Sunday, August 8, 2010


.... to the story of a full season's bird study from one of London's tallest skyscrapers. Throughout the spring of 2010, I was the lead observer and recorder on the summit of the former NatWest tower, which rises imposingly from the very heart of the capital.

You'll find the full details and photos of each session described below, in chronological order, as it happened. Each of the six-hour sessions was covered by myself, and usually a couple of other observers, some of whom made it up the tower more than once during the season - thanks to them for their assistance.

It began modestly, but for the few dedicated and willing to put in the time, the neckache and eye-strain were more than worth it by the end, and some memorable avian experiences were enhanced by an epic and vertigo-inducing panorama of the city.

(Note that this journal covers exclusively the first season of observation from the tower, and is not affiliated with subsequent projects, blogs or observations that followed after its initial publication. All content and photos are copyright of the author.)

Click on the photos to see a larger version, and enjoy the journal.

Mark Pearson

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day One - 7th April 2010

We came, we saw, we took a rain-check on the conquering (a little too literally perhaps). Day one had us converging outside the entrance of Tower 42, clattering tripods and swinging binoculars amongst the suited human traffic of the City, for 10 a.m; an nanosecond elevator ride later and we were approaching the summit, via the assault course that is the last few floors - half-crawling through boiler rooms, hitching up ladders and through shafts, and finally up to the roof.

The forecast was for once unfortunately on the nail - light to moderate north-westerlies, cloud, with an increasing chance of rain. Despite patience and prayers the gods were indeed somewhat against us, and as the afternoon wore on, the ring of cloud around the horizon steadily encroached closer and closer, bringing with it precipitation and a realisation that today was hardly classic conditions for soaring raptors, bounding hirundines, or indeed much else.

On the positive side, well, we were treated to fantastic views of local Peregrines, gunning below us like minature bombers and even lunching on an ex-Feral Pigeon on a nearby plucking post; a female Sparrowhawk soared around our heads, showing off her full crop and moulting / damaged tail; and various expected species, including five species of gull and commuting Cormorants. Beyond that, it's worth noting that everybody got a real flavour of the project's potential, the craic was good and we all agreed that as inaugural days go, it could've been plenty worse.

After admitting defeat at 1430, we spilled back out onto the busy streets, already looking forward to the next opportunity. Roll on next week.

Mark Pearson

(photos - Peregrine and Sparrowhawk, Tower 42, 7th April 2010 - copyright Mark Pearson)

Day Two - 13th April 2010 - Bingo

So the forecast was far more favourable, and on convening at the foot of the tower at 10 a.m. the skies were blue and the sun was shining. However, the cool north-easterly was evident even in the claustrophobic streets of the city, not exactly the classic conditions for broad-winged wanderers; but you can't always get what you want, and memories of dripping optics and extra layers last week were enough to inspire an outlook as sunny as the skies.

Just four of us from the beginning, the other three being T42 debutantes (joined by a further two at midday), on the roof a few minutes after, with good visibility all around. After setting up 'scopes and getting used to the panorama, large raptor #1 was picked up immediately at great distance, way out to the west beyond Wembley..... and promptly disintegrated into the heat haze.

Ten minutes gone and a target lost - ominous seconds passed and a back-of-the-mind fear that we'd missed our chance with a long five and a half hours beckoning.....

But today, the gods were resolutely on our side. 15 minutes later, below tower height and roughly following the Thames east, a Red Kite glistened in the morning sun before heading out towards the estuary. Barely concealed euphoria followed, tempered by thoughts of perhaps more to come and no time to waste on self-congratulatory back-slapping.

A minimum of three always impressive Peregrines kept us entertained throughout the morning, sweeping low over our heads, plunging for prey and generally performing impeccably. Then, at 1125, a large raptor was picked up being mobbed by gulls, right over Alexandra Palace to the north - a Common Buzzard, which quickly gained height and disappeared into the ether.

The next couple of hours were relatively quiet, although with the sun shining, all of London below us and a spring in our collective step, chins remained comfortably up. Two female Sparrowhawks - one around Canary Wharf, the other over the BT Tower - kept our eyes in and brought the raptor species total to four.

1436, and high to the south-west, another large raptor approached - initially little more than a speck against the light, the bird came closer and closer, heading straight for us and dropping in height to eye-level; Common Buzzard #2, soaring about halfway between us and Centre Point and heading north, before banking north-east and heading straight into the heart of Hackney (clever bird). A beautiful display of a large raptor heading clean through the very centre of the metropolis.

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 early - and dizzingly high - illustration of butterfly movements.

