Birdwatching at the East India Dock Basin

The London area has lots of fantastic birdwatching venues, some of which can be found in the most unlikely of places. Take, for example, the former entry basin to the East India Docks – a venue that I chanced upon while walking the Lea Valley Walk, and liked so much that I just had to go back there. The docks themselves are long gone (closed in the 1960s, they’ve been filled in and are now a residential area with streets named after some of the commodities that were once landed there – nutmeg, saffron, etc), but the basin remains and is now a local wildlife sanctuary. Just as canals were originally considered to be industrial but are now seen as somewhat rustic, this one-time heart of London’s docks is now a nature reserve. It includes a tidal lagoon and the closest piece of salt-marsh to Central London, along with a reedbed, tern rafts – used as nesting-sites by Common Terns – and a small patch of woodland; an impressive range for such a small reserve.

Located close to the mouth of the River Lea, the East India Dock Basin is an excellent place to watch migrating birds which use the Thames and the Lea as navigational aides in the spring and autumn. It is well known as a good place to see Grey Herons, ducks (most notably Mallard, Teal and Tufted Duck) and terns, with the prospect of the odd wader on the salt-marsh and even the possibility of surprises (summer visitors such as Honey Buzzards and even Nightingales have been recorded there). The reeds and grasses also support butterflies, grasshoppers and dragonflies while the water – a mix of fresh and salt water – has shrimp and eels. As well as the dock basin itself, there are also plenty of birds to be seen on the Thames (the view across from the dock entrance is towards the Dome), notably Cormorants and several types of gull.

The site is operated by the Lee Valley Regional Park which is also responsible for the nearby Bow Creek Ecology Park. There are a few information-signs dotted around the site which given some details about the birds you’re most likely to see, and on the western side there are some bird blinds (screens similar to one wall of a hide). Elsewhere, there are some benches! On my most recent visit I logged a modest 16 species, although this did include a Reed Warbler (which I was rather pleased with) and a solitary Sand Martin catching insects over the water.

The main birdwatching attractions of this small reserve – the species that visitors really want to see but rarely get to see – are Kingfishers and Black Redstarts. The latter thrived in London in the aftermath of the Second World War (bomb-sites proved to be popular nesting-venues which sort-of resembled the cliffs and scree-slopes of their natural habitats) but declined when urban regeneration took hold; nowadays they are concentrated on the Thames east of Tower Bridge and along the Lea Valley. I have yet to see either of these species at the East India Dock Basin (in fact, I’ve never set eyes on a Black Redstart in my life), but there’s always next time.

Details

Location: Orchard Place, London E14 9QS

Site maintained by: Lee Valley Regional Park

Entry: Free (gates open 8am-9pm)

Terrain: Paved paths around the site, some steps

Nearest station: East India (DLR)

Nearest refreshment/toilets: Bow Creek Café, Trinity Wharf

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Nick Young
Nick is a London-based writer who has been published by the TLS and Londonist (among others). As well as history and urban wandering, he is a keen birdwatcher - be it in one of London's many open spaces, or just watching the birds in his garden.
Nick Young

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