Birds of Norwood in 1933 by J A Wright

In his Gossip on the Wild Birds of the Norwood and Crystal Palace District (see Norwood Review No. 40, Spring 1970), William Aldridge discusses his observation of 51 different species within the area. His pamphlet is useful and engaging, but probably only partially accurate: he was a Norwood rambler first and a Norwood ornithologist second.

Almost 50 years later, F.G.Swayne had a far more systematic survey of the Birds of the Norwood District published in the London Naturalist for 1933. Swayne spent at least seven years recording the distribution and status of the birds of an area which extends from Streatham Common east to Crystal Palace Park and from South Norwood Sewage Farm north to Brockwell Parl.

It is clear from his article that Swayne found the Sewage Farm at South Norwood the most rewarding bird habitat. He regularly saw rooks and jackdaws feeding at the refuse heaps there. He also noticed flocks of tree sparrows (much less common than house sparrows), meadow pipits and occasionally goldfinches. Apparently, the Sewage Farm was then also the breeding place of read buntings, pied, grey and yellow wagtails, kestrels and lapwings, as well as several more common species.

Swallows and house-martins, common in Aldridge’s day, Swayne records as much scarcer as breeding residents. The paving of roads to cope with increased traffic had resulted in a shortage of mud for nest-building. Neither of these birds nests in Norwood now, of course, though they may be seen in passage in Spring and Autumn.

Eight other summer migrants to Britain – the spotted flycatcher, the chiffchaff, the willow warbler, the whitethroat, the lesser whitethroat, the Blackcap, the wood warbler and the garden warbler, were still common in Norwood in 1933, and bred in woodlands and large gardens. Now, however, though they may breed in small numbers at South Norwood Sewage Farm, Streatham Common and Beaulieu Heights, they are seen, as a rule, only as uncommon passage migrants. Other birds to have disappeared as nesters since Swayne’s time are the rook (there was a rookery of 13 nests near Anerley Station in 1930), the skylark – unless the odd pair still rears young at the Sewage Farm – the reed bunting, the marsh tit, the goldcrest, the green and lesser spotted woodpeckers, the cuckoo, the little grebe (a pair probably bred at South Norwood Lake in 1933), the turtle dove and the lapwing.

Winter Visitors 

Black-headed gulls, which Aldridge never recorded, Swayne notes as increasing winter visitors to the district. He also records, as winter visitors, common gulls, in small numbers to South Norwood Lake, and, surprisingly, herring gulls in large numbers. Today, black-headed gulls and common gulls are both regular winter visitors, in large and small numbers respectively, but herring gulls are extremely rare. 

In the winter months, Swayne could also expect to see plenty of redwings (in January, 1934, he noted a flock of 20 or 30 on the cricket grounds of Norwood Sports Club), but only a few fieldfares. Both these handsome members of the thrush family are winter visitors from Scandinavia. Aldridge recorded them as relatively common in winter, but they have clearly diminished and today neither species commonly settles at Norwood.

Duck seem to have fared rather better. However, Aldridge only recorded mallard, but Swayne, while noting the abundance of this species in winter and summer, was also able to note pochard, tufted duck and, less regularly, shoveler in winter.

Kingfishers and Nightingales

Of the more exotic species, a kingfisher would occasionally turn up at South Norwood Lake and, apparently, one stayed for some days in August 1932. Swayne also notes a lesser redpoll feeding on hawthorn berries in Auckland Road in February 1926, and a cock and hen pheasant in the wood of the Beaulieu Hotel in 1933.

The nightingale was probably last heard singing in Norwood in the summer of 1929 and the woodcock last seen at Beaulieu Heights in March of the same year. Swayne also refers to the sighting of a red-backed shrike with young in 1913 and the “churring” of a nightjar off Church Road in 1902, though it is not clear whether these are his own records.

Swayne was disappointed not to have seen or heard the wryneck, little owl or yellowhammer, all of which he thought “should occur”.

Notwithstanding, he did pretty well. Where Aldridge, near the end of the previous century had noted 51 species, Swayne discovered 79, though the process of urbanisation must have gathered considerable momentum by 1933. This rather suggests that birds are, on the whole, more resilient, more adaptable to varying environments than is often feared. Wherever there is suitable food, they will continue to eke out some kind of existence and if they can find some sort of appropriate nesting site, they will use it, more or less regardless of the way the human world is going.

(In the next issue of the Review, Mr. Wright will bring the account up to date, with Birds of Norwood Today.

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