So, was today a success? Unequivocally. Just to have nailed our first large birds of prey, with an unfavourable wind and limited pairs of eyes covering a vertigo-inducing panorama stretching from Southend to the North Downs, was a fine achievement, and a personal relief - while we all know large raptors pass over the very centre of London, to see them doing so for the first time was an enormous pleasure.

Mark Pearson

(photos - Peregrines and Common Buzzards, T42, 13th April 2010 - c Mark Pearson)

Day Three - 21st April 2010 - a visit from Auntie

Our third day up in the heavens above Babylon, and our longest stint yet.... the BBC's Natural World team were with us throughout, and requested an earlier start to film various links and all that jazz (if you believe we ascended the ladders just the once today when you see the film, you may want to think again).

Conditions were again ok without being ideal; in common with Day 2 last week, the skies were sunny and mainly clear with a little wispy cumulus cloud, but the frequently chilly northerly kept the bermuda shorts safely packed away. Several of us managed a straight eight hours today (with reinforcements arriving at midday), before stumbling back down after 3 p.m.

With our movements shadowed by the crew, the morning session was notable for unexpected fly-bys - an Oystercatcher approached from the south-west at tower height before flying roughly along the river at 0952, and a Rook (a very scarce inner London species) flew north below us at 0920.

and Kestrel followed in the next hour, the first of three Swallows for the day flew by at 1120, also our first trans-Saharan migrant from the Tower.

The less said about a probable Hobby and an unidentified large raptor (both at great distance and evaporating into the heat haze) the better, and at least being on first name terms with several local Peregrines kept us entertained before our first Common Buzzard of the day - incredibly high and heading north directly above us, we're fairly sure it would have been impossible to see from the ground.

The undisputed dramatic highlight of the day followed at 1342 (and lasted a good ten minutes in all), when two Common Buzzards and a local pair of Peregrines became intimately acquainted in the skies above the West End, and not much higher than our position. A representative of each species became involved in a particularly fiery altercation that had us reigning in the expletives only on account of being mic'ed up. Watching such an acrobatic dog-fight over the streets of London almost inspired a rendition of the Dad's Army theme tune, but with auntie present, perhaps not.

The final hour produced our first Common Swift of the project (and the first this year for most observers), always a beautiful sight, and a House Martin gunning north with a Swallow. A hard-working but pleasingly varied day with a few surprises and a memorable air-show.

Mark Pearson

(photos - Common Swift, Kestrel, Common Buzzards and Peregrines today - c Mark Pearson)

P.S Peter Alfrey, T42 regular and Beddington birder, has been blogging about our exploits - have a look at his pages here

Natural World from an unnatural world

filming last week with the BBC for a Natural World to be aired in early 2011 - ".... and we're hoping for a strong showing of - s**t! Oystercatcher east over Battersea...."

Day Four - 28th April 2010 - one good tern

A very encouraging forecast for sunny skies, cumulus cloud and light southerlies - almost ideal for large raptors and soaring birds - inspired high hopes for today; unfortunately it never came to pass, with almost total cloud, a ring of hazy mist around the horizon and brisk winds dominating today's session.

Goodbye Cruella World - a Dalmatian heading north at c1000 ft

So, despite our best efforts, no large raptors to report today (despite conditions improving as our time allowance expired.....); but another show-stopping performance from our local Peregrines, and a migrant fly-by of legendarily epic proportions. On the stroke of midday, what turned out to be the bird of the day was picked up high to the south-east; as it came closer - using the Thames as a flight-path and dropping a little in height - we realised we had an Arctic Tern in our sights.

A fine harbinger, but for much of the day we were all quietly shaking our fists heavenwards, waiting for the wind to drop and for the sun the break through for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Still, the Peregrines were truly breathtaking, with one particularly inquisitive bird circling us many times, making direct eye-contact and generally relishing its overwhelming superiority over a helpless band of ageing bipeds.

Peregrines showing off throughout the day

We were also visited by both Kestrel and Sparrowhawk at eye-level close range, and it's a priviledge indeed to get so close, so high up to our native birds of prey. A limited movement of trans-Saharan migrants was also noted, with totals of 15 Swifts and nine Swallows also recorded today.

Sparrowhawk and Kestrel

So a relatively muted fourth day on the Tower, but the tern was an exceptional addition, and we're only halfway through our spring season.....

Mark Pearson

P.S. thanks to a delayed train I was lucky enough to watch our breeding pair of Grey Wagtails here at Stoke Newington Rail station this morning, at one point copulating on the track - live fast, die young indeed....

(all photos - Tower 42 28th April 2010 c Mark Pearson)