Noticing nature in urban parks

Family in park by Ben Hall

You can spot a huge variety of plants, birds, insects and mammals in your local green space, if you take the time to slow down and look closely. Liz Shearer takes us on a tour.

Urban parks in towns or cities are often called the lungs of the built environment. Not only do they help improve the urban air quality and improve the urban microclimate, they are often an area of respite for residents, bringing proven psychological, social and health benefits.

Urban green spaces are often the first contact that people have with nature, whether that’s as a child walking through an urban space for play, or as an adult using the space as a walking route to somewhere else.

I wonder if I can hold your attention for a short while to illustrate the wildlife you might spot next time you pass your patch of urban green space.

How old your local park is will determine how it’s designed. Victorian parks were often set out with tree lined avenues and ornate flower beds, while those designed in the last 40 years as part of residential housing estates are often planned with a play area or open area of grass for sports activities.

Family walking under a bridge

Walk under bridge by Matthew Roberts

Look more closely, however, and there are some common species that you may notice. Avenues of trees or hedgerow borders often bring welcome signs of the seasons: the colourful and scented blossom of horse chestnut trees or hawthorn in spring contrast with the warm colours of the autumn, as leaves start to turn brown and orange and the trees show off their fruits such as conkers and berries.

Think too about the colourful grass verges that have escaped the mower during spring and summer. They may include yellow dandelions, nettles or cow parsley – all valuable food for caterpillars and flying insects like bees.

Take a closer look on a sunny day, and listen out for the low buzzing sound of a bee flying from flower to flower collecting what nectar and pollen they can find.

If you find an area of long grass or wild flowers in the summer it will be buzzing with common insects such as bumble bees, flies and beetles. If you can hear a loud chirp in a grassy clump, you will have done well to work out where it’s coming from and find the grasshopper making such a din to attract mates or protect its territory.

Perhaps in this area of long grass you may even see a long, brightly coloured body dashing past - an elegant damselfly or its relative the dragonfly. You can generally tell them apart by asking yourself, “is it chunky or twig-like?”. Damselflies often have a long, narrow (twig-like) body, compared with the chunky, short-bodied dragonfly.

Banded demoiselle damselfly

Banded demoiselle damselfly by Michael Jones

Insects are not the only wildlife you might see.

If it’s very quiet, and therefore often at night, you could also notice mammals – although you’re often more likely to see the evidence they have been there then the actual animal itself!

Examples of mammals could include a wood mouse scampering under hedges - they are often found in gardens as the prey of cats, but foxes will also hunt them.

On warm summer evenings at dusk, you may see bats jerkily darting about looking for insects. They can often be seen around streetlights, picking off the insects as they hover around the light.

Wait up a bit later and you may be lucky enough to catch glimpse of hedgehog – a population much reduced over the last few decades. They will use the same route each evening to find food.

Back in the daytime, it’s time to look out for common birds. A frequent visitor to urban parks is the starling – look for its black feathers with their iridescent blue and purple sheen – often very noisily going about their business in flocks.

Or note, too, the blackbird with its bright yellow bill, singing from a tree. They can be heard as part of the dawn chorus and as one of the last voices you’ll hear in the evening too.

Other frequent visitors could include house sparrows heard chattering in hedges or a pied wagtail, wagging its tail up and down as it dashes across grassy areas in search of insects.

Blackbird on roof

Blackbird on roof by Mark Hamblin

Urban parks can be a vital refuge for wildlife and are vitally important when combined with wildlife friendly gardens or unmown road verges in promoting the connectivity of green corridors across our towns and cities. These corridors enable wildlife to move to areas of suitable habitat, with food and water, shelter and breeding mates.

If you’re keen to learn more about the wildlife living close to you, you can use spotter sheets (a selection is available to download here) to help you identify what you can see, or why not take advantage of the quieter places just now and walk about these urban green spaces at different times of the day, and compare the changes you note between a morning or evening walk.

You could also sign up to The Wildlife Trusts' 30 Days Wild challenge using the button below to join in the fun of noticing nature everyday in June, and take part in a random act of wildness each day – a perfect challenge to set yourself in your local urban space!

Sign up to 30 Days Wild

If you spot a mystery species in your local park, why not share a photo in our Facebook group to get some help identifying it. There are lots of wildlife enthusiasts there ready to help you out! 

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