On top of the world with the urban birders

On a dawn writing job for Metropolitan (Eurostar) magazine earlier in autumn, I discovered an odd kind of nature reserve on top of one of London’s tallest buildings, and met the people who regularly raptor watch from its lofty heights. I also witnessed London looking more stunning than I’ve ever seen before…

A small group of ten men carrying much optical equipment gathers outside Tower 42 on Old Broad Street in the middle of London.  It’s approaching 6am and barely light.  Rather than suited and booted in the usual city uniform, they sport warm jackets, sensible shoes, hats and rucksacks.  At six on the dot, the group moves inside, swept through revolving doors into an atrium of gleaming glass and polished marble.  They take the lift up to the 41st floor and continue the rest of their ascent by stairs.

Glass and marble are left far behind as wide steps are replaced with narrow stone ones, then steep, spiralling metal ones, then ladders.  They venture through the guts of the building, witnessing backstage areas that those who do business here never see.  One final ladder through a trap door and they are out on the roof.  London spreads out on all sides, miniature viewed from such a height, and all hung about with mist and starting to glow gold as the sun rises.

It’s a beautiful autumn morning, low wisps of cloud fade against a sky that gets bluer and clearer as the dawn brightens into day.  The men spread out to watch points on all sides of the roof, eyes skywards, ever scanning for aerial life.  Telescopes are set up on tripods and binoculars fixed to faces.  None of the usual city noise reaches them from below, but all the time there’s the roar of fans and the rumble of air conditioning units.  The roof is a cluttered space, an outlet for the machines that keep the building functioning.  The birders have to be careful where they tread.  It’s certainly not the familiar terrain of a hilltop or grassy knoll.

I’m faintly awestruck by the view.  I’ve never seen London looking as glorious as this. For a good while I can’t help but just stand and stare, trying to find all the landmarks that make this city my home.  I’m also awestruck by the people who are climbing the 183 metres up here each week, at such an unearthly hour, to bird watch.  Such intrepid urban adventuring before the working day begins is impressive.

David Lindo is the brains behind what has been christened the Tower 42 Bird Study Group.  How did he manage to persuade the building’s management to let him onto the roof?  “It came about by luck really” he admits, “I’d been looking for a vantage point for two to three years and I caught them on a good day.  Perhaps surprisingly they’ve been brilliant hosts.  I guess it gives their building a unique edge – we’ve turned the roof into kind of a nature reserve.  It’s an amazing thing being up here, looking out over London.”

The birders started coming up here in spring.  An unprecedented project, they had no idea what to expect.  David says the season was a good one, despite the weather being rather unkind.  They recorded an array of species including rarities like honey buzzard and red kite.  They saw peregrine falcons every session, with six pairs regularly passing the tower.  During our four early morning hours, we see one of these handsome birds of prey sitting on Tower Bridge and another on Tate Modern.  Once threatened with extinction, the peregrine is currently thriving in a built up London landscape, which is similar shape to its natural one of cliff and mountain.

This autumn the hope is to see birds migrating.  Small birds like wagtail and starling that will be heading to the UK for winter, or species like swift, swallow and house martin that will be journeying back to Africa.  Thrushes are moving en-masse at this time of year and, while many birds migrate at night, in October day migration is more common.  “Wood pigeons are my main motivation” says David.  “They travel in from Scandinavia, heading west, being much more active than our resident lazy ones.”  He dreams of witnessing thousands of them passing overhead, a dark undulating cloud that is lit silver by the sun.

Anyone that’s interested is welcome to climb the tower to see what they can see, and the high rise project is attracting novices and experts alike.  It’s a great learning opportunity for enthusiasts but it’s not an easy place to spot birds.  Hours are lost to scanning skies that can be disappointingly empty at times, but the epic views of London make up for any quiet periods.  Our morning isn’t hugely action packed but this gives me a chance to quiz some of the brave people who are willing to spend their morning exposed on this sky scraping roof.

“This is uncharted territory” says Anders Brice.  “It’s a treat – this panorama is something few people get to see.  Up here you have to work a little harder, we’re not surrounded by nature rich grassland or forest.  But on street level in central London you just see gulls and pigeons, being up here is an eye opener.  The peregrines are amazing, they rule these heights and are at their most beautiful when diving.  In spring I watched one eating a pigeon on Tower Bridge with the prey’s feathers fluttering off into the wind.”

Despite the gorgeous sunny conditions, it’s freezing up here, and I thank goodness for my foresight in bringing a thick coat and two scarves, one to wrap round my ears and one to wrap round my neck.  Hardy Anders is philosophical at what I suggest is an inevitable deterioration in the weather as autumn progresses into winter.  “The moment after a rain storm can be the best for birding.  One of the best days we had in spring was actually a murky one.”  I’m clearly too much of a wimp for this game.

Roy Nuttal was a postman before he retired.  For him, London at dawn is when she is at her very best.  The air seems cleaner and smells fresh – it’s a great time for wandering.  He met David, was charmed by his imaginative approach to birding, and confesses he now always goes along with his so-called mad schemes.  For him bird watching is a relaxing hobby and he finds the top of Tower 42 a rather good place to daydream.  It’s about the spectacle of the location rather than clocking up lists of rare birds.  “I’ve lived in London for 40 years, it never fails to amaze.  Look at St Paul’s, it looks tiny from up here.”

For other birders, clocking up long and impressive lists of birds is hugely important.  Des McKenzie is trying to develop as diverse a list as possible and the thrill of the chase is what draws him onto the roof, despite a fear of heights.  “Birding is about seeing as many birds as possible.  Autumn is going well so far, it’s a mixture of luck and being on form.  This is a great place to be as a Londoner and as a birder it’s massively interesting.”

“We try to cover all points of the compass up here and shout out when we’ve seen something so everyone has a chance to identify it.  Dawn is good for smaller birds, a bit later on is better for birds of prey.  Dawn starts are in the blood of any birder, it’s a time when you can feel alone, even in London.”

Des describes the city’s birding community as an active one made up of about 500 keen watchers.  I ask him where all the women are.  While there are some prominent female birders, it’s a predominantly male pursuit.  “There’s an element machismo involved.  Perhaps women see ranks of hairy men all wearing khaki standing in a line and think it’s not for them.  People think it’s a genteel sport but it can get very intense; I’ve known of punch-ups over rare birds.”

Sam Twiddy is a different character entirely.  Recently returned to London after a welcome stint in rural Devon, he’s a man after outdoors experiences in a city where he feels a little trapped.  He saw the Tower 42 blog online and asked to come up.  Last week was his first time.  “Returning to earth afterwards feels weird and the trudge to work is difficult, but it’s worth the early start.  I sit in a grey office all day and so coming up here is a release.”

We stand and look out over the city, which is now light and busy.  We watch suddenly small bendy buses, snaking through the streets, and the tiny fluorescent beetle forms of cyclists powering along.  Crowds of people swarm over London Bridge and solo pedestrians cast long shadows across sunlit pavements.  Whether you’re bird obsessive, a London lover or just a reluctant urbanite craving nature, this is a pretty special place to be.  Sam’s right, returning to earth after is strange.  Back on ground level I feel a bit dizzy and like I’ve just witnessed a secret world, where the views are stunning and raptors roam free.


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