‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;’
‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats
I was entirely unprepared in February 2012, when I saw a peregrine falcon stooping low near a patch of woods in the Kentish Stour Valley. I was pike fishing on the tidal river somewhere near the village of Minster when I first saw it. The roses of the mid-afternoon sky had just burnished into those stunning fire-lit ambers that dominate the lowland sunsets more than anywhere else. She appeared like one of those animated Ray Harryhausen models you see in the old movies. All around us, the sky was in flames and the valley, recovering from a recent flood, resembled a cauldron boiling molten bronze.
The whole atmosphere in which she flew gave rise to a flickering effect, like a fireplace’s dying embers or the traces of the morning’s last dream. I think the bird was a ‘she’, as when the creature got closer, I could see a large fluffy and distinctly creamy chest. But I knew I’d seen a peregrine. Thunder-blue, she feinted and spiralled several times until finally she stooped and crashed to earth. I then lost sight of her. Afterwards, I saw only the lilt of what seemed like thousands of feathers, some floating as high as forty yards in the air. And I heard only the lament of the wood pigeons as they prepared to go to roost- one member lighter.
For me, the English countryside would never be the same again.
These days, I see lots of birds of prey in my part of the world- often when driving. I’ve renamed the road next to old Manston Airport ‘Kestrel Alley’; I once counted five of them hovering in various places alongside it. The ‘A’ road that connects the Isle of Thanet to the rest of England used to be devoid of raptors, but now there are many types. Last winter when I was approaching the outskirts of Faversham, I saw a huge buzzard sitting atop a street light; he was motionless and staring down at the oncoming traffic like some mute shaman. Then in the spring I fell asleep in a section of the Blean Woods not far from where I saw the buzzard, only to awaken and observe a solitary hobby staring down at me from a dead oak tree.
The second coming of the peregrines gathered pace in the years just prior to the third millennium. Then, in the early 2000’s, a pair landed in Regent’s Park, London. Just a decade and a half later, London has the second largest tribe of urban peregrines anywhere on the planet. Following the demise of DDT and other farm chemicals harmful to them, the peregrines soon lived up to the dictionary definition of their forename by spreading out all over the country. According to the local birding community, the pair at St George’s Church first lived inside the derelict power station tower at Richborough, in the farmland just outside of Ramsgate.
The birds are natural romantics, preferring to dwell in abandoned old buildings, ancient church spires and windswept clifftops. So the legend goes, they left the power station a week before it was demolished in the spring of 2012 and the first of the peregrines arrived at St George’s a few weeks thereafter. It’s a lovely story- and perhaps true. The timeline is broadly accurate. Certainly, any prolonged tampering from humans will result in most bird species beating a hasty retreat. Regardless of however many weeks it took to set the charges at Richborough, a healthy peregrine would take a matter of instants to associate a demolition crew with imminent danger and evacuate accordingly. When disturbed, the birds will usually retreat to one of several other sites that they know locally. Somewhere high, suitably gothic and cosy; after all, ‘home’ is not a concept exclusive to humanity. At the very least, St George’s has functioned as a ‘pied-à-terre’ ever since.
These days, the birds let me watch them. Just about… I’ve nicknamed my regular raptor- ‘Millie’. She’s the falcon: the female- and larger- of the species; although it’s not always easy to tell them apart unless they fully reveal themselves. She will usually allow me a few minutes before turning her back on me (nature’s ultimate show of defiance) or flying around to the other side of the tower. At first, both birds played a bit of ‘Kilroy Was Here’ with me; remember those doodles we used to draw in our school books of a little face, only half revealed, peering up over a wall?
Recently I turned up with a telephoto lens. Personally, I’m a chronic technophobe and have nicknamed my latest bit of kit ‘Darth Nikon’. It’s a very heavy, dark coloured bit of kit to be lugging around wild places; I take photographs for these passages, but have never really gotten used to taking any camera out into the field.
I’ve managed some fair shots, but the peregrines clearly sense my awkwardness. When I uploaded my initial photographs, it was unnerving to see the birds looking alert, disturbed- and very clearly staring directly down the lens eye. I can’t be sure whether it’s the difference in my approach- or the addition of the camera kit. Peregrines, rightly, will never be fully comfortable around mankind; from way up high, however, they can tolerate a consistent pattern of human comings and goings. But should an anomaly be introduced to this rhythm, the birds will always react sharply. Once I’d appeared half a dozen times with the new lens, they seemed to relax; in fact, I got most of my better shots back when they were more suspicious and staring right at it. Now the birds are accustomed to me turning up with a camera, they rarely glance my way for longer than a micro-second.
