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The Peregrine A Hunting Life
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The Peregrine Falcon A hunting life

J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine is my all-time favourite book about birds and wildlife watching. Baker captures the often solitary life in a landscape of both bird and the watcher. It is full of acute and highly descriptive passages based on ten years spent watching Peregrines:

“10 February. The Peregrine flew north across the valley. He was half a mile away, but I could see the brown and black of his wings, the shining gold of his back. The pale cream of his tail coverts looked like a band of straw twisted round the base of his tail. Thinking he would return downwind, I went into fields by the river to watch for him. I stood in the lee of a hawthorn hedge, looking through it to the north, sheltered from the bitter wind”

Few birds can embody ’ wildness’ as much as a Peregrine Falcon seen hunting over Suffolk’s mash land on late winter days.

Migrant Peregrines have always haunted Suffolk’s marshes in winter, but it is only recently that it they have returned as a breeding bird. They nested in a box for the first time in 2008 on that iconic landmark the Orwell Bridge. This was a testament to the years of campaigning by the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group to have a nest-box erected on the bridge. They can be seen, from the lay-bys along Wherstead Strand, but optical help and a searching eye will be needed. They sit high upon the structure usually at the top of one of the main pillars, where they have a magnificent view with their telescopic eye of the whole expanse of river, probably as far as Nacton Shore, Pin Mill and beyond.

The Peregrine Falcon is an aerial killer skilful, fast and deadly when it chooses its prey it can stoop from great heights at speeds as possibly as high as 140mph. It is not the fastest bird in level flight probably managing about 40mph.The fastest bird in level flight may be the Swift recently clocked at 47mph using high-speed cameras, although the speed of wild birds is very difficult to measure accurately.

Despite its skill it is not always successful. I saw adequate proof of this along the Stour Estuary recently. I watched a juvenile Peregrine constantly missing its target species such as Teal and a variety of larger waders, who flew up in massed weaving flocks of hundreds of birds. It must have been mesmerising amidst this melee. I was able to follow the Peregrine’s progress as it raced along the estuary sending up clouds of panicking birds. The falcon however, eventually returned past me empty-clawed. Peregrines are incredibly persistent though and usually eventually wheedle out a weaker bird for the kill. At Thorpeness in autumn I saw a juvenile Peregrine taking an exhausted Redwing that had landed on the sea. I had not seen the falcon’s approach it was so fast and close to the water, deftly lifting the unfortunate thrush with the merest hint of a thrust of its talons and dispatching it with repeated jabs of its bill. This bird flew off south over the sea and seemed to be feeding on its prey in the air, it was probably a migrating Peregrine sustaining itself on one of its less fortunate its fellow travellers. The name Peregrine means ‘wanderer ‘and many birds seen in Suffolk in winter are migrants passing through from Scandinavia. Some linger and there are usually eight or nine birds present in the county throughout winter but they are very scarce at other times. Despite better legal protection they continue to be persecuted and are a target for egg collectors. Tighter control of pesticides which killed many birds of prey in the 1950s and 60s has however, aided their recovery as a breeding bird in Britain.

Fact File

Peregrine Falcon

Latin name: falco peregrinus

Size: length: 42cm wing span: 102cm

Weight: male: 670g female: 1.1kg

Habitat: Mountains, Tundra, Moor, Steppe, Seacoast, Towns and Cities.

Food: Birds ranging in size from Goldcrest to Grey Heron and Goose

Calls: little used outside of nesting territory then a harsh ‘kek-kek-kek-kek’ staccato note repeated rapidly

BTO Conservation status: Green no concern

European Population: 11-24 thousand pairs

UK breeding population: 1283 breeding pairs

Snapshot: Peregrines have been recorded taking other predator birds such as Merlin, Kestrels, Sparrow hawk and Short-eared owl.

The Peregrine, J.A. Baker, New York Review Books Classics, 2005


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