Category Archives: Peregrines

Serendipitous snaps, and two new bird species

I made another visit to the RSPB reserve at Burton Mere on Tuesday.

Canada geese.

The recent prolonged spell of hot, rainless weather meant that much of the wetland near the Marsh Covert Hide was, in fact, dry-land, which meant that there weren't all that many birds close to the hide. But there were still plenty to see in the distant pool. Continue reading Serendipitous snaps, and two new bird species

Moorland encounter

Yesterday afternoon was unseasonably glorious, so I decided to head up to the Moor.

There wasn't an awful lot going on, but that's not why I go up to the Moor.

S4643

On my way down from the edge, a chap with a spade and sack spotted me and my camera: “Landscape or wildlife?” he called. Both, I said.

It turned out he was the local gamekeeper, laying out grit for the grouse. We chatted for about 15 minutes. He is clearly trying to engage in outreach, to win over the hearts and minds of the locals. He explained that the people who shoot on the Moor aren't a bunch of toffs, but a local group of hard-working enthusiasts; how they only shoot for six days a year; how they only took over the care of the Moor a few years back, and how he reckons the place is a lot better maintained these days. I agreed: it is. He then asked me for any feedback or ideas.

I suggested that a few more boggy patches and pools might be in order (he told me they're working on this), and that the best way to combat the boom-bust predator-prey population cycles of the grouse-parasite and grouse would be to throw a few more predators into the mix. I don't think he was quite with me on this one. I pointed out that, in the 20+ years I've been walking on the Moor, I've only ever seen two buzzards, one peregrine, and not a single hen harrier. The northern moorland, I said, should be practically swarming with raptors.

“Hen harriers numbers have plummeted drastically in recent years,” he agreed. “Nobody's been able to work out why,” he added.

“It's because game-keepers keep shooting them,” I said, calling a spade a spade.

He explained that he had seen a hen harrier on the Moor last summer, and had nearly shot it by accident. He was about to shoot some crows, when he realised they were mobbing a harrier.

He asked me if I'd ever eaten grouse. I said I had, but that I thought it was overrated, and much preferred duck. He confessed that he didn't like the taste of grouse at all—far too strong—but assured me that all the grouse which are shot on the Moor do get eaten.

He seemed like a nice chap, but I'll never understand the mentality of people who enjoy blasting wild birds out of the sky for fun.

On my way down the road towards home, I made up for the previous day's abject failure by managing to take quite a nice photo of a robin in full song.

Robin

Much better to bag wild birds with cameras than shotguns, I reckon.

More photos »

Where was I? (And how I spent my summer)

It has been pointed out to me that I haven't updated this journal in several months. Not that it needed pointing out, you understand: I was painfully aware of the fact. To be honest, I had been toying with the idea of scrapping the whole thing and using the lifesgrandeur.com domain name for some other, as-yet-unidentified purpose.

I've been very busy, you see. I've been writing my book. In fact, I've written my book, and am now looking for a literary agent. Literary agents are extremely difficult to get hold of, apparently, but it's definitely the thing to do, if you can manage it. And, if you can't, there's always the self-publishing-on-Kindle option.

And the weather has been so damn awful, you see. ‘The crappiest summer since records began,’ the Met Office said. Or something like that. So I haven't been getting out as much as I'd like.

And then there's the backlog, you see. I haven't posted here since mid-June. That's over four months' worth of posts I would have to write. Which is a daunting prospect to say the least.

So, tell you what: why don't I just post a whole bunch of photos of stuff I've seen since mid-June, with no commentary except the photo captions, and we'll carry on from there as if nothing happened. Which it didn't, I suppose.

Of course, this means I won't get to tell you about all the stuff I didn't manage to photograph, like the two female goshawk sightings in Anglesey (or, more likely, the same female goshawk twice—my first ever goshawk sightings), and the stoat that failed to spot me sitting on my favourite rock, and the peregrine falcon which flew right by my windscreen while I was stuck in a traffic jam on the M56 near Frodsham Marshes only last week. But you're not interested in goshawks or stoats or peregrines if there aren't any photos, are you?

So, without further ado, on with the pictures. First, a few shots I failed to include in my last post:

Lapwing
A lapwing spotted just below the Moor on a walk on 13th June.
Common haircap moss
Common haircap moss.
Gorse
Gorse.

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Song thrush
On 25th June, on a walk around the lanes, I spotted a song thrush next to the daytime moon.

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I took another walk on the Moor on 12th July—a longer walk than usual, up to High Brown Knowl:

Mitchell Brothers' Mill
Looking down from the Moor towards Mitchell Brothers' Mill.
Caterpillar
An unidentified caterpillar. (I am hopeless at caterpillars.)
Curlew
A curlew circled above me, emitting alarm calls.

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Red grouse
I was back up on the Moor on 18th August, bagging grouse. (The red grouse is one of the stars of my book.)

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Sexton beetle
On a knackering walk with friends in the Yorkshire Dales on 18th August, I added this sexton beetle to my entomological photograph collection. (But, if you look very closely, you will see that there is more than one insect in this photo.)

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And then, in September, came Anglesey: one of my favourite places in the whole world. The photos are here, and the slideshow is here, but here are a few of my better snaps:

Guillemot
A rather tame guillemot.
Wheatear
Quite possibly my best wheatear photo so far. One of my favourite birds (and another star of my book.)
Raven
It's pretty much guaranteed you'll see a raven or two, if you visit the Anglesey coast these days.
Sandwich tern
This sandwich tern was fishing by the rocks every day. It had a newly fledged chick in tow, and was teaching it how to fish—feeding its lazy and noisy offspring in the process.
Bottlenose dolphins
I looked for them every morning, and was eventually rewarded with the sight of a group of three or four bottlenose dolphins heading off across the bay.

