Birdwatching from Tower 42 in London

By David Lindo

I am delighted that the art of visible migration watching is now so in vogue. As a youngster, I began to read books by Eric Simms discussing falls of migrants in urban areas that were not too far away from me. It was discovered that there was an obvious migration flyway through the ‘North London Heights’ traversed by hoards of Meadow Pipits, Chaffinches and other passerines.

Last October, after talking to a cameraman who had just been filming on top of Tower 42 in London’s Square Mile, I got in contact with the Tower to ask if I could bring up a small crew to film Woodpigeon movement.

To my surprise they agreed, although on the day we could only summon around 200 Woodies through the grey murk. I immediately saw the potential of this remarkable vantage point and a subsequent meeting between the Tower 42 Management Team and myself resulted to their eternal credit in the formation of the Tower 42 Bird Study Group.

The Bird Study Group met once a week during the spring for a total of nine sessions and recorded a fascinating collection of species that included daily Peregrines and Sparrowhawks as well as central London scarcities like Oystercatcher, Arctic Tern, Common Buzzard, Red Kite, Hobby and most famously, a couple of Honey Buzzards.

One of the HB’s even managed to crash into a West End office window much to the alarm of the office workers within. Fortunately, the bird was unharmed and eventually headed off on its journey.

Tower 42 has quickly become synonymous with visible migration in London. The autumn sessions have already resulted in several Sandwich Terns and another Red Kite. By the time you read this hopefully we would have been scoping thousands of Woodpigeons. A few miles east lies Canary Wharf with its iconic One Canada Square, Britain’s tallest building, replete with its characteristic pyramid.

Between 2001 and 2006 urban birder Ken Murray and his colleagues did a study of the migrants that occurred in the tiny Canada Square Park at the foot of the tower and nearby Jubilee Park. Both areas are used by the multitudes of office workers as a place to consume lunch and fags but, despite their initial unattractiveness, Ken and his friends discovered an inordinate number of migrants in the parks over the years including rarities like Red-backed Shrike, Wryneck and as many as three Blyth’s Reed Warblers!

I visited the area several times and immediately saw the potential. This has led to the reformation of Ken’s study under the guise of the Canary Wharf Migrant Bird Survey. Open to all, provided a permit is obtained (as security is tight) this potentially fascinating project could shed even more light on bird migration in built up areas.

At the time of writing the group had already recorded a Wheatear and a couple Firecrests. Urban birding has truly come of age and has never been so exciting. Why don’t you try and set up an urban migration watchpoint in your city?