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Friday, 10 June 2016

Through a scope, cloudily

Peregrine watch Sunday 5 June 2016

Not a guided walk but a guided watch, with many thanks to Nick Dixon, plus Andrew and James. Over 40 people joined us to see the peregrines closer up, through scopes and binoculars, with observations explained and recounted by Nick, who has been studying the Exeter peregrines for over 20 years. 
Male, slightly darker, and smaller than female. Photo taken by sophisticated method of holding smartphone to eyepiece of scope (photo: Simon Bates)
The current nestbox - or more accurately tray - is at the base of the trefoil window on the south east elevation. There are 2 chicks, both male, from the 4 eggs laid this year, about a week from fledging at time of viewing. The chicks had been fed around 8am, and so relatively inactive for the next part of the morning, but for occasional callisthenics, shadow boxing ducking and diving as if in tribute, as Simon said, to Mohamed Ali. They were perhaps also getting rid of some of down as their flight feathers came through. Meanwhile the male and female took up stations on a pinnacle each.
Through the round window. One of this year's chicks (photo: Simon Bates)
 Webcam to see what's behind the window - link here 

Peregrine watchers (photo: Dave Ireland)

Apart from this, it might be said the peregrines were not doing very much, though one sensed they were intensely watchful, vigilant for prey and buzzards. We watched the peregrines watching, and watched the people watching the pergrines watching. Maybe the peregrines were carrying out their own 'people watch', wondering when we were going to do something other than stand on a car park looking at them. 

While this was all highly observant, there was not much in the way of other activity. Then suddenly one of the parents darted after a prey item, heading over Exe bridges, but came back empty-taloned, a hunting foray which lasted about a minute. However as the clouds gradually lifted, and rising thermals started developing, buzzards started to pass by over the city. The peregrines burst into action: perching on the cross at the top of St Michael's spire, flying out circling higher to get above the buzzards, issuing agitated alarm calls, and attacking. 

Exeter seems to be the only place in the UK where the peregrines have such a honed specific technique for attacking buzzards. There has been some scepticism from seasoned peregrinologists / watchers, some of whom have come to witness the behaviour for themselves (one such visit is described here ). But it appears very much to be a clearly co-ordinated and repeated strategy: an extension of mobbing behaviour possibly, but evolved into phased, looping strikes. The first peregrine makes a stooping attack, to defend against which the buzzard flips upside down to present its talons; however when the buzzard then rights itself, the second peregrine has timed its stoop perfectly to impact at just this moment. 

The buzzards are not killed every time; most are driven away, and some have picked themselves up and flown away after crashing to the ground. The peregrines seem particularly aggressive in the period just before the chicks are about to fledge, and if buzzards venture too close to the church. Whether this is a learned behaviour, so that fledging young will start to repeat this behaviour in their own territories in due course remains to be seen. Interestingly, although peregrines checked out passing Red kites, they did not attack them in this way.   

Now, and here in Exeter, are the time and place to watch this special behaviour. As temperatures need to reach a certain level for thermals, such buzzard - and peregrine - activity often does not start until later in the day, but watch the sunny afternoon skies.

STOP PRESS:  reported that peregrine chicks fledged on Monday (13 June), plus that 3 buzzards were downed over the last week. One of the chicks had to be retrieved a number of times from local roofs after first launch attempts, but is now flying successfully after a meal of roadkill squirrel. Both fledglings are now airworthy and might be seen airborne with the adults. Nick and Andrew are following up the buzzard reports

LATEST NEWS August 2016: one of this year's fledged young was found dead on Paul St, after apparently having collided with the footbridge over the road between Guildhall and Harlequin shopping centres. It's thought it may have been chasing a pigeon. The other of this year's fledged young has still been active and vocal.  

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