Saturday, January 29, 2011

Patchwork 2010 - Invasion of the Honey Bees

Honey Buzzard, Provence, Aug 2010

Raptor-watching is one of the more addictive aspects of local birding, and one which I'll doubtless bang on about in greater depth anon. The last couple of years have been especially productive here in Stoke Newington, not least 2010, and not least concerning that most evocative of of true migrant raptors, Honey Buzzards.

While some theoretically more predictable species seem to frustratingly avoid being seen on-patch like the plague (read e.g. Mediterranean Gull), other, technically less expected visitors seem to emit an irrationally talismanic power (read e.g. Bittern and Honey Buzzard). Such is the beautiful unpredictably of local birding.

A month-long trip to Sweden a few years back culminated in a stay at the Obs in Falsterbo, timed very much with peak raptor passage in mind, and to say we got lucky would be a criminal understatement. Amongst many other highlights, Honey Buzzard movements were truly exceptional; on one memorable day, we sat transfixed in the sunshine as more than 1,600 passed overhead and alongside. Unforgettable, and highly recommended.

Honey Buzzards, Provence, 2010

2008 provided my first local Honey-B's, with wonderful views of a female circling low over the reservoirs on 30th May; the same year's notable autumn influx brought another, soaring high on 14th September. So the species was happily already on the radar locally, and with the amount of time dedicated to raptor-watching increasing year-on-year, a third was perhaps not so far away. 2009 - while memorable for raptor passage here (will it ever get any better than Black Kite?) - produced no HB's, but 2010 was to rewrite the rulebook once again.

An extended session from the Obs platform on the 13th May produced the first of the year, speeding north on half-closed wings and directly overhead at 1646; nothing like enough time to fire off the DSLR, but then, there's nothing like making direct eye contact with a Honey Buzzard while it bombs through Hackney well below the level of neighbouring tower blocks.

Throughout April and May, I spent one day a week scanning the vertigo-inducing panorama 600 ft up in the clouds on the roof of Tower 42, smack in the heart of urban London and one of the capital's tallest buildings. When the hype around the project had finally faded somewhat, committing to the real matter in hand - finding, recording and enjoying birds - thankfully took precedence, and with the help of a couple of other sharp-eyed London birders, the results were more than worthwhile.

Full details and photos can be found here, but it's worth revisiting to contextualise one particularly special day. Content enough with a respectable raptor list for this most urban of watchpoints (multiple Common Buzzards, Red Kite, Hobby, omnipresent Peregrines, regular Sparrowhawks and Kestrels), we were hopeful - but not expectant - of a class A find before the project was done.

Honey Buzzards, Tower 42, 20th May 2010

Come the 20th of May, and while waiting to be escorted up the 42 floors with Ian (Woodward, erstwhile North London BTO rep), the two of us were heartened by a suddenly warm airflow - if not the blanket grey cloud - which had encouraged a substantial kettle of gulls to begin thermalling over the tower. (Small mercies are worth appreciating with six solid hours teetering atop a skyscraper in Babylon ahead.)

Up onto the roof a few minutes later, and we'd barely set up our 'scopes before a very encouraging shape appeared from within the cloudbank, heading straight towards us; Honey Buzzard #1, clean past us, and west through the city centre. Bingo. More than enough reward for our efforts, or so we thought - but, less than two hours later, HB#2 followed an almost identical path, straight towards us from the south-east.

Honey Buzzard, Tower 42, 20th May 2010

What happened next however was, well, stunning (as it were); failing to find a suitable thermal and soon picked up by a pair of local Carrion Crows, the bird dropped dramatically towards Soho below, swung south directly past the windows of The Houses of Parliament, over the river and duly disappeared amongst the office blocks around Waterloo.

Assuming it'd made an emergency landing in one of the few trees in the area, I put word out amongst local birders and hoped they'd pick it up; not to be. A couple of days later, and we found out why - a local office worker got in touch, relating how a large bird of prey had thumped straight into his third-floor workplace window near Waterloo station..... Better still, while his colleague called the RSPCA, he took a few pictures with a pocket camera before the bird happily came to its senses and flew off south unharmed. A unique and amazing story.

Honey Buzzard on an office ledge in Waterloo, 20th May 2010

The following day, back on patch at Stoke Newington Reservoirs, and the forecast was again promisingly humid (if again overcast); hence, onto the Obs platform for another extended session. Recalling the timing of our previous day's sightings several km due south, I happened to mention to another local birder that we should expect one about now; incredibly, guess what appeared with the requisite corvid lynch mob on its tail....

Honey Buzzard, Stoke Newington Reservoirs, 21st May 2010

.... and there was more to come. Just past midday, and I mentioned we should expect the second one about now. Within a couple of minutes, (yet) another Honey Buzzard charted a unique path across the busy streets of central London, over the reservoirs, and then west over the Emirates stadium. Sometimes it's better not to ask why.

Honey Buzzard, Stoke Newington Reservoirs, 21st May 2010

Expectations of picking up large raptors are subtantially lower in the autumn compared with the spring, and their occurence is far less predictable; but with plenty of days spent scanning and counting visible migration movements, there's always a chance of picking something up. But #4 for the patch in 2010 came not in the above circumstances, but while giving a guided walk of the reservoirs to a gaggle of local schoolkids on 19th August - watching their host fall silent, break off from waxing lyrically about Great Crested Grebes, swear profusely and struggle to extract a DSLR from its bag all for a dot against the cumulus naturally caused plenty of amusement.

A few days later, and the best part of a week in Provence beckoned; lucky for us, good friends had bought a place in a village just south-east of Avignon, and it would've been rude not to visit. Full details and photos can be found here and here; no prizes for guessing one of the star birds of the trip.

Onto a nearby ridge in the searing heat of the 27th, 27 Honey Buzzards appeared from nowhere and thermalled for several minutes before disappearing south; others here and there overhead implied some movement taking place. A couple of days later, and another 20 or more appeared over us whilst with family a few miles east; encouraged by the signs, the following morning I took the scope up onto the small hill behind the house at first light, and witnessed an exhillirating passage of 187 heading low and south-west, all before before breakfast.

Honey Buzzards, Provence, August 2010

The following week, and a memorable trip back home in early September (Eastern Olivaceous, Brown Fly, impressive falls of migrants and plenty of scarcities) unexpectedly produced two more - while watching the very accomodating Hippolais, a kettle of Buzzards appeared (not something you can say more than once every few decades at Flamborough) containing 18 Common and two Honeys.

Honey Buzzard, Stoke Newington Reservoirs, 20th October 2010

Which really should be more than enough for one year, but there was another sting in the long and rounded tail. With thoughts of Honey Buzzards (and most other trans-Saharan migrants) long gone, 20th October was a cold, bright late autumn day, and I was on the platform, half in the forlorn hope of picking up a stray Rough-leg (after a mini-influx over the previous couple of days into the south-east).

A scan to the south revealed a large raptor distantly approaching, with a strangely familiar flight and shape - surely not? As the bird came closer, it inevitably attracted the aggressive interests of a pair of Carrion Crows, and spent the next couple of minutes battling north-east and eventually out of site behind the tower blocks. The fifth, and easily the least-expected, site record for 2010, in a year bereft of any influxes, in the middle of London; who needs Falsterbo?

Honey Buzzard, Stoke Newington Reservoirs, 20th October 2010