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South West Peregrine

Cornwall & Devon Peregrine Falcon Study Group since 2007

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An opportunity to witness Cooperative Attacks by Urban Peregrines on Common Buzzard.

Sunday 7th of June members of South West Peregrine joined Urban Peregrine researcher’s Nick Dixon and Andrew Gibbs, the co-authors of the British Birds Article ‘Cooperative Attacks By Urban Peregrine on Common Buzzard’ (May 2015 Issue), opposite the home of the study pair at  St Michael’s & All Angels Church, Exeter. A small team of watchers all alone on a multi-story car park roof, armed only with binoculars, scope, flasked coffee and notebook. 

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We had arrived early and already the Tiercel was in the air as we got into position, an alarm call being directed at the Falcon as he began to ring up (series of flaps and glide in a tight circle, gaining height on an early thermal) made him easy to pick out in the clear blue skies. The Falcon, now sat upright, alerted, on the gable end above the eyrie (a box installed and located behind a trefoil),looked on at her mate; calculating her route to join him. A Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) came into our view, effortless gliding and roughly following  the course of the River Exe far below; at this point still unaware of the dangers of drifting into this ferociously guarded territory.

It is worth noting that the two young are only days away from estimated fledging with the young male expected to go on Thursday 11th of June (42 days from hatching). So no threat is directly posed to the young eyasses from this passing raptor at this point in time.DSC_2481

The Tiercel quickly reached a height just above the Buzzard, still hecking his alarm, the Falcon had by now left her perch and with rapid wing beats headed on a looping course behind the Church spire, climbing quickly to join her mate. Before she arrived in position the first stoop from the male on the Buzzard was witnessed, not a full speed attack and not directly at it, but in doing so the Buzzard now knew it was in danger. A second and more threatening stoop this time by the female made this threat intensify. The Male was now almost instantly, back in position above the Buzzard, who was heading in a South Westerly direction, within seconds the Tiercel was in again, quicker and now more threatening himself this time around.

Nowhere to hide

Calling from the pair could still be heard from our vantage point and we watched in awe as the Falcon was once again diving at the helpless buzzard; It flipped onto its back presenting its talons has a means of defence. It began to lose height deliberately and wing beats where seen has it tried to make its retreat. We witnessed 14 stoops in all before the Buzzard made good his escape and the pair turned back toward the spire. 

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What we witnessed as a group over the next 4 hours will go down as one of the most remarkable accounts in our relatively short 8 years as a group watching Peregrine Falcons together. Nine attacks in all where witnessed, both Adults spent the majority of this time in the air defending this territory only briefly returning to pitch in on the Spire or Cross, always remaining on high alert. Attacks seemed to be called off once the intruder was approximately 1km away from the Church Spire (in any direction) A number of hits on Buteo buteo where observed, these seemed in the main to be by the larger and possibly more aggressive Falcon.

The Maximum number of attacks by the pair on this beautiful morning was 45 in total; one buzzard was sent spiralling to the ground, seemingly having flown its last flight. However on trying to recover this bird it was seen making an escape first to a nearby tree and then into a clump of trees in a nearby garden. During this time both birds remained on high alert and 2 level flight attacks were launched from the spire until the were certain any imposed threat had passed.

Exeter May 15_Feathers fly

We said our goodbyes at around 13:00, the afternoon watch was about to commence, what we had witnessed formed the basis of conversation all the way back to Plymouth.

Anyone wishing to read the full detailed account of the Dixon/Gibbs Study helped by local watchers should read the published Article in British Birds

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SWP thank Nick Dixon and Andrew Gibbs for the opportunity to join them and in their sharing so much knowledge.

Check out Nick Dixon’s profile as an Urban Peregrine research specialist on his website

Ed Drewitt Author, Naturalist and Peregrine Fan

Peregrines have shown a remarkable recovery in the past two decades and our fastest bird in the world, reaching 180 miles per hour in a stoop dive, has attracted huge attention in recent years. They have become more accessible in terms of web cameras and simply being viewed from footpaths and shopping centres. There are now over 60 pairs of Peregrines in towns and cities across the UK, and another 40 pairs can be added if you include more industrial sites and pylons.

If we turn back the clock to the early noughties the urban Peregrine picture was a very different one – back then there was only a few sites where Peregrines were breeding in cities, and only a small number of people watching or studying them in any detail. I first became involved with Peregrines when I realised they were eating interesting and unusual birds for the middle of a city like Bristol. I was a student at the time and I loved finding skulls and feathers. I soon realised Peregrines were hunting at night, taking species such as Little Grebes, Woodcock and Water Rails as they migrated over Exeter and Bristol at night. They were behaving like owls darting out from the shadows to catch their prey lit up in the glow from street lamps. Since 2000 I have liaised closely with Nick Dixon who has been watching Peregrines that use a church in Exeter since 1997. Nick regularly collects the prey remains of the Peregrines here and we have a data set spanning 17 years and comprising 5, 000 separate prey items. Combined with data from Bath and Bristol we published the first paper of its kind in British Birds and attracted the most media attention the journal magazine had ever had! Journalists and the public were amazed that Peregrines lived in cities and that they hunted at night.

Since 2007 my work on Peregrines has also focused on colour-ringing young Peregrines while they are in the nest. The colour rings, in my case blue with black letters, mean that once the chick has left the nest it can still be spotted and identified months or years later. To date over 90 Peregrines have my blue colour rings on their legs, and across the UK another half a dozen colour ring projects apply different colour rings. In the past few years the Peregrines that Nick studies in Exeter have also been colour-ringed thanks to the climbing antics of Jason Fathers who is able to reach the nest box using ropes and climbing kit. You have to be patient with colour ring recoveries as it can take time for birds to be spotted and for you to go out and look for them. However, so far I have heard back from around 10% of the chicks I have ringed – some alive and some dead. Those alive have ventured away from the west and reach the Malvern Hills, Staffordshire, Bognor Regis, Salisbury, and Suffolk. The birds tend to be nomadic in their first few years of life, with females travelling further than males.

To spot a Peregrine you need to look high and check churches, cathedrals, and office blocks. As well as looking up, you want to be looking down. On the ground, distinctive white falcon poo looks chalky, and is often concentrated in certain places below a favourite perch. Look for feathers too – not necessarily from the Peregrines, but from their prey. They eat mainly birds and below their perches you will find feathers, legs, heads, wings, and whole birds killed and eaten by them. It is often assumed Peregrines just eat pigeons, but in fact pigeons only make up a third of their diet. The rest is a huge variety of birds from ducks to terns, gulls to Redwings, and Greenfinches to Chiffchaffs.

With the opportunity to study urban Peregrines in more detail than we have ever been able to with their rural counterparts it became possible to write a book solely on them. My new book ‘Urban Peregrines’ is for both readers who would simply like to find out more about Peregrines and for those who would like to study them in more detail. With beautiful, professional photographs by local Peregrine fans, and insights that have never really be written in any detail before, this book fills a much-needed void.

Ed Drewitt is a naturalist, broadcaster and wildlife detective, enabling others to enjoy birds and other wildlife. His book ‘Urban Peregrines’ has just been published.

http://www.pelagicpublishing.com/urban-peregrines.html

South West Peregrine thank Ed for this months guest contribution to ‘A Pilgrim’s Tail’

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