Beguiled by the birds in Barnes

Robert Winder's Notebook
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The Independent Online

I'm not much of a twitcher, but even I tend to stop and stare at birds of prey. So I nearly caused a pile-up the other morning when, driving up the M40 in Oxfordshire, I saw a big buzzardy kind of thing gripping the breeze above the slow lane. It had pale white flashes on the underside of its wings, feathers prominent at the tips, and a superbly fanned tail.

I'm not much of a twitcher, but even I tend to stop and stare at birds of prey. So I nearly caused a pile-up the other morning when, driving up the M40 in Oxfordshire, I saw a big buzzardy kind of thing gripping the breeze above the slow lane. It had pale white flashes on the underside of its wings, feathers prominent at the tips, and a superbly fanned tail.

"Christ!" said my passenger. "That's a red kite."

Two more of them came spinning out of the trees. For the first time I understood why kites are so-called: the birds seemed to flop and collapse in the air just like toys when the breeze loosens their strings. And I couldn't help gasping, because even a bird-ignoramus such as myself knew that until very recently the red kite had been extinct in England. It was like the old joke about London buses: you wait centuries just aching for a glimpse, and then three turn up at once.

The red kite is a scavenger, and in Stuart England it was such a pest that the King had them wiped out. A handful clung on in Wales, but elsewhere they disappeared entirely until, in 1989, a programme was launched to reintroduce them. In this part of the South-east the sponsor was Paul Getty, the cricket-loving billionaire whose estate nestles in one of these Chiltern valleys. The reintroduction has obviously been a success, and it was sobering to realise that this might be thanks to - rather than in spite of - the motorway. To a hawk, a busy road is a canteen, full of interesting snacks, freshly squashed.

It was a heartening sight, coming as it did at a time when our birds seem to be suffering. As this newspaper has indicated (we are offering a £5,000 prize to the best scientific analysis of the sudden decline of the sparrow), there has been a mysterious shift in our avian ecology. Crows and magpies are on the march, but smaller birds are dwindling. The headline on the website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which takes the stability of our feathered population as an index of how well we manage the environment as a whole, states: "Lowest ebb on record for many UK birds." On closer inspection, this seems unduly glum. The 139 "common" species are more numerous now than they were in 1970; and the 33 "rare" species - grebes, harriers, orioles and so on - have nearly doubled.

And in London, at least, there is cause for fresh hope. Yesterday, a new wildfowl park opened on the site of some disused reservoirs in Barnes. It is the posthumous dreamchild of Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist whose wild-bird haven at Slimbridge was a pioneering model of conservation, and who envisioned, before his death in 1989, the establishment of a similar sanctuary in London. On Thursday, the patrons - Thames Water, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and Berkeley Homes - threw a launch party. Fired with my brand-new enthusiasm for the red kite, I went along.

The launch was marvellous. In a disused bowl of rough wetland, wedged between the chimneys of the Hammersmith power station and the elevated section of the M4, stands a placid little Arcadia. Swifts boomerang through the air; goldfinches hang on the perimeter fence; lapwings flutter and whistle on the grassy banks.

It felt like the set of a wildlife documentary, so it was appropriate that the centre was opened by Sir David Attenborough. "It's a wonderful, idyllic, romantic dream," he said. "A dream that goes back to St Francis. A dream that human beings and wild creatures can live together, that you can stand just yards away from a bird that has chosen - chosen - to come to precisely this patch of water." The dream has been hard-won, the product of a 12-year business project. Thames Water raised £11 million by selling the land for development of 340 smart houses on the northern perimeter: the wildfowl park is the icing on the cake. Local residents were sceptical, quick to complain about the new houses. But now they have new concerns: the bullfrogs yell through the night.

The launch had its comical aspects. Was this a formal opening or a tramp through the mud? Some people dressed as if for Royal Ascot, clutching their hats; others for a Pennine hike. And the centre is bang on the flight path into Heathrow: jets raged overhead, and drowned out the speeches. But the birds didn't seem to care. The sun came out, and we strolled into the reserve itself. In the international sections, planted to resemble the Arctic tundra or the South American wilderness, the birds have clipped wings and have been flown in. But out in the wilder pools nature is taking its own course: it's a bobbing mass of lapwings and plovers, mallards and swans, herons and geese of all kinds (and all nationalities).

There's a pair of very rare Hawaiian geese, big grey things that inhabit an ever-shrinking corner of Hawaii's volcanic slopes. There are pintails and shovelers with red beaks and blue beaks. And it's spring, so there are hundreds of chicks. There is even a pair of ultra-endangered New Zealand Blues, which have their own purpose-built waterfall to climb up, snaffling the bugs from the rocks. Of course, they are not really blue, just as the red kite isn't really red; but that's ornithology...

The guests quivered like cats as they raised their binoculars. As I walked along the pathways, gazing ignorantly at the birds, I realised I needed some help.

"Do you know what that one is?" I said to my neighbour.

"Carolinian wood duck," he replied.

His name was Rod Hall MBE. An ex-British Airways engineer, he specialised in the transport of rare wildfowl, and was a fountain of knowledge about everything with feathers. The only thing I could contribute was the fact (to me, still remarkable) that only the day before I had seen a red kite on the M40. Not bad, eh?

"Oh, the reds," he said. "Fancy that. I brought them over, you know. The Scottish ones come from Sweden, and the Midlands ones from east Germany. But we went to Bilbao. First time, it was a nightmare: a snowfall had destroyed all the nests. But eventually we got the call saying they were back, so we went straight out there and brought them over. So, now they're stopping traffic on the M40?"

I kept quiet after that. It was still entrancing. A stately grey heron shrugged its shoulders, opened its wings, then changed its mind and stayed planted in the mudbank thoughtfully provided by the architects of the Wetland Centre. A jet roared overhead. Rus in urbis - the classical ideal of bringing the countryside into the city. It's finally happened, in SW13.

So beguiled was I that as I drove off I kept glancing skywards, hoping to see a stray widgeon or tern coming in to check out this neat new habitat. As a result, I nearly slammed into a milk float.

Naturally, I was surprised. It was tea time. Perhaps the residents round here, kept awake all night by the bullfrogs, get up late these days. And then it struck me. Milk floats! Eureka! And in a single entrepreneurial flash, I saw before me nothing less than the future of shopping.

There has been, as we are all painfully aware, an unfeasibly large amount of eager talk about e-commerce. But unless I've missed it I don't think I've seen anyone give a businesslike explanation of how all these goods that we are going to buy over the Internet are going to be delivered. It's bad enough for smallish items such as books and videos: they rarely fit through the front door, and invariably have to be collected from some remote postal depot - in office hours, of course. And once we start ordering crateloads of food, clothes, furniture and booze over the Net - well, we'll just have to spend all day hanging about waiting for the delivery van.

But here was the answer: milk floats. It was like that moment in an Agatha Christie (or Harry Potter) novel, when you suddenly realise that the murderer is the one right under your nose. Milk floats: so common you hardly notice them, chugging from door to door every morning (or every afternoon, in Barnes), and standing idle for the rest of the day. The ideal home-delivery vehicle, just waiting to be diversified and brought into the digital age.

If only I were a businessman, I thought: I'd buy a milk company, contract out my unrivalled distribution network in a fierce bidding war, and retire. But I'm not, so I didn't. I went home, made a cup of tea, discovered I'd run out of milk, and sighed. Then something outside caught my eye. I ran to the window, and looked closer. Yes, there it was again. It vanished as soon as it saw me, but I swear to God... a sparrow. Right there in the garden. If only I'd had my camera.