January 2019: Nature Watch

December 19 2018

When I first came to Bristol many years ago, a peregrine was a very rare sight in the city.

The peregrine is a large falcon with a steel-grey back the colour of a stormy winter sky and racy, pointed wings. Their wingspan is up to 115cm (that is half as wide again as a wood pigeon) and they can reach speeds of up to 60 mph in level flight. They are a bird of superlatives; stronger, faster and more beautiful. The buzzard seems ponderous beside them, the sparrowhawk diminished.

It was with great excitement that we went to see them at their first Bristolian nesting site in the Avon Gorge in 1990. Now they are regular visitors to our skies and breed successfully most years in their rocky eyrie. They are a wider conservation success story, too. They suffered catastrophic declines in the 1960’s due to the accumulation of harmful pesticides in the food chain (particularly DDT) but when these pesticides were finally banned the birds began to spread again, recolonising Bristol in the 90’s and even adopting an occasional high-rise building as a nest site. 

Now, they can be seen hunting over Bristol all year round and they are well worth looking for in the empty skies of January. One of the fastest birds in level flight, they also have a specialised hunting technique of wheeling up above their prey (which is usually a bird on the wing) and then “stooping”. They fold their wings and plummet, hitting their prey at speeds that can reach around 200 mph, killing it instantly. At which point they pluck it, dead, from the air (this could be an unfortunate lumbering pigeon, or a darting starling taken from its whirlwind flock) and carry it away to their feeding place.

You can spot the presence of a peregrine by a flurry of pigeons as they scatter in sudden fear at the sight of the distinctive silhouette: it is always worth looking up if you see pigeon-panic. Check for a large, long-winged bird, cloud-dark above, with a paler breast, probably soaring above the milling flock, gliding on straight wings, or strongly beating its wings to pick up speed. And the stoop is unmistakable – the sudden folding of the wings and the dive like a speeding arrow to the target, almost too fast to track.

If you want to read more about the peregrine there is a wonderful book called The Peregrine by J.A. Baker, who tracked his local birds, obsessively following them on his pushbike through wind and snow, writing about his experiences when he got back home. They are the kind of bird that can trigger eccentric behaviour in their admirers! 

We are lucky to still have peregrines in Britain, pesticides could have wiped them all out. Let’s hope the New Year brings other success stories for our wildlife making it a Happy New Year for us all.