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Tower 42 bird studies – the first month

March 6, 2012

This article was originally published here by Birdguides in 2010.

To paraphrase the footballing parlance, you don’t choose a local patch, it chooses you. The object of my obsessions over recent years has been Stoke Newington Reservoirs, a small, isolated oasis in the shadow of Hackney’s tower blocks, buried deep in the urban sprawl of central London.

Looking south from our observation platform at the reservoirs, the city’s skyline shimmers on the kind of day that looks good for soaring raptors in the spring; a skyline that includes Canary Wharf, the BT tower, the Gherkin and, centre stage, Tower 42. Passing the time between flyovers, we’ve often mused on what it would be like to gain access to, and study the skies from, a skyscraper in the capital. And so it came to pass when, thanks to the co-operation of the Tower 42 management team, we hatched a plan for spring 2010.

For one day a week throughout April and May (and further dates through the autumn), we’ve been kindly granted access to the summit of the tower — a 360° panorama, 700 feet in the heavens. And what a panorama: once the assault course to the roof has been negotiated, a half-decent scope allows views of Southend-on-Sea to the east, beyond Windsor Castle to the west, the Downs to the south and Hertfordshire to the north. Vertigo sufferers look away (but ideally not down) now.

With the unrivalled support of London Wildlife Trust and in partnership with London Bird Club, the BTO and RSPB amongst others, we began studying in earnest in the first week of April this year, and the results so far have been encouraging and memorable.

While we’re given some slack to set the dates, the logistics of organisation dictate that we need to plan each session at least four or five days in advance, and we’re therefore somewhat at the mercy of long-range weather forecasts (unfortunately no jumping on the tube when the skies clear and a gentle southeasterly blows).

Day one (7th April) — non-negotiable on account of media commitments — was hardly ideal regarding conditions: northwesterlies, thick grey cloud and encroaching drizzle aren’t exactly conducive for broad-winged quarry. Still, tolerating the distracting click of cameras and the fielding of incisive questions (“aren’t you bored yet?”), we enjoyed several Peregrines performing superbly below us (including a female delicately dissecting an ex-Feral Pigeon on Tower Bridge), and both Kestrel and Sparrowhawk circling at head height.

Common Kestrel
Common Kestrel, Tower 42, central London (photo: Mark Pearson)

Day two (13th) dawned with sunny skies, scattered cumulus and a higher hopes, despite a northeasterly blowing; would today be the day for our first large raptor? Well, yes — disappearing smugly into the heat haze somewhere over Wembley Stadium before we could nail it. But thankfully, the gods were on our side, when 15 minutes later a superb Red Kite drifted east along the Thames, below roof-height, glistening in the sunshine. Bingo.

With the duck emphatically broken, we enjoyed more close-up entertainment courtesy of various Peregrines, before another large raptor appeared over Alexandra Palace prior to midday — our first Common Buzzard just identifiable before disintegrating into the heat haze.

Two Sparrowhawks (high over the BT Tower and Canary Wharf respectively) and omnipresent Peregrines later, and another large raptor approached from high to the southwest — a second Common Buzzard, dropping in height to eye-level and gunning north into Hackney airspace (clever bird). And then came arguably the surprise of the day — as we entered our final hour, a Painted Lady spent about a minute fluttering around our heads; an extremely early (and dizzingly high) illustration of butterfly movements.

Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon, Tower 42, central London (photo: Mark Pearson)

Day three (21st) and conditions were again OK without being particularly good — sunny skies, scattered cloud, but a cold northerly to deal with. At the behest of Auntie (a Natural World to be screened next year) we arrived early, which allowed us the luxury of our first two off-radar fly-bys: an Oystercatcher high and east, and a Rook (a scarce inner London record) north before 10:00. Outside bets both, and as such, further inspiration.

Large raptor number one flew extremely high and north a little later — a Common Buzzard directly above us, and surely invisible from ground level. But the undisputed spectacle of the day (and perhaps the project so far) followed early in the afternoon. Two Common Buzzards approached from the northwest, soon met by a particularly gladiatorial pair of local Peregrines, and all hell broke loose — at eye-level, and directly above the blissfully ignorant masses shuffling along Oxford Street. A unique urban airshow with unbeatable ringside seats.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard and Peregrine Falcon – Tower 42, central London (photo: Mark Pearson)

The last session of the month (28th) was again somewhat plagued by unfavourable conditions, but provided perhaps the best migrant thus far. As well as now being on first-name terms with increasingly arrogant Peregrines (now soaring within metres of the rooftop) and watching our first Swallows and Swifts gunning through, a tiny speck with an elastic flight approached from the southeast. Barely visible high against the grey cloud, it took some time before we were able to confirm it — an Arctic Tern, beating a path roughly west along the Thames.)

So, has the project been a success thus far? Unequivocally. With five species of raptor (including a hatful of Common Buzzards, as well as a Red Kite), superb spectacles and some excellent fly-through surprises — all despite far from ideal conditions — as alternative local patches go, it takes some beating.

Part two is available here.

Mark James Pearson

All words and pictures – copyright Mark James Pearson 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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