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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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.


For information on the Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project, click  here


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