Sunday, 23 March 2014

Sheer wacky

I live in north-west London, not far from Brent Reservoir (popularly known as the Welsh Harp after a long-gone waterside pub that laid claim to the lake more than a century ago). Next to the reservoir’s northern branch is a new housing development called Hendon Waterside, where some of the homes are reached via a newly constructed cul-de-sac that has been given the name Shearwater Close.

Presumably this name was intended to reflect the site’s waterside location, but the choice of "shearwater" is sheer wacky because shearwaters are birds of the vast oceans. They spend their lives far out at sea except when breeding, and they certainly don’t breed anywhere near Brent Reservoir. They make their nests in burrows on remote rocky islands, which they approach only under the cover of darkness.

Very few shearwaters have ever been recorded in the London area, And those that have somehow made it into the metropolis have only ever been seen on or close to the Thames rather than in suburbia.

Almost all London's shearwater records relate to the Manx Shearwater, which occasionally in autumn will penetrate the Thames estuary as far as Thamesmead. Extremely rarely, one may even reach a Thames Valley reservoir upstream of London.

But these inland birds often appear exhausted or disorientated. In 2008, a frazzled bird was found in a communal bin-shed in Paddington. In 2009 one was dozy enough to be caught and eaten by a Great Black-backed Gull near the M25 Dartford Crossing. And in 2012, another pooped bird was picked up in Kensington Gardens.

Only two other species of shearwater have ever been recorded in the London area — a Macaronesian Shearwater found dead in south-east London in 1912, and a befuddled Balearic Shearwater seen at a Thames Valley reservoir in 1984.

Although Brent Reservoir has birding records going back to its construction in the 1830s, no shearwater has ever been reported there. But the reservoir happens to offer a wide range of birds that could have provided an appropriate name for the housing estate’s dead-end road. Since the chance of spotting a shearwater near Shearwater Close is virtually nil, how about changing the road's name to an alliterative Coot Close or Cormorant Close? 

Or perhaps Cuckoo Close would more closely reflect the daffiness of the site's developers.

STOP PRESS: Since I wrote this piece, another species of shearwater has been recorded in London: on the morning of 15 September 2016, a Cory's Shearwater was seen and photographed flying south-west over The Regent's Park.