Tower blocks make perfect perches for migrating birds, writes Melissa Harrison.
I’m not a twitcher; I’m not even a proper birdwatcher. But discovering the birds that find refuge in our city has transformed my experience of living in London, making me feel connected not to concrete and traffic, but to all the richness of the natural world.
It was curiosity about a bird that got me off a crowded bus one spring day ten years ago. Every morning on my commute I saw it hopping around beneath the trees alongside Brixton Hill, so on a whim I rang the bell and got out to have a look. Big and pale, with a speckled chest and a call like a football rattle, it turned out to be a mistle thrush, once known as a ‘stormcock’ from its habit of singing defiantly just before rain.
I began to notice birds more often, from the garden varieties frequenting my seed feeder to the spitfire swifts that arrive in the first week of May, their aerial screams soundtracking the city summer. Walking my dog on Tooting Common I learned to recognise birdsong, first unthinkingly, and then on purpose. I realised it’s a seasonal phenomenon: the dawn and evening chorus occur only in four months of the year. Soon, spring’s first singing blackbird had become a joyful milestone in my year.
Tuning into the avian calendar brought more revelations, like the calls of redwings migrating here from Scandinavia on dark September and October nights. London lies under one of the world’s main avian migration routes: the East Atlantic Flyway runs up the west coast of Africa, across northern Spain and France, and passes over Britain’s south-east corner toward the North Sea. This makes the city a great place to see (and hear) migrants in spring and autumn, when huge flocks of birds, both rare and familiar, are on the move. And we’re not just talking Hampstead Heath or Wimbledon Common: in the Square Mile, Tower 42 hosts a bird study group in the autumn, while the Canary Wharf Migrant Bird Survey monitors migrants in Canada Square and Jubilee Park. Now, the British Trust for Ornithology’s migration blog and the #LondonBirds hashtag keep me connected to the rhythms of the avian world. Knowing they’re undertaking such ancient and perilous journeys while I’m going about my daily routines grounds me in a reality more meaningful than house prices.
During 2014’s autumn migration, Ttowerwitter alerted me to a nightjar that had stopped off in Hackney, causing a stir in the birding world. These are fantastically unusual creatures: reptilian in their camouflage, with huge black eyes and an otherworldly, churring call. The Hackney nightjar stayed for three nights, dozing on a branch by day (despite the twitchers) and setting out at 7.15 each evening to hunt moths. Well rested, it continued on its travels; but it left a legacy, inspiring the name – of course! – of a new east London bar. ν
Melissa Harrison is the editor of book series ‘The Seasons’.