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Tower 42 bird studies – the second month

March 6, 2012

This article was originally published here on Birdguides.

Red Kite against the central London Skyline (Mark Pearson)

Red Kite against the central London Skyline (Mark Pearson)

With month one behind us, a quick reflection on successes and lessons was due before embarking on our second and final month’s studies for the spring period. Most satisfyingly, and by no means a given at the start of the project, we’d seen plenty of large raptors — our principal aim for the first sessions.

The appearance of our first positively identified individual from the top of the tower — a Red Kite, soaring east below roof-level — was not only a beautiful sight in the very centre of the UK’s largest urban sprawl, but a huge relief; all the worst nightmares of a blank slate magically vanished into the thin city air as early as Day Two.

looking south-east along the Thames, with Tower Bridge (Mark Pearson)

Thankfully, more were to come of course, not least in the shape of Common Buzzards, which were encountered on a pleasingly regular basis. Add to the above omnipresent Peregrines, regular Kestrels and Sparrowhawks, Swifts and hirundine passage, oddities such as Rook and Oystercatcher and a long-shot Arctic Tern, and satisfaction ensued.

The limitations of advance booking and the lottery of weather conditions were always going to stack the odds against us, but after rolling a fair percentage of three and fours, we were still holding out for a six, in the shape of an ideal day with a southerly airflow and fluffy cumulus over the Thames.

No such luck again for Day Five (5th), with dull grey cloud propelled towards us by a moderate northeasterly — hardly the stuff of the classic raptor-watch. But persistence paid off, when our first Hobby flew west in the morning — number six on the birds of prey species list. A northbound movement of Swifts during the day was some distraction from an otherwise unentertaining sky, until — almost by sheer force of will — we pulled out a dark Common Buzzard, almost clipping the pinnacle of Canary Wharf before heading north into the gloom.

Filming for the BBC’s Natural World (Helen Babbs)

The weather gods decided to stick the boot in a little further for the following week, with the cool, grim, northeasterly airflow negating even a token attempt from the tower. With two weeks left, it seemed our best results for the spring were more than likely behind us.

Day Six (20th) was, on the face of it, hardly any more encouraging. A glance out of the window in the morning depressingly reinforced a forecast of (can you guess yet?) thick, battleship-grey cloud; but at least the temperatures were on the rise, and humidity had encouraged a kettle of thermalling gulls to take advantage of a sudden hatch of airborne insects above the tower before we’d ascended from ground level.

With almost no notable raptor sightings across London in previous days, we tried to accentuate the positive as we set up ‘scopes shortly after 10 a.m. —  at least it’s warm, the wind is light and variable, we’re up here for the next six hours, and there’s nothing to lose.

Barely five minutes later, and the alarm bells rang. Materialising from the cloudbank over southeast London and just below the horizon, a large raptor half-approached, with a lazy, floppy flight; losing height over the Elephant and Castle on horizontally-held wings with slightly downturned tips, the bird headed straight for the aforementioned thermal stacked high with Larids — showing a long tail, strong barring below and a cuckoo-shaped head, before circling high and heading west towards Wembley. Bingo.

Honey Buzzard
Honey Buzzard and passenger jet – Tower 42, central London, May 2010 (Mark Pearson)

Curtailed celebrations of our first Honey Buzzard – a rare annual migrant in the entire London recording area, let alone over the city centre – ensued, before we quickly refocused on the possibilities for the rest of the session; if there was more to come, we weren’t about to pass it up.

It only took another 90 minutes of patient scanning before another large raptor approached, again from the southeast, again from within the cloud-bank, and again half-approaching the tower. Following an almost identical flight-path, the bird headed past us and over Soho just to the west, attracting the unwanted attention of several crows en route — but failed to find a getaway thermal, and banked below us against the backdrop of the Barbican.

Honey Buzzard

Honey Buzzard – Tower 42, central London, May 2010 (Mark Pearson)

Mobbed relentlessly by corvids and frame-filling the scope, an extraordinary thing happened; what was now unequivocally Honey Buzzard number two then closed its wings and bulleted towards the river at high speed, against the facade of Parliament (pun intended), dropping like a stone out of sight on the south bank.

Assuming the bird had landed in one of two meagre collections of trees in the area — the grounds of Lambeth Palace or the Imperial War Museum — we quickly put news out of this unprecedented event in the capital in the hope other local observers might get lucky. The remaining time added another Common Buzzard high to the north, a few Swallows, and plenty of Swifts — not surprisingly somewhat overshadowed by the day’s previous events.

So what became of the second Honey Buzzard? It transpires we were a few hundred metres out…a couple of days later, and a message appeared on the blog from Nick Cooper, at work at the time when he heard a loud thud against his third-floor office close to Waterloo Station. A certain raptor had, in a state of pursued panic, evidently mistaken the plate glass for an emergency exit, before landing on a pebbled ledge just below the window.

Thankfully Nick took a few photos before the bird composed itself and flew off southeast, just as the RSPCA were being summoned — and thankfully Nick, a non-birder, Googled ‘Honey Buzzard London’ and found us. An unprecedented and amazing final chapter to a great day’s sky-watching.


Temporarily grounded Honey Buzzard (Photo: Nick Cooper)

There was a Day Seven (27th) to round off proceedings — grey skies, Peregrines and a very high Grey Heron south — but the previous week shone out as well-earned and vindicating result. After seven long, enjoyable sessions on the tower this spring, we’re much wiser regarding raptor passage through the centre of the capital, and patience paid off with some memorable avian spectacles. Of those ideal conditions? It never happened, but in the end, it barely mattered.

More in depth coverage of the spring’s studies here. We’d like to thank everybody at Tower 42 for their generosity and enthusiasm, and Nick Cooper for his photos and information.

Mark James Pearson

All words and pictures – copyright Mark James Pearson 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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