Hampstead Heath (known locally as "the Heath") is a large, ancient London park, covering 320 hectares (790 acres). It sits astride a sandy ridge, on a band of London clay. It is one of the highest points in London, rising to 134 metres (440 ft) above mean sea level, and has long been a popular place for Londoners to take the air. The view from Parliament Hill, in the south-east part of the Heath, is protected by law.
The Heath is rambling and hilly, with large grassy spaces, areas of scrub and ancient woodland. Its two stream valleys have been dammed to create a dozen large ponds, three of which are open-air public swimming pools. Elsewhere around the site are a number of smaller ponds. Major work, dredging, then re-landscaping the Boating Pond finished in 2017. This was both costly and controversial. From a birders pov it wasn't too bad - at the end there was more reedbed habitat and more marginal plants around the Boating Pond and the Men's Pond ( bulrush, marsh marigold etc)
The Heath includes the stately home of Kenwood and its estate. Other features are a lido, at Gospel Oak, several playgrounds and a training track on Parliament Hill Fields. And, at Golders Hill Park, animal enclosures, a butterfly house and a pond with a collection of exotic wildfowl.
The Heath is a Local Nature Reserve and a Site of Metropolitan Importance. One third of the Kenwood Estate is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (London's smallest).
It is mainly managed by the City of London Corporation, although the Kenwood Estate is the responsibility of English Heritage. The site lies within the London Borough of Camden, except for the Hampstead Heath Extension, and Golders Hill Park, which both come under Barnet.
Both Golders Hill Park and Kenwood are fenced in, and closed at nights. Otherwise the Heath is accessible round the clock.
How to get there[edit | edit source]
Access to the Heath is generally unrestricted and travel to the area is facilitated by Tube stations at Highgate, Hampstead and Golders Green (all on the Northern Line, each just a c.10-minute walk from the Heath itself). On the North London overland railway, there is the Hampstead Heath Station, which as the name suggests, stops close to the Heath (in South End Green, right next to the Heath's southwest corner) and Gospel Oak, next to the Lido at the south of the Heath.
South End Green is also served by bus routes 24, 46, 168, 268, C11 and N5. Route 210 passes along Spaniards Road, which crosses through the northern part of the site (as does the school-run 603, with just two buses each way in the morning and two in the afternoon). Route 214 passes close to the east side of the Heath and the 88 terminates at Parliament Hill Fields.
This is a surprisingly large area of open fields, hills, and deciduous woodland - with substantial oak and beech, but also significant hornbeam and birch. At the northern end and around Kenwood there are quite dense areas of rhododendron and holly. There are two chains of relatively small ponds/old reservoirs - the Highgate chain and the Hampstead chain. In 2015-17 the ponds were quite extensively re-landscaped to strengthen their dams, and given large oxygenating pumps. Active management by the Corporation of London has significantly improved both the grassland and the variety of mature deciduous woodland. For example more dead wood is left standing as it is colonised by numerous fungi and as roosting/ nesting sites by birds and bats. Fallen trees are sawn up and left rather than "tidied up".
Because the site is so close to the heart of London, it attracts a lot of people, especially at weekends. If you are intending some birding, it's therefore wise to arrive at - or even before, dawn. Birds are easily disturbed by walkers (human or canine!). This is especially true during periods of passage, as some shyer species may decide it is too busy for them and promptly vanish.
Although the site is large, it gets surprisingly little coverage, especially the Heath extension. (Bill Oddie used to state that it is his local patch, but to be fair, he lives very close). Visit and sighting reports on "Londonbirders" are very strongly encouraged.
What to look for[edit | edit source]
The days of breeding Yellowhammers and Linnets are sadly no more, but Red-backed Shrikes, Dartford Warbler and even a Stone Curlew have been seen on passage in recent years. Because of its elevation, Parliament Hill is a great place to observe visible migration, especially early in the morning, with birds of prey including Hobby, Common Buzzard, Red Kite and Osprey all possible, well as numerous passerines. In addition, isolated bushes, and the hedgerows leading away from it, are probably the best and easiest-worked areas for warblers, chats and flycatchers. (Very) occasionally, something really outstanding will pop up such as Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Little Bittern and Alpine Swift, all of which were 'good birds' not just for the site but nationally.