Accepting the presence of death is something that comes much more easily to the animal kingdom than to humanity. Up and down the country, the peregrines now live alongside us, which is perhaps the most remarkable nature story of my lifetime. More fascinating though, is their relationship with the various other local bird species, particularly the legion of pigeons that have no problem at all residing in the church’s graveyard. Some will even occupy the steeple when their masters are absent; they invite oblivion- especially if the returning falcon has an empty belly. For the rest of the time, they huddle about the lower roofs of the main church hall- only ever a ‘stoop’ away from certain death.
Some individual instinct persists. For example, when a peregrine does descend, the resulting explosion of feathers will belong not only to the departed pigeon- but also to their scrambling comrades, who in that moment will do everything they can to escape. But it’s a base reaction- and nowhere near as strong as their loyalty to the cult of death, to which they will soon eagerly return; queuing up and jostling to live within its boundaries. This behaviour is mirrored in many other parts of the natural world; it’s the reason why good pike fishermen usually start off as good roach anglers- because if you can consistently find the latter fish, the former won’t be far away. Without a pike to keep the numbers down, the roach soon overpopulate and become stunted. Both species understand this and embrace death as surely as they do the flow of the river.
The rose-ringed green parakeets are a little smarter; you won’t find one in St George’s, whilst you will be mobbed by them almost everywhere else in Ramsgate. But unlike the peregrines (regardless of how long they’ve been absent) they’re not an established part of the English ecology- so they don’t yet know the rules.
I do see greenfinches here, though; in good numbers, too. Up the hill at St Laurence Church, where there are no peregrines, you frequently see parakeets. But never greenfinches- not ever. I don’t come across them anyway; I know they must get spotted in there but they’re in no way prevalent. As much as I love the parrots (and I’m sure they can be a success if we manage them) I think they’re disturbing an ancient balance. Sadly, I recently heard someone on the news get called a ‘racist’ for drawing a similar conclusion about the birds.
How silly that is. The animal kingdom has entirely different values to our own. I agree with the RSPB’s ‘Wait and See’ approach on the parakeets; I’d never wish to condemn such a beautiful creature- particularly one that, like the peregrine, alerts so many humans to the natural world. But we’ve interfered with our wildlife so much that we simply can’t now adopt a ‘laissez faire’ policy towards it. This ‘green’ rationing with regards to the relative numbers of parakeets and greenfinches may sound bonkers, but it’s just one of several small ways in which I think they’re impacting on my local patch. And in the best tradition of British amateur naturalism, eccentric observations are important.
The roach and pigeons of the world do not possess the individual intelligence of the parrots- but I’m convinced that they are ‘genus’ thinkers, possessed of an atavistic pack mentality that serves the greater good of their kind. The parakeets win reprieve from individual death but in the long run they risk that paramount of all toxins: overbreeding… Just look at mankind: On the evolutionary road, we’re a band of travelling revellers- ignorant to nature’s realities; by contrast, the roach, pike, peregrine and pigeons share a much more sophisticated balance with the everlasting. We’re running out of room for space to bury our dead, even.
The supreme irony is that our graveyards provide the perfect hunting grounds for the peregrines. In terms of convenience, churches are like the KFC of the raptor world. Where else will a bird of prey find abundant supplies of fresh pigeon meat? With gothic towers and cloistered woodlands all within close proximity? Up and down the country, churches and cathedrals are unwittingly providing a free B&B service for peregrines; the Church of England needn’t have installed gargoyles- because there is no ghost that a falcon can’t scare off. All an aspiring peregrine chief need do is land on a suitable spire, build a nest and then play ‘defend the tower’.
The chap who keeps the spire at St George’s read my first account of the church’s peregrines and told me about the huge piles of pigeon carcasses he finds on the steeple mount when he goes up there- once every six months. I’d love to go and take a look.
But in the mean time, I’ll keep watch from down below.
And like the pigeons- try not to get too consumed.
8 thoughts on “Once Were Peregrines- Part Two: The Millennial Falcons”
Funny isnt it? I love a red kite, or a buzzard or a kingfisher but really worry about otters being spread round the countryside more or less beacuse they are cute. Osprey? bring it on. Cormorant, euuuuch, but more zander please. Guess I need to go figure.
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Stephen, I’m similar in many regards- coarse fishers are born amateur naturalists, but we remain superstitious over many aspects of our favourite pastime! I don’t buy into the theory that the otters are an apocalyptic threat to our fish stocks or our sport. Not universally- and certainly not taken on their own. Private lakes must otter fence, that’s a given. But then they’re not part of the strictly natural ecosystem. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have them- on the contrary, I think of our gravel pits, ponds and reservoirs as improvements on nature, introducing a myriad of wonderful fly, fish and bird life to parts of the country that otherwise may not have them. And the bigger waters won’t be affected too harshly, I don’t believe. The problem is rivers with overly large, often non-native fish. The barbel is not native to a lot of the rivers where it resides, whereas the otter is. So I feel very sorry for the dedicated barbel anglers up and down the country that are being affected- but I’d still like to ‘wait and see’. For one thing, I know of some good barbel stretches that seem to be doing alright, even with otters. I do wonder whether a balance will be established- and that most of the harm done was when they were artificially introduced into an area in numbers. After all, a wild otter population is never going to be huge, but it would gradually spread- given clean water. The cormorant is THE problem. They just should not be inland. I think we’ve helped cause that by overfishing the ocean, but as the sea recovers (hopefully, given the next generation’s better environmental education) the cormorant should be encouraged back to sea… Crikey, Haven’t I written a lot?! Have a good weekend, mate- I thoroughly enjoy your blog, by the way- it’s absolutely terrific.
