NO KITES AT KINGSTON
from Ian Craig ex Technical Publications
The absence of Milvus Milvus from the skies over the old Hawker factory is not surprising as nearly two centuries have passed since the last circles of scavenging Red Kites were seen above London (although a single bird was reported at Kew Gardens in 1985). But the proximity of Richmond Park and the River Thames has ensured a wide and varied bird life on and around the old site, and during my twenty five years there I kept a rough record of the species which could be seen and heard.
Few mornings passed without sign of our resident Pied (Willy') Wagtail, a pair of which nested on the factory roof and could be seen chasing flies on the roadways. And a family of Goldfinches with their brilliant head colouring and delightful song was active at the south front gate, especially later in the year when burdock and dandelion or thistle seeds were plentiful. House Sparrow, Starling and most of the Titmice (Great, Blue, Coal) were present in numbers in all seasons, and were much in evidence when, as part of the regular space finding exercise in the overcrowded Design offices, my Section was fortunately moved from the front building out to one of the Portakabins established under the trees at the river edge on the west side. This area was rich in ivy covered spinney where the Wren and Hedge Sparrow (Dunnock) were to be seen. Grey squirrels were drawn to our hanging peanut feeders and none of our stratagems ever succeeded in diverting them; but they were attractive rascals and thankfully we never witnessed any of their more gruesome destructive habits such as the taking of eggs and nestlings.
Members of the Thrush family Blackbird, Song and Mistle Thrush (the latter Storm Cock firstly named because of its penchant for mistle berries) nested at the periphery of the site, one Blackbird pair regularly building on a shelf in an old gardening shed just inside the boundary fence. In a sharp winter small groups of Redwing and Fieldfare visited the patches of fallen leaves along the wire, feeding on windfall crab fruit. And the bold Robin, a Thrush sub family member, was seen nesting in adjoining garden shrubbery, but not within the policies. The Finches were around too, notably Chaffinch and Greenfinch, and the occasional life mated Bullfinch made feeding forays along the towpath hedgerows with his lady flitting close behind.
Murderous Crows came and went but rarely stayed to nest. Carrion Crow and hooded Jackdaw were the commonest, though now the Magpie is more readily seen, and flocks of over fifty Jackdaws are around in autumn. A single predatory Jay used to scout the riverbank on solo feeding patrols.
The adjacent river meant a good population of water birds. A Dabchick (Little Grebe) used to venture towards us from cover along the Ham Lands water edge, and its big brother the Great Crested Grebe is now common on that part of the river. We always looked forward to seeing an outstretched Cormorant speeding over the water on its daily fishing trip, sometimes doing a quick decelerating transition and three sixty if it spotted a likely snack near the surface.
Gulls were plentiful of course, led by the red legged Black Headed variety and the green legged Common Gull. The raucous Herring Gull was common too, with its pink undercarriage, and from time to time we saw a lesser Black Backed. But sadly we never had a clear view of a Greater Black Backed and it's only recently that Terns have been seen in the summer. The Grey Heron lumbered overhead in the early morning and stood watchful on any mooring post or mast along the river. Mute Swans hissed and paraded on the boat landing stages and the handsome, trumpeting Canada Goose was already a noisy nuisance, becoming much more of a bother bird in times ahead.
Among the Pigeons, the cooing, health threatening, street Feral was commonplace, with the Wood Pigeon bullying puffily in any group. Nowadays the neat Collared Dove is everywhere in Ham, but it was rare when the factory was operational.
Summertime brought the Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff along the river fence, and the breeding Swifts and House Martins, which nested on the nearby buildings, gorged themselves on the insects flying from local standing water and meadow. There were few Swallows though, and the Cuckoo was only heard further north on Ham Lands where the Skylark nested until the mid seventies. The most common duck was the Mallard, finding nesting places under any plant cover around the site. For some years a pair laid more or less successfully in the flower tubs near the Personnel Department. Coot and the little Tufted Duck were seen on the water, and recently they have become much more prolific in the area.
Birds of prey were limited to the hovering Kestrel, then quite often seen patrolling the river bank, but unhappily these are no longer active in the area. During one hard winter a Kestrel dropped on to a frenzy of House Sparrows feeding outside the Portakabin and grabbed one as a welcome lunch! Its evil eye stayed in mind for some time afterwards. And a Sparrowhawk made a similar attempt, but went away hungry. Owls were not seen very often within the boundary, the only positive daytime sighting being a Little Owl perched at the edge of the main car park. The Tawny Owl could be heard across the road in the Cassell Woods on most late working evenings. The Green Woodpecker (Yaffle) made regular feeding trips announcing his presence with that loud laughing call. Its Greater Spotted cousin was only seen once or twice in all these years of watching.
After the factory was closed down the escaped Rose Ringed (or Indian Ring Necked) Parakeet took up residence in South West London and is now familiar in the area, with bright green parties of over thirty seen feeding and overflying the old site. And both Egyptian and Bar Headed geese have been identified on local ponds and on the river. Even a transitory Sacred Ibis was recently spotted on the nearby Petersham. Meadows.
So the bird life local to our much loved erstwhile workplace has come and gone. But no doubt a replacement avian community is still in residence along the Richmond Road and down through the new estates leading to the river and long may it be allowed to thrive.