Relishing feelings of beastly rebirth

IAN COLLINS I love the fresh-start feeling of each New Year. In barely a fortnight 2007 has revealed a world of marvels. As I lie in bed on my sleeping platform in the sky, looking through a window like a cave entrance, I easily confuse planes above the Barbican with the more amazing patterns of gulls or comets.

IAN COLLINS

I love the fresh-start feeling of each New Year. In barely a fortnight 2007 has revealed a world of marvels.

As I lie in bed on my sleeping platform in the sky, looking through a window like a cave entrance, I easily confuse planes above the Barbican with the more amazing patterns of gulls or comets. All the more so because my glasses are the length of a ladder away.

Having slowly abandoned a horizontal position, I swiftly subside from the vertical to the diagonal…


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I slump back in a window seat with an amazing view of cliff-like towers rising from a lake which is in fact a lid on one of London's busiest railway junctions.

In an area of ancient settlement - razed by Boudica, gutted by the Great Fire and Blitzed - my neighbourhood was at its wildest in and just after the last war. A surreal scene of rubble and ruin yielded a jungle of ragwort, buddleia and willow herb, bursting from blown-out basements and spaces between neat rows of allotment veg.

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Here a deathly silence was broken by the staccato call of the black redstart, a previously rare migrant quick to colonise the wasteland humans make. I've seen and heard this brilliant bird on two similar sites - the forum in Rome, and the papal palace in Avignon. But, given the dazzling development of the last two decades, I've yet to meet it in London.

Anyway, here I am gaping and gawping when I find I'm looking down on to the head of a strange bird atop the balcony wall three feet away.

With head sunk in feathers on a misty, murky morning it looks like an ailing feral pigeon. Then, as I spy a pair of gloriously yellow legs tapering into talons, a head shoots up and swivels round like something from The Exorcist. Blimey.

The spectacle blurred by my lack of spectacles, I can only watch, blink and wonder. It's an immature hawk - pigeon-sized, tawny and with a white circlet on its crown like a paper hat from a Christmas cracker.

I want to be watching a merlin, though it's probably a kestrel - maybe related to the one that recently, as I tackled a sudoku puzzle on a bench in Hyde Park, fired itself like a missile from a nearby tree to take a mouse scuttling at my feet.

Back to human reality and the morning ritual of shower, breakfast and - yippee - real coffee. Taking cup to chair I sit before my second little balcony and watch a bedraggled wren flitting through dripping shrubs.

Then there's a kerfuffle as two wood pigeons crash land. With their gorgeous pinky-grey coats they look like thick supermodels gone to fat. Today they seem more than usually nervy.

In the sky behind them an aerial acrobat mimics the deftest pigeon - a plump form in air as agile as a seal in water. Then I realise - with specs AND binoculars now readily to hand - that this performer is nature's tautest acrobat: a peregrine

Ascending an air current between Barbican and Guildhall, as if gliding up a spiral staircase, this king (or queen) of hawks is giving a display of idle splendour as it finally sails off into blue air.

I can't tell whether it's a tiercel (male) or falcon (female) - again it appears immature to me, so I guess it's one of the chicks fledged from the highest Barbican tower last summer.

This beautiful bird helps cuts my service charges. We used to pay for a falconer to appear with trained Harris hawk every fortnight to banish feral pigeons. Now nature has provided the answer in the most astonishing sight since red kites scavenged on garbage in medieval Cheapside.

The peregrine's lazy glide is wholly deceptive. For it can stoop at such speed - think 180mph - as to be almost invisible, and certainly to prey killed instantly by a blow to the back of the head.

In the 1680s a record £1,000 was paid for a pair of peregrines, but many were shot in world war two for their threat to carrier pigeons. The species was then almost wiped out by pesticides - 650 British breeding pairs in 1956 fell to 68 six years later.

J.A. Baker's mesmeric book The Peregrine - about an obsessed pursuit of the perfect predator over Essex's Blackwater estuary - had long seemed to me like an epitaph. Now we can celebrate a rebirth with poetic prose like this:

“A falcon peregrine, sable on a white shield of sky, circled over the sea. She slowed, and drifted aimlessly, as though the air above the land was thick and heavy. She dropped.

“The beaches flared and roared with salvoes of white wings. The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds. The falcon rose and fell, like a black billhook in splinters of white wood.”

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