It's good to feel a cold wind slip over skin again. Yesterday the first real storm of autumn blew several thousand Redwings over London and many thousand more over Kent and Bedfordshire. I was variously in bed and in the office and definitely not seeing any Redwings, despite living a street away from the local park, Wormwood Scrubs. The Scrubs is a surprisingly good place for birding, actually, if you can wake up at six thirty, avoid the hordes of dog walkers and wear binoculars in public without feeling slight embarrassment. The first, I can just about manage. The other two I'm still working on.
But this morning, with the death throes of last night's storm beating themselves out on the concrete and brick, things felt different to before. The air chilled, the drizzle harder, the path with a layer of freshly dead leaves, irresistibly crunchy to the soles of my shoes. Autumn is marked by the first storm that clears the air and strips the trees. It was late this year.
Between the hospital and the prison I slip out on to the grass, between the pitches and long grass left for wildlife. Above, concrete clouds turned pink with the first rays of sun. The wind whipped across the park, invigorating with a touch of rain. On the grass: crows and woodpigeons, scattered across the pitches as if spectators to a game of football not taking place. Carried in the air, parakeets, from the thousands strong roost at the very eastern edge of the park, careering wildly off toward Ealing. A dog barks. And above the noise seeps the sound of two Redwing, taking off from a clump of trees, and heading off towards the office. I carried on in the other direction, buoyed. Two don't compare to the thousands of yesterday but they were my two, the seasonal spring in my step.
Urban birding is an acquired taste. It is a matter of perspective that has to be learnt, from the initial recoil of birding between railway, hospital and prison. You work hard for the unexpected gems, the surprises that don’t belong here. You get used to ignoring the looks the pair of binoculars earn you, and instead you take in the Goldfinches swirling across the uncut grass with a yellow more vibrant than an autumnal aspen. You seek out signs of avian life and in a weird way it gives you a bit of life back. A kick. A thrill that Goldfinches hadn’t for a good few years.
Three Herons flap sedately over, from the blue and yellow east to a still solidly grey west. Not the first I’ve seen flying low around here either, I wonder where they’re going and where they’d been. The thoughts are running through my mind as my eyes are lazily still trained on the sky. It’s white clouds off to the north. A bird materialised in my line of sight – as they have a habit of doing – dark, dumpy and long-billed. Birding is an instinct, inasmuch as I instantly knew it was a Snipe, a migrant that had ditched into the long grass of the park to spend a night sheltered from the weather. As it disappeared over the railway embankment, and then over Willesden, it sunk in that a bird I’m used to seeing in rural wet Suffolk or displaying over Scottish moors, can also be seen a ten minute walk from my new house in deepest west London. And if I look back over my shoulder I can see the Shard underneath a big bank of grey cloud, a thin white halo and an orange morning breaking over the city.
With that, a Skylark, another flock of Redwings, it started raining. I turn my back on the rainbow arcing over the north and walk away, towards the office.