The raptor nut (Part 1)

Juvenile peregrine. I got the impression this was a male.

There’s always been something special for me about birds of prey. In my “youth” (OK, I was about 30) I did several summer contracts for the RSPB which usually involved raptors and I seemed to identify with them. The peregrine was “my” species and I still seem to have a particular affinity with them. But I spent many weeks with white-tailed and golden eagles on Mull, and with various species in Wales, Scotland and England. Not to mention gyr falcons and peregrines in Greenland! So you could say that since then I’ve been a bit of a raptor nut. I’d rather spend four hours watching a peregrine eyrie – even if virtually nothing happens – than four hours counting waders on an estuary.

Over the last two springs and summers I’ve been keeping my eye on several raptor eyries – from a distance, of course. It started in early 2021, during lockdown, when I discovered a pair of peregrines on a cliff within cycling distance of my home. This was exciting for me because until then I was under the impression that inland peregrine eyries had long been abandoned in Ceredigion. I followed them through to mid-summer and saw at least one juvenile in the vicinity of the cliff. On an early visit this year I saw both adults visiting the same ledge together, which bade well for the current breeding season.

This year, following a tip-off, I found another pair nesting in an old raven nest on another cliff even closer to home. By that time the three youngsters were already well-developed and on my second visit it looked like two of them might jump and flap off the nest at any moment. One can only imagine the sense of excitement and trepidation that these young birds experience as they prepare to take their first flight. I had found a comfortable perch for myself on the opposite side of the gorge where my presence didn’t seem to worry their parents. On my third visit, a few days ago, as I approached the gorge on foot , I saw that two of the now fledged youngsters were actually using the my own perch for themselves! So I hung back and let events take their natural course. There was plenty of activity as the juveniles raced around after each other and their parents, screaming raucously. There’s nothing more stimulating to the senses than peregrines at full throttle!

I began to make plans to return to the site with my picnic chair and pop-up hide, but the truth is that I am getting very poor results from my current photographic equipment, and I don’t know why. (The image above is very much the exception.) I’ve ruled out my long lens (a Panasonic 100-400 zoom), so it looks like the problem lies with the body – an Olympus EM1 mk 2, which is now almost three years old. I’m wondering if the “in-body image stabilisation” (IBIS) is faulty or whether my settings have become corrupted in some way. Unfortunately I am a bit of a technophobe so all this is rather a challenge. But needless to say, and incredibly frustratingly, any attempt at long range bird photography is having to take a back seat for now.

In summer 2020 – again following a tip-off from a friend – I heard that merlins were nesting in a dramatic, cliff-enclosed cwm a little further away. I was not familiar with this species, so I visited the site, and was excited to see a female merlin flash by on the walk in. It all seemed very promising. Reaching the cwm I noticed several small raptors perched on erratic rocks on the grassy hillsides around the lake. I decided they were merlins but then noticed that, in the air, one of them seemed to be hovering like a kestrel. And then…….. oh….. that one’s hovering like a kestrel as well……….. Eventually the penny dropped. They were kestrels. It was all a bit puzzling. I read “The Merlins of the Welsh Marches” , by David Orton, and that whetted my appetite even more for merlin experiences.

Cliff-nesting merlins are unusual; merlins nesting anywhere in Ceredigion are unusual. In fact, merlins in Ceredigion are unusual, full stop! But last summer I managed to locate this pair’s nest on a heathery ledge part way up a low cliff above the lake. I visited the cwm several times with a few trusted friends and we all enjoyed some exciting raptor action. They are such lively, feisty little birds, especially the tiny, blue-grey male, that in a sense they almost put peregrines to shame. I visited the cwm again this spring and noticed that the merlin pair were present and showing an interest in a section of cliff high, high above the lake. Would they be nesting there this year?

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One thought on “The raptor nut (Part 1)

  1. Hi Jerry. Please can you add me to your circulation list. And if you’re planning a visit to our neck of the woods, (I’m in Eglwys Fach) in the near future I’d like pick your brains about your Olympus E-M1 Mark ii. I’ve got one and I’m not sure if the camera is to blame for fuzzy long range shots – or is it me…
    All the best
    Bob

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