring before migrating to Africa in September.
Our destination was the Peacock Tower, a two story bird watching blind. The windows faced all directions, over the wetland and towards the brick buildings beyond. Lapwings streaked over the building like biplanes and wobbled as they moved towards landing in the water. These birds, also called Pee-wits because of their calls, protect their young in chilly weather by wrapping them in their feathers. Gray herons on long spindly legs wandered in and out of the shore plants.
“We’ve found one of London’s treasures,” Kate said. We missed the Tower and Buckingham Palace, but discovered this parallel world.