I’m not sure how accurate the story is that these are the Richborough birds (though they could be offspring). I still see Peregrines in that area and have seen another female fighting with the Ramsgate pair we have around town.
Still the more the better I say 😉
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Hello Keith- 100%! It’s lovely to see so many thriving locally. I grew up in Pegwell Village and we never saw any as a kid. Not one. We’d see the odd kestrel- many more of those now, too. The cliffs leading out of Ramsgate- and the surrounding farmland, should always be raptor country and it’s crazy to think that they experienced such a long time without a significant peregrine population. Next up for the Kentish countryside is a hare come-back, I hope. Not so long back, I saw a dead one on the Sandwich road, just past the Lord of the Manor roundabout, a few yards beyond the bridge. Not nice, but this close to town, it’s a sure sign that they’re on the up. I also see them in the summer time, when I go tench fishing on the marshlands out between Worth and Sholden. The farmer recently introduced half gates at the main entrance points, which makes my walking time a little longer, but it keeps the hare-coursers out. Last year, the first season with the new gates, I didn’t see any coursers- not one! I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite as I occasionally shoot rabbit for the pot, but I have a firm code and don’t blindly kill endangered animals. On another note, the gates have also welcomed a few elderly dog walkers back to this lovely spot- who were previously frightened of the coursers. Now the only threat to the hares are the two marsh harriers that predate the area… Happy Snapping- Gazza
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Gareth another great post. I’m fortunate enough to own a Peregrine and a few others. Super falcons to hunt with. I’ll be posting a blog shortly today regarding my falcons.
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Great stuff, mate- I look forward to it. I can’t get enough of them- superb creatures; the speed, the agility. So scarce for so long… But now back- and rewilding our towns to boot… Best Regards, Gazza
Evening Gareth, I love those birds as I said we have them in the fens nesting high up pylons and on churches. In the 1990’s Sue and I used to go to Wales every summer fishing mountain lakes for trout and walking the two terriers we had then, Pike and Ruffe, fisherman’s dogs after all. Near the cottage was an old slate quarry and we used to watch and wait for a pigeon th short cut through. Nine times out of ten it died in a confetti like explosion of feathers but fascinated us was that the peregrines stooped on it, beheaded it and caught it before it hit the ground. Talk about a ‘Fast-Air’ attack. It’s a brutal world out there and I often wonder what it’s like under the surface of the drains and rivers around here. Hopefully tomorrow the ice will have gone, thanks for following the linoprints blog, much appreciated. Kind regards, John
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Hello John, They’re awesome, aren’t they? Such a treat to have them back- especially seeing that they can adapt to urbanization. I’m fascinated with these documentaries about the London Peregrines. It’s amazing. Now we just have to find a way to help barn owls adapt to the modern world. Out of the other more ‘showy’ creatures, the kingfishers are doing really well down here. I see at least one each time I fish and have got some cracking photographs recently.
I’m not getting out as much- I usually have a lull in January and the first half of February before fishing much more during the last 4//5 weeks of the season. Probably a good thing. I can appreciate it more and the weather’s getting a few degrees above 5, by then.
I’d like to catch a good size perch again- from the part of the marsh where I see the most kingfishers. I wrote about a similar experience about ten miles north-west of here, at Grove Ferry- we had a chat about it, in fact. I like to collect ‘perch holes’, as it were (!)…. I’ve got four within a ten mile radius that are about as good as it gets. All wild waters. One is fairly well known but the other three are secrets. Then I have about a dozen others spots which are fairly good. But the four ‘hot-spots’ are classics. Like something from a Mr Crabtree adventure. Large perch, as big as can be in one of the spots, with kingfishers, herons, grey wagtails all living nearby. The whole supporting cast of the English countryside, really.
If I can, perhaps I’ll write about it and send the story to a magazine. Fallons Angler is my favourite- they gave me a 6 page spread a couple of years back on tench fishing the southern end of my local marshes. Huge fun with them as they give you a little introduction and photo in the index section. But if I don’t get anywhere, I’ll go to town and make a nice blog story out of it. Mind you, I’ve got to catch another perch first…(!)
God Bless, mate- Stay Lucky out there (and warm)- Gazza