Digging in to the memory banks (part two)

Peregrine eyass, Cumbria, summer 1982
Peregrine eyass, Cumbria, summer 1982

Following on from my season on Mull (see previous post), I spent spring and summer of 1982 in Cumbria. I was a kind of roving species protection warden-come-survey worker, undertaking various raptor-related tasks. Although most birds of prey do very little most of the time – even during the breeding season – taking part in a 24-hour watch at a nest site is still a rewarding activity.  There is always the chance of seeing some previously unknown behaviour. At one cliff I noted a male peregrine at the eyrie being harassed repeatedly by a jay. The peregrine took no notice. At another I saw the well-grown eyass (peregrine youngster) being physically knocked off its nesting ledge by one of its parents. Adults do tempt fully-grown eyasses off the nest by carrying food in front of them, but this seemed a little bit extreme! Obviously not ready to fly, the juvenile tumbled down the cliff-face, then the scree slope beneath it and disappeared. A search party consisting of myself and some local ornithologists eventually found it, apparently quite well, deep in some bracken below the cliff (see pic above). Even at the tender age of six weeks, a peregrine is such a beautiful creature. There’s just something about those eyes……..

During 1983 – 84 I had what could be described as a “proper job”, working as, in effect, the first coastal footpath officer for Ceredigion. But I then began another long break from real work by spending late April – early August in the arctic on the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study 1984 expedition. The membership otherwise consisted mainly of ambitious young biology, zoology or environmental science graduates.  Although I had been through university and come out at the other end with a BSc, I had also gained a healthy ( I believe) scepticism about the scientific method.  I was also far more interested in the gyr and peregrine falcons found in the GWGS study area, which didn’t go down too well either! So I can’t claim to have been the most popular member of the expedition. But I actually managed to get a paper published in an American Raptor Research journal on my return to civilisation.

The homesickness I felt during every one of my summers with the RSPB was even more acute on the expedition.  The lyrics of the Robert Wyatt song “Moon in June” reverberated though my head over and over again during the dry Greenlandic summer.

“Ah but I miss the rain,

ticky, tacky, ticky,

and I wish that I were home again,

back home again, home again,

back home again…….”

Probably every expedition needs a scapegoat and I guess I was it. Helicopters frequently trundled over the study area and there were times when I longed for one to just pick me up and take me away.

Great northern diver, west Greenland, summer 1984.
Great northern diver, west Greenland, summer 1984.

However I had borrowed a long telephoto lens from my father and for the first time did some serious-ish bird photography. Much to the disgust of the expedition leader I set up a portable hide by the side of a lake where a pair of great northern divers was holding territory. I spent one full night in the hide, drifting into and out of dreamland as the eerie and evocative wailing calls of the divers echoed around me. It really was most surreal. The photographs I took there were technically very poor, unfortunately, but I can see quite clearly that what I was aiming for then was exactly what, thirty years later, I would be producing for  Bird/land. Birds in the landscape.

The same could be said for many of the other bird images I managed in Greenland and elsewhere during these early years. I have cropped a great northern diver image to panoramic format to illustrate this.

On return from Greenland I continued in the routine of field work during the summer, travelling and “resting” during the winter. I worked in central Scotland and north Wales during the following two summers. But it became more and more apparent that I was never going to get a “real job” in the world of conservation. I badly needed a means of earning a living that would sustain me for a period of years. Not shy of a challenge, I decided to become a photographer…….

The Halstatt lecture is at 1 p.m. on August 26th at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth, Powys. Tickets are £6.00 each. Call 01654 703355 for more details.

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Urban peregrines

Urban peregrines in Derby
Urban peregrines in Derby

It is no secret that peregrine falcons have been nesting on Derby Cathedral tower for a number of years. A nesting platform was provided for them in 2006 and the same two adults have reared young every year since then. Progress of the breeding attempt can be followed on the internet, so I knew that this year the youngsters had fledged during the middle of June. Nevertheless young peregrines stay in the vicinity of the nest for some time after fledging so I thought a visit might still be worthwhile.

Last Wednesday I arrived in Derby to find no sign of the birds in the vicinity of the Cathedral. I spent a while recce-ing the area for a future visit. A good location would not be easy to find. But during my wandering I had noticed a bird perched on the lettering about fifteen stories up on the side of the Jury’s Inn Hotel not far away. Without binoculars it was not possible to tell if it was a peregrine or a feral pigeon, but I knew the peregrines sometimes perched or roosted there.

By early afternoon I had found my own perch – jammed in between  the bridge railings and the eight-lane Derby Inner ring road as it crossed the River Derwent. Traffic screamed past just a couple of feet away from me. But I was exactly at right-angles to the side of the hotel where the bird was perching, and at about the optimum distance away. I spent an interesting afternoon there.

Sleeping peregrine
Sleeping peregrine (click to enlarge)

At one point a juvenile flew from the lettering to meet one of its parents about 150 feet above my head. The adult was carrying prey – a whole bird complete with two trailing legs – and the youngster turned over underneath him/her and took the prey in mid-air. I could just hear them screaming at each other above the roar of the traffic. The youngster took the prey on to the roof of a nearby block of flats to eat it. A few minutes later a peregrine (probably the same one) arrived, carrying the remains of a bird, and circled over my head, eating from its talons like a hobby does. As an ex-RSPB species protection warden I’ve spent many weeks (months!) watching peregrines but couldn’t remember ever seeing that before.

For long periods nothing at all happened.  Every so often a yell would come from the passenger seat of a van as it flew past. There was a little to-ing and fro-ing as adult peregrine replaced juvenile on the lettering and vice versa. At one point the juvenile appeared to fall asleep with its chin on the letter “r” and its feet stretched out behind it! I pondered over the thought that these young peregrines would regard their urban surroundings as completely normal while their coastal cousins might find them absolutely abhorrent if they were to encounter them.

It was not a particularly challenging scene to photograph. I wanted to include the lettering as the environment within which these urban raptors lived their lives, so I set up the Canon 5d3 with long telephoto on a tripod and trained it on the side of the hotel. I would need to use the perspective control tools in Lightroom to try to disguise the upwards angle at which the images were taken, so I zoomed out a fair way to allow for the cropping that would come with it.  I also needed to remember that the meter reading would need to be over-ridden to account for the largely white subject matter – in this case by about one stop, although had the side of the building been lit by the sun at least two stops would have been required. Probably the most important thing I needed was a great deal of patience, and in this case, by the side of the Derby inner ring-road – a slightly thicker skin than normal.

Postscript:

For information on the Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project, click  here

 

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