A battle for Trafalgar


November, central London. Clear skies above thronging crowds. The continuous noise and movement of traffic. The Capital’s constrained chaos.  I’m pushing my way towards the nearest tube station at Charing Cross, thinking, heading underground, when two falcons appear above me arcing through the sunlight. A pair of kestrels are swirling around Trafalgar Square, like they were peregrines, tilting silver underwings against Whitehall’s cliffs of Portland stone. They’re cavorting in this quadrant of blue sky, as if high on the excitement of their city centre adventure.

Then, ambushed by five crows, their thrill turns to fear. The two slim falcons are caught in a cross-fire of hefty, ebony menace, letting out panicked piercing calls. In the adrenaline-fuelled confusion of fight-versus-flight the harried male kestrel even makes a short stoop towards a fleeing pigeon. The frantic pigeon, gripped by terror, simply folds its brilliant white wings and plummets to the ground, as if in a falling faint. Then, recovering its senses just in time, it arrows away, low along Northumberland Avenue under the lines of yellowing plane trees.

Meanwhile, the female kestrel reaches the shelter of Nelson’s Column and disappears into shadow. The lone male now continues to circle higher, punctuating his rise with sharp cries, while the crows take it in turns to chase. Despite his speed and agility, the male kestrel looks vulnerable: one strike and he would be down on the pavement floundering amongst thousands of rushing human feet. He seems to sense this and makes several urgent straight line sprints to out-fly the crows. Then, he throws in a final kestrel curve, wings flashing silver and tan. He evades the last thrust of his tormentors and with a dive and a swoop reaches the safety of Nelson’s plinth.

The crows head off towards the Thames in a malevolent group. A trident of contrails marks out the silent blue space the crows leave behind them. The deep thrum of traffic and chatter of tourists resume their dominance of the Square. Wild nature withdraws. Clear skies return to central London.




Lighting-up Suburbia

North London, February 2018

On a gloomy February day, after a morning’s head-down computer work, I stepped outside to take a break because it was so mild. Tired, and a little underwhelmed by the  drabness, I was scanning the grey clouds, and the equally dull terrace rooves opposite, when I heard two Goldcrests and turned to see them come speeding past. This was not their usual canopy-threading progress. Instead they flew across the gardens, like little green bullets, in an unbroken dash to a little apple tree. I could see that it was a male chasing and courting a female. So I hurried back in to grab my binoculars.

To say that my mood was transformed! Despite watching these minutest of birds a thousand times before, I had to catch my breath. The jaw-dropping brilliance of the male’s opened, flaming crest rooted me to the spot. As he wing-flicked and hopped around the motionless female, I think I was as hypnotised as her. His was the only bright colour in sight, a miniscule but explosively-vivid gash in the urban monochrome.

His fantastic theatrics were, nonetheless, not quite enough this time, as they flew off unmated. But my expletive-laden elation lasted the rest of the afternoon. Suburban London, transformational? Who’d have thought it?! The ability of nature to surprise and delight, even in the dullest moments in life, should never be underestimated.