Saturday, 2 April 2011

Mistress of the skies

It was Nick who spotted the Peregrine: its sleek, sharp-winged profile, drifting in a shallow dive that took in an extended arc of sky. The metre wide wingspan was silhouetted against the bright blue, the bird itself drifting south and scanning for prey with leisurely ease. This was my first Peregrine over the lakes, though not the first one to be seen here this year. In fact there had been several sightings in recent weeks, most likely of the same bird and hinting at an individual that was wintering and roosting nearby. Such is the range of these birds, however, that ‘nearby’ could easily mean Bury beet factory, a dozen miles to the south.

We’d speculated on the presence of such a bird earlier in the day while scanning some of the adjoining pasture for Stone-curlews or an early Wheatear (we saw neither). A broad scatter of feathers and the remains of a Mallard suggested an act of predation. Given that the middle of a field was an unlikely place for a Mallard to be caught on the ground, we suspected that it might have been taken in the air by a Peregrine. Our sighting of the bird itself now added weight to that hypothesis.

To have a Peregrine around locally shows how far we have come since the dark days of the 1960s, when there were no more than fifty pairs of these magnificent birds in England. The effects of persistent organochlorine pesticides, accumulating up through the food chain, had brought about a decline in the Peregrine population by poisoning both adults and unborn embryos, with DDT additionally reducing the thickness of Peregrine eggshells, which then broke during incubation. The banning of these compounds, coupled with more enlightened attitudes to birds of prey, has allowed the Peregrine population to recover and many former haunts have been recolonised.

You do not need to travel out of the county to see Peregrines any more. A pair of Peregrines is resident on Norwich cathedral and you will often find local birdwatchers on hand to point them out if you happen to wander by and take an interest. The presence of the Peregrines will make things interesting for the many Feral Pigeons living in the city, and the return of a top predator is to be welcomed. Not only is it a sign that our attitudes have changed but it also provides an opportunity for those living within the city to see a truly wild and magnificent part of nature. I felt a surge of adrenaline when I saw the Peregrine drift over the other morning. To see a creature that has such an impact must be a good thing and is to be recommended.

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