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Springwatch: Birmingham's urban wildlife safari

Birmingham city centre
Birmingham is a haven for wildlife, from ducks to peregrine falcons

Dr Stefan Bodnar, the Parks and Conservation Officer for Birmingham City Council, knows more than a thing or two about wildlife.

He's a key authority on wildlife in Birmingham and the surrounding areas.

With BBC Springwatch starting on Monday, 31 May, we thought we'd ask Stefan to talk us through some of the wildlife you can find in Birmingham city centre and give us his Top 10 of things to look out for.

From top predators like the peregrine falcon to the rare black redstart, it seems that Birmingham has its share of wildlife - you just need to know where to look for it.

BIRMINGHAM'S WILDLIFE - By Stefan Bodnar

Looking around the compact centre of Birmingham with its facades of brick, glass and concrete, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is the last place you might find wildlife.

Stefan

But over 20 years of studying the urban areas of Birmingham has certainly changed my perceptions and given me a real insight into this world.

Many flowers, insects and birds have learnt to take advantage of the particular opportunities that the harsh environment of the city is characterised by.

The 'urban heat island' means temperatures in the city are up to 6 degrees hotter than the surrounding suburbs; wildlife is subjected to wind tunnels created by buildings and roads; and there is the extreme desiccation on rooftops and rubble-covered development sites.

For wildlife the urban area at times resembles a cliff-type environment or arid semi-desert.

Activities such as using salt as a de-icing material has created a spread of salt loving plants such as Buck's-horn Plantain and Danish Scurvygrass that are now obvious in grass verges on most major roads.

City flora

With lots of areas being colonised or invaded by new plant species, these will alter and shape things in future years.

Kestrel
Kestrels have successfully bred at Aston University more over 10 years

Many areas are also being altered by changing land use and redevelopment. These can create totally unique communities different from anything you may see elsewhere.

A great buzz comes from never quite knowing what lies around the next corner.

The spread of invasive weeds like Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan Balsam in the city in recent years are well documented. Less problematic is the Canadian Fleabane and Prickly Lettuce, which can now be found across virtually all former housing and post industrial sites in Birmingham.

And more reminiscent of the hedges and gardens of Cornwall than Birmingham - but nevertheless increasing in the city, is Montbretia and Bladder-senna.

City fauna

Working up the food chain are the insects, and for the entomologist there are few places as exciting as a fine post-industrial wasteland, where hunting around with a net and magnifier can turn up very rare sightings.

BIRMINGHAM'S TOP 10
Waxwing
1. Birmingham's peregrines on the B/T tower
2. Nesting kestrels at Aston University
3. Pied wagtails winter roost, corner of Dale End and Albert Street
4. Black Redstart calling from a tall building or spire as day breaks
5. Butterfly bushes covered in butterflies feeding
6. Montbretia running riot on the newly demolished housing site at Egg Hill
7. Daubenton's bat hunting along the canal at dusk, scooping up insects in its big hairy feet
8. Bladder Senna as it colonises ex-housing land on Aston Hall Road
9. Flocks of gulls over Dolman Street, as they protect their nests
10. Cheeky starlings mimicking the sound of ambulances and police sirens in Eastside

In 2004 in Eastside a fly species was found that has been previously recorded only 6 times globally.

These urban 'wastes' are equally good for ground beetles and spiders, where national rarities abound.

Butterflies and moths are often abundant due to the sunny sheltered nature of the sites and the presence of food plants like the Butterfly bush and Birdsfoot trefoil.

These insects, in turn, are the basic food for many birds.

Starlings and house sparrows are still there breeding in derelict sites, and the likes of goldfinch, with their delicate trilling, and greenfinch being much more frequently heard.

In the winter pied wagtails can form massive roosts to keep warm in the trees on Albert Street, whilst the grey wagtail can be found all along the River Rea as it winds its way through Digbeth.

Roof nesting gulls have extended from the Bristol Channel and since 1984, have bred in the city centre, and expanded rapidly, with now over 400 nesting pairs. These changes often happen gradually, so we don't always notice that Birmingham has started to sound more like the seaside!

Birmingham also has the nationally rare and somewhat elusive black redstart (associated with the railways and canals). A few pairs are breeding in secret locations.

Other occasional and beautiful rarities include waxwings that arrive in certain winters, stripping the landscape trees of berries.

A few bats also manage to eke out a living. Both daubentons bat, (the 'water bat' distinguished by it's big hairy feet) and the common pipistrelles can be seen on warm summers evening leaving their roosts to forage in the green spaces and canal network.

Top predator

At the top of the food chain are the predators - the most spectacular being the peregrine falcon. I have been monitoring the peregrines since they first appeared in Birmingham in the mid 1990s and though they don't breed every year, they are here to stay.

badger
Close to the city you'll find badgers, foxes, muntjac and otters

The peregrine is the fastest creature on the planet and is a wonderful addition to the city. They've been keeping down the number of feral pigeons too!

By looking at their food remains we have discovered that they hunt at night, using the reflected neon of the city, reflected off the cloud base, and catching birds that migrate over the city such as woodcock, snipe, teal and golden plover.

We are still learning so much about how the urban areas function and about how the wildlife that use them. For me, a natural historian, it's a fascinating story and right beneath everyone's noses - you just needs to look for it!

On the fringes

Just slightly out of the city you can find foxes, badgers, muntjac deer and even otters. So there's always something out and about that is worth keeping an eye out for.

Dr Stefan Bodnar.

(The new series of BBC Springwatch starts on Monday, 31 May at 8pm on BBC2)




SEE ALSO
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Bee Part Of It! in the West Midlands
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Springwatch Wild Day Out
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