Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North – Peregrine Falcons

wood pigeon

Wood pigeon can fall prey to Peregrine falcons

Peregrine falcons mean different things to different people.  For the naturalist/birdwatcher they are one of the bird icons of the Highlands making it  even top of the list that includes golden eagle, sea eagle, black-throated diver and capercaillie.   To the falconer they are the epitome of falconers birds with, perhaps, only the gyr falcon that is better in terms of prowess and prestige.   Peregrines are also one of the most elusive birds to see and then, when you do, it is mainly when the bird disturbs its prey with birds scattering in alarm.  Part of their attraction is the famous dive, called a “stoop” where the bird has  circled above it’s prey and then suddenly hurtles headlong down.  There has always been much controversy  over the sheer speed of the bird in this  stoop.  Some people claim they can reach 200 mph although accurate figures are difficult to obtain.  Whatever the speed it is very fast indeed and no other bird can  match it and it is almost too quick  for our eyes to follow.

The type of quarry has also been open to debate.  To start with it is likely that the male (called the tierce)  will take smaller prey than the larger, by a third,   female, (called a falcon).   So the range of prey is considerable from  small birds such as buntings to birds as large as  a small goose such as a brent goose.   One of their favourite birds in the Highlands is the woodpigeon, shown in the photograph, but they will take live rabbits on occasions and, in bad weather if the hunting is poor, they will take carrion in the form of dead birds to red deer carcases on the hill.   The birds generally nest on steep inland cliffs often on open moorland where the feeding in the summer can be good from meadow pipits to red grouse.  However, in the winter these vast open areas  are often devoid of birds in general and the peregrines have to resort to the coasts where they often spend the winter hunting  the prolific shore birds.

The firths on the east  coast are where I see peregrines such as from the hides at Udale or Nigg bay.   The first sign is when the flocks of waders such as dunlin or redshank  or flocks of small duck, such as teal or even mallard, get agitated.  Suddenly the flocks take off and wheel around  as if confused and often  above them is the hunting peregrine.    Suddenly the bird turns in its soaring flight and stoops and the intended prey scatter in all direction. The last one I saw was at Udale Bay And it stooped on and successfully  hit a teal in mid air and the duck plummeted to the saltmarsh below.   The peregrine struck with its talons and probably broke the teal’s back or neck   The peregrine turned sharply and dropped onto  its prey and to tore it to pieces with feathers flying everywhere.

Although there is some evidence of a recent decline in peregrines in the northern Highlands there are now around 600 pairs breeding in Scotland.  This is the highest for many years as for decades these falcons have had  problems.  One of the most serious adverse affects was that of chemicals that led to birds dying and thin eggshells that broke resulting in no chicks.    Peregrines have also been persecuted because they supposedly affect the numbers of game birds and also the egg collectors took their toll.  Fortunately they are now fully protected and in most areas their future seems assured.