I visited the London Wetland Centre with a friend last week. I hadn’t been there for a proper visit for ages and it’s astonishing how much everything has grown since it was first opened in 2000. Walking along some of the paths, lined with tall willows and dogwoods, the grassy verges liberally sprinkled with ox eye daisies, it’s very hard to remember that you are near the centre of one of the world’s busiest cities. The paths wind about in all directions and are thoroughly disorienting. The outside world was left far behind by the time we reached the three storey bird hide that overlooks the large expanse of water at the heart of the site.
We climbed to the top floor (there is a lift) to have a good view of the habitats that have been created for many different kinds of water birds. The Wetland Centre is justifiably very proud of the many and varied birds which visit but my experience was unexpected and about more than simply spotting birds.
Silence is the rule inside the hide in order not to disturb the birds. As we opened the windows that frame the views we felt the breeze on our faces and heard the sound of the birds in the water, on the shore, and in the sky. We had arrived in another world. A place to ‘be’ and to watch whatever happens.
At first everything seemed quite tranquil. We spotted a family of coots, the fluffy chicks with bright red heads. Mum and Dad were busy collecting food for them and making sure they didn’t venture too far out from the reeds into the open water. It didn’t take long to work out why they were being so protective. The first sign was the flash of black and white in the distance as a pair of lapwings danced frantically about, leaping and swooping at something. They were mobbing a heron that was clearly too close to their nest. They were very determined and eventually the heron gave up and flew away.
Several minutes later I was able to admire two herons in magnificent flight just in front of the hide. They landed near a large patch of yellow flag irises, at which point all hell broke loose. A couple of rather small moorhens, wings curved out and backwards to maximise their ferocity, and uttering blood curdling shrieks, literally hurled themselves at the breasts of the very much larger arrivals. The herons backed off but then stealthily crept back, all elegant haughtiness, lifting their feet high and carefully placing them back down again, keeping their eyes and lethal beaks firmly fixed on some point ahead of them, ready to pounce. The moorhens flew back into the attack, so small and so brave! And so it went on. I was immersed in the drama and lost track of time for at least 10 minutes until once again the herons gave up.
When I came out of the hide I felt as if I had been very far away. The world of those birds, with all its drama, goes on in parallel to ours and very close to ours. The birds are oblivious to us and have no idea that they are in the middle of London. They just carry on doing what birds do. I find that immensely comforting; to know that the natural world continues regardless of us, that I can visit other worlds where human concerns do not predominate, find excitement and interest there and be refreshed.