In terms of commoner species, the Heath is an ideal place to see Nuthatch, Treecreeper and the two larger Woodpeckers year round. Confirmed reports of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker are now extremely scarce. Goldfinches and Chaffinches are easy to see at any time, especially in October when hundreds may be seen migrating over Parliament Hill. Greenfinches are slowly creeping back up in numbers after their recent crash in numbers. Bullfinches are a good find on any day. Proactive management of habitat surrounding the ponds has produced breeding Kingfishers, and newly planted reed beds have encouraged Reed Warblers to breed. Sedge Warblers and Garden Warblers also pass through, and in 2018 Cetti's Warbler.
Water Rails are present each winter and in February 2012, a Bittern dropped in. Recent winters have seen Teal, Wigeon and Goosander join the more frequent Gadwall and Shoveler. Early on in the year is also best for Woodcock, which may be present in quite high numbers, especially in the less disturbed areas of Kenwood and West Heath. Lapwing, Snipe and Golden Plover are less commonly seen - usually as flyovers, except after snow when they are much more likely. In winter the alders around the Sanctuary Pond and the birches in Kenwood are refuges for Siskins and Redpolls. As elsewhere, passage can be hit or miss, but Redstart, Whinchat, Wheatear, Spotted Flycatcher, Yellow Wagtail or even Cuckoo can all be seen on a good day.
In the past decade, Ring-necked Parakeets, have shown an almost alarming explosion, especially on the Highgate side. Non-birders are often surprised to learn not only of their presence, but also exactly how many there are.
A lack of any large expanses of water - or even muddy margins doesn't help the patch lister. Waders are particularly sought after and seldom remain long wherever they turn up. However, a "normal" year could easily reach 70+ species - perhaps 90+ for the particularly diligent (or fortunate).
Where to go[edit | edit source]
Even if you know the Heath, it will take a good half day to cover it well, and it is better to concentrate on one of its three major constituent parts:
- East Heath. This is the main part of the Heath and includes Kenwood, Parliament Hill and all the large ponds. It is by far the largest area, with the most varied habitat, including 10 ponds in two separate chains, dense woods and open grassland. Kenwood, with 2 additional ponds and an area of bog, is to the north. As well as the opportunities for viz mig from around the top of Parliament Hill itself, there are three long lines of trees and bushes running (roughly) E-W; the first is just below the brow of the Hill, facing London, the other two now include some very mature trees but, for reasons of birding tradition, are usually referred to as "No1/2/3 Hedge", numbering from South to North. These are some of the most productive areas to search for passage birds, esepcially warblers and flycatchers etc.
- West Heath. This includes Golders Hill Park, and is best accessed from Golders Green. Apart from the park, it is largely deciduous woodland, with a lot of mature birch and related bog. Please note that for years the West Heath has been used by gay men as a place to pick up others with the same tastes. For this reason, it should be avoided at dusk in the summer if you wish to avoid a potentially embarrassing encounter. (It is a relatively small area and not exciting ornithologically, so can easily be left out of your visit).
- Sandy Heath and Hampstead Heath Extension. Again, with quickest access from Golders Green, this is the smallest area, but it includes some surprisingly productive small ponds and tree lines between the playing fields.
For further reading we must mention 'Where to watch birds in the London area' by Dominic Mitchell which covers the site more thoroughly than we do here. The Heath is also the subject of an ongoing survey by the LNHS who (along with the Marylebone Birdwatching Society and the Heath & Hampstead Society) regularly have field meetings visiting the Heath for those who might find an initial solo visit slightly intimidating.
Paul White/ Sash Tusa / Pete Mantle