I don’t have many regrets yet, but one of my biggest is not getting into wildlife photography sooner. I spent three years at uni in Bristol, but I didn’t buy a telephoto lens until right at the end. That means three whole years of awesome urban wildlife passed me by!
As well as a couple of Peregrine Falcons in the city centre, Bristol is also home to a second resident pair in the Avon Gorge. This is probably the best place to photograph Peregrines in the entire country, so it’s pretty awesome to have a second chance to capture them in action now that I’m back in Bristol for a while.
I was lucky enough to see the adult Peregrines flying around and even mating while I was here for a few days in March. Fast forward a few months, and now I get to photograph the offspring!
The chicks are incredibly naive when they first fledge, and you can pretty much just stand at the edge of the cliff and sooner or later one of them will land a few metres away. I missed this extraordinary early phase of their development – a good excuse to go back next year! – but the juveniles still don’t seem particularly concerned by their constant stream of lens-toting admirers, and they put on one hell of a show!
In the last week or so, I’ve been lucky enough to witness several food passes (where a juvenile flips upside down in midair to take prey being carried by an adult), I saw one of the young birds catching and killing a Magpie for the first time, and they’ve given me some seriously close flybys.
At one point, the two surviving juveniles came hurtling through the air straight at me before shooting through a gap in the bushes at the top of the cliff, one after the other like impressive feathered bullets – not even ten metres from where my jaw had hit the floor.
And these birds are seriously fast – they’ve been recording diving (called ‘stooping’) at over 240mph! This makes them ever so slightly speedier than Usain Bolt, and in fact they’re the fastest creatures on Earth. It isn’t hard to imagine a David Attenborough-esque commentary when you watch them hunting.
Peregrines are hugely adaptable birds, able to survive in cities by predating the numerous feral pigeons and breeding on high-rises in place of their natural cliffside homes. They’ve also been found to use the light pollution from cities to hunt migrating birds at night, expanding their culinary repertoire with a whole host of prey items that you would never normally associate with urban areas.
In fact, Peregrines are so adaptable and they’re such able hunters that they’re the most geographically widespread bird on the planet. The only possible exception is the rock/feral pigeons that the falcons often hunt, but they were mostly introduced to new areas by man.
Sadly, this incredible adaptability doesn’t extend to the ability to deal with everything people do. Peregrines were extensively persecuted and frequently poisoned by the DDT (an agricultural pesticide that is now banned) in the past; it’s only in the last few decades that Peregrines have recovered from near-extinction in the UK.
Fortunately Peregrine Falcons are one of the great conservation stories of our time. They can be seen scattering pigeons far and wide over almost every major town and city in the country, and a hunting Peregrine really is one of the natural wonders of the world. Wherever you live, the chances are that you’ve got Peregrines very nearby – and you won’t regret going to see them!