Week ending February 22nd   Leave a comment

As I came home from work past the new distillery at Kingsbarns on Wednesday my spirits were lifted by the sight of a peregrine flying over a stubble field and then the road just above the car I was in. It was my first Crail peregrine of the year but even if I see them every day (and at times during my research I can see them hourly) the sight of an adult peregrine in full flight over an empty winter landscape always cheers me up. There are two main reasons why this is so. I love watching peregrines because they epitomise everything that makes watching wildlife exciting and because they represent hope that even when we mess the environment up completely, we can still learn our lesson and do something about it.

First, the excitement of peregrines. We all have our animal facts learnt as toddlers – that blue whales are the biggest animals on earth and that peregrine falcons are the fastest. Peregrines are famous for attacking their prey with legendary stoops where they might dive near vertically for over a kilometre before hitting the oblivious victim with a raked claw. People have speculated about how fast they might go during these stoops – 100 mph, 120 mph? I have timed peregrines in routine level attacking flight as reaching 70 mph over a few hundred meters, so that they can routinely reach much higher speeds in a vertical dive always seemed very likely to me. We now know for sure: recently, trained falconry peregrines have been clocked by accompanying skydivers as reaching 180 mph during such stoops. Peregrines really are as flight capable as we always hoped they were.

Peregrine about to stoop (this one is a first winter bird)

Peregrine about to stoop (this one is a first winter bird)

That said peregrines hardly ever pull out the stops. When you watch wildlife programs they always show you the highlights: anything on peregrines and it will be just a few seconds before one is screaming down at jet speed on a hapless pigeon. If you watch one in real time then you might have to wait years until you see such an attack. Most of the time peregrines take the easy option, terrorising a field or estuary full of birds looking for a weakling that they can easily chase down or just pluck out of the air. I have watched a peregrine sitting for hours on a dead tree, only moving its head to track any birds as they flew by. Eventually a feral pigeon flew over fairly high – I saw it only because I followed up the peregrine’s line of sight as it cocked its head to watch it. After a few seconds of watching, the peregrine launched itself up and flew in a fairly leisurely fashion up behind the pigeon. It had no idea and as the peregrine reached it, the pigeon was just grabbed from behind. The peregrine sailed down with the pigeon and of course ate it. Clearly the pigeon wasn’t one of life’s winners and the peregrine had spotted this, and had indeed perhaps been waiting all day for such a loser to pass. It was a fantastic example of hunting efficiency although it made for a dull day watching that particular peregrine. And most peregrine watching, especially in the winter can be like this. Long periods of complete inactivity and then a brief (usually unsuccessful) period of testing what is available, looking for the easiest option. Not quite the epic predator that we might hope to see. It does make sense though if you think back to the efficiency of the pigeon example. If you are a top predator in the winter the only thing that might kill you is an accident, so the best strategy is to bide your time, and to keep trying easy hunts until you get lucky. If late in the day you still haven’t had lunch then you can turn it up a notch. The prey I think can readily tell how “hungry” or serious a predator is and so this accounts for the often bizarre close juxtaposition of predators and prey you sometimes see. If the prey know they are fit and are ready to run at any time, and the predator knows this and is looking for an easy lunch, then the fit prey is very unlikely to even be targeted. But with first sight of a peregrine you never know quite what mood it is in so a peregrine is always initially exciting. And the sudden transition from zero to sixty as it changes gear into its full capability is something to behold on the rare times you do see it.

The second reason that peregrines always cheer me up is that they were much rarer when I was a boy because of DDT poisoning and persecution. But we worked out this out and banned DDT (at least in the developed world), and people now treasure peregrines rather than kill them. Now they are the commonest they have ever been and you can find them nesting in city centres like Edinburgh. The landscape and our lives are immeasurably enriched by having these lions of the skies with us. I can’t go to the Serengeti every day but I can watch the same kind of wildlife excitement on my doorstep thanks to peregrines, and indeed all the other raptors – the eagles, buzzards, kites and hawks that have come back into our daily lives again over the last three decades. It doesn’t always have to be bad news with respect to wildlife and peregrines remind me of this.

An adult peregrine with prey

An adult peregrine with prey

Posted February 22, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

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