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From dusk til dawn – adventures in after-hours London

March 6, 2012

This article was originally published in the summer 2009 edition of Wild London, the magazine of London Wildlife Trust

Ever had a wild encounter after the sun has set? Mark Pearson explores our city’s dark side and discovers the nature of a London night out.

Living deep in the city, with constant traffic noise and the endless hum of human activity, late night Londoners could be forgiven for assuming the last thing on offer is any kind of connection with nature. However, with your eyes and ears fine tuned to the sights and sounds beyond the sirens and myriad contact calls of Homo sapiens, there’s more to discover than you might think.

Foxes are a familiar sight on the streets of urban London, day or night

Ghostly encounters

As a dedicated ornithologist and long-term resident of Hackney, one of inner London’s most diverse and thriving boroughs, I’m constantly aware of the presence of non-human creatures after dark. Hackney, like many other boroughs, is blessed (in my opinion) with an increasingly approachable population of red foxes, a rare example of wild animals learning to co-exist successfully in one of the most demanding of British environments.

Their presence in the early hours along local streets is always a pleasure. One of my most unexpected encounters involving this species came last year. Unlocking my front door on Stoke Newington High Street, as torrential rain created fastflowing rivers along the road, a fox ran past within two metres of where I stood, dodging night buses and revellers alongthe way. Nothing too unusual, except for the fact this particular fox was leucistic (leucism is a lack of pigmentation) – its ghostly appearance like a sudden, fleeting aberration from another world.

Night noises

The sounds in the city overnight can tell you a lot about wider events in the natural world. Two species commonly encountered belting out their warbling songs along our streets are robin and blackbird. Both have adapted to the pressures of urban living by singing late into the evening and well into the dead of night. One of the main reasons for their night singing is the decreased street noise, allowing territories to be defended and boundaries to be maintained.

Peregrines have adapted to take advantage of London’s extended opening hours

Nocturnal navigating

Many birds undertake nocturnal migrations, an awe-inspiring phenomenon involving incredible feats of navigation, stamina and timing. Spring and autumn are the peak migration periods and night migrants are by no means just a feature of the countryside. By far the most distinctive of these after hours travellers is the redwing – a small, strongly marked thrush from Scandinavia and other more northerly latitudes, which migrates en masse to the UK every autumn. The sounds in the city overnight can tell you a lot about wider events in the natural world.

For a few weeks from late September each year, its unmistakable shrill ‘tsseep’ flight-calls cut through the street noise, as squadrons speed across the London night sky. If you want to hear them, picking a still, clear night away from main roads is best, but even a short walk home
from the local pub will often result in a successful sighting.

Wading birds, which are otherwise extremely scarce in inner London, also migrate over our houses during the night. In one year living on a quiet street in Hackney, I heard Curlew, Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank – all birds we’d be very lucky to see here in the cold light of day.

Blackbirds have had to adapt their behavioural patterns to compensate for street noise and light pollution

Night hunting

A dramatic and very welcome colonist to urban London in recent years is the Peregrine Falcon. Many Londoners are now aware of these dashing raptors, which breed even in the noisiest, most disturbed parts of the capital. Relatively unknown, however, is their opportunistic nocturnal hunting skills. Capitalising on the dazzling lights and convenient hunting perches found on tall buildings, urban peregrines pursue their prey long after their rural counterparts have clocked off for the day.

So the next time you’re stumbling out of a bar in Soho in the early hours, that strange noise in the sky above you might just be the world’s fastest bird sinking its talons into a migrating coot…

Mark James Pearson

All words and pictures – copyright Mark James Pearson 2012





















































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