Monday, 9 November 2009

Master of the skies

It’s an exhilarating sight, a Peregrine working the coastal grazing marshes with a display of unrivalled skill and power. It is the reaction of a small flock of Golden Plover that first alerts me to the presence of this master of the skies. As is so often the case, it is the waders that first spot the approach of a predator and take to the air in a close formation that jinks through the sky, flashing different colours as the birds twist and turn in unison. The reaction spreads, as first Gadwall and then Wigeon take flight, the departure of these larger birds suggestive of something bigger and more powerful than the harriers that are the resident hunters above these pools and reeds. It only takes a moment and then I am onto the bird, following it in my binoculars with relative ease as it dives and then rises again in a sweeping arc, powered by strong wings.

There is something truly spectacular and totally engaging about a winter Peregrine working the marshes. Perhaps it is the amount of sky visible above our relatively flat landscape, the expanse of blue and grey providing a suitable canvas on which this stunning bird can exhibit its skill. A bird such as this one will cover some distance, sweeping along the coast towards the Wash, harrying the wildfowl and waders with immaculate ease. This is a top predator, quite capable of bringing down a Herring Gull or Mallard, though more usually taking somewhat smaller prey, such as Black-headed Gull, Lapwing and Redshank. Some of these lowland coastal birds will also hunt inland, working over farmland to exploit our growing Wood Pigeon population. In this respect they are welcomed by many, though Peregrines that harass racing pigeons are one of the main sources of friction between conservationists and those who indulge in pigeon racing.

The return of Peregrines to many former breeding sites has been matched by an increase in the number of birds wintering around the Norfolk coastline. Even so, we are only likely to be talking about a relatively small number of birds that will remain here over the winter. To see just one of these birds in action is a privilege and something that brightens even the coldest, most windswept of November days. This particular bird is working hard and is clearly focussed on securing a meal. Even so, it fails to catch anything in the few brief minutes that it remains in my field of view. Working its way west, and becoming all the more distant, I suddenly lose the bird against the dark outline of a field. It is gone, the moment passed, but there will be other moments and other Peregines.

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