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And, other than a couple more walks which did not yield any photos of note, that's about it. We're up to date!

Frodsham Marshes

I lived a stone's throw from Frodsham Marshes for over 30 years, yet I never thought to visit them. Today, en route to visit Dad, I decided to put that right. And I'm so glad that I did.

Trapped between an oil refinery and a massive chemical works, Frodsham Marshes are a classic example of overlooked wilderness. The sort of place celebrated by Richard Mabey in his marvellous The Unofficial Countryside, and by more recent authors including Robert Macfarlane, and Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. Places where Nature hangs on—and, indeed, flourishes—alongside the modern, man-made world.

Edgelands
Edgelands.

I could smell the petrochemicals as I left my car on the bridge over the motorway and headed along the dirt track. I didn't think the sloes at the side of the track would make particularly palatable gin. But the smell soon disappeared as I became accustomed to it, and the rough verges and farmland gave way to untidy hedgerows overflowing with elderberries.

A few late swifts flew overhead as I reached the man-made lake which appeared to have something to do with the Manchester Ship Canal. The lake contained scores of tufted ducks. At the far end, where the lake gave way to untidy grassland, there were waders. I'm pretty poor at wader identification, but managed to recognise lapwings, common sandpipers, and black-tailed godwits.

Black-tailed godwits
Black-tailed godwits.

Turning back, I was admiring a buzzard standing on some rough ground in front of the chemical works, when a small, unidentified little brown job shot overhead with a peregrine falcon in hot pursuit. After less than two seconds, they disappeared behind the hedgerow. But something told me they would be back momentarily, so I fumbled my camera into readiness. And there they were again, ducking and weaving right above me. I fired away like a crazy thing. They were far too fast to focus on, so I just kept shooting.

It was quite clear, though, that the peregrine's heart wasn't really in the pursuit. He almost seemed to be teasing his pursuee. After about ten seconds, he gave up, and disappeared back over the hedgerow.

Peregrine falcon
Peregrine falcon in luke-warm pursuit.

Walking back toward my car, I bumped into a man walking his greyhound. He asked me if I had seen anything. Peregrines are rather common on the marshes, it would seem. He also told me that, a couple of years back, he had spotted an osprey nearby. And a friend of his who works on the ship canal frequently sees porpoises there. Sadly, they never seem to make it back out through the lock gates.

All this wonderful wildlife in such an unpromising location. Perhaps there is still hope for the world after all.

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More photos from my walk »

For more on peregrines, see J.A. Baker's poetic book, The Peregrine.

Soggy peregrinations

The so-called Glorious Twelfth turned out to be anything but. A damp, miserable, hill-foggy day. Only a complete idiot would be found on the moors on a day like this. So I decided to see if I could spot any.

A soggy kestrel hunting above the golf course, then soggy sheep, and a soggy path through the soggy bog, then more soggy sheep. Perversely, I love this sort of weather. Which is just as well, as we have an awful lot of it around here.

As I climbed the hill to the trig point, I entered the clouds and the rain set it. Far too wet for photographs, so I stowed my camera safely away in its bag. Less than ten seconds after I had clicked the bag shut, a shadow flew out of the mist in front of me and passed within 15 yards. It flew with slow, methodical wing-beats, its head tucked into its shoulders for protection against the rain, totally oblivious of the soggy, open-mouthed idiot watching it. Having recently spent several hours trying to determine the identity of a moorland raptor, I knew exactly what to look for this time. Without a doubt, I was looking at my first ever peregrine falcon on the local moor. From its size and colouring, I took it to be a juvenile female.

As I fumbled with my camera bag, the bird swept low and disappeared into the heather, presumably trying to shelter from the rain. I took a line on where she had landed, readied my camera, and made through the heather towards her. But she soon detected me and flew off, leaving me with two utterly unusable photographs.

I have to admit, I was ecstatic. Soggy, but ecstatic. I returned to the path and continued my slosh through the fog.

A soggy, foggy moorland track
A soggy, foggy moorland track.

Then, there she was again! Once more the falcon emerged from the mist about 200 yards in front of me, sweeping back and forth over the heather. With such poor visibility, it was hardly surprising that she was having to hunt so low. Then, with a sharp turn, she alighted on a small cairn of stones (which will henceforth and forever be known as the falcon stones), and peered at me through the fog.

I fired off a couple of quick photos, then began to make my way slowly towards her, clicking away as I went. Suddenly, the falcon looked to her left. I followed her gaze to see another idiot walker appearing out of the mist. When I looked back, the bird had already taken flight. The last I saw of her was as she glided down towards the heather, disappearing behind the brow of the hill.

Taken from 200 yards, through fog and rain, heavily cropped, this is the best I have to show of the soggy encounter:

Peregrine falcon
A soggy peregrine atop the newly dubbed falcon stones.

I headed down from the tops along the soggy path, past yet more soggy sheep, having had what was quite possibly my most enjoyable walk ever on the local moor.

More photos »

Stoodley Pike walk, and an unidentified raptor

A fabulous, five-hour walk up Stoodley Pike, then down into Hebden Bridge and back home.

Jen was going away on business, so she dropped me in Cragg Vale at 06:15. I immediately saw a pair of dippers in the river near the Hinchcliffe Arms, then, heading up to Withens Clough reservoir, I had a good view of a jay, and heard but didn't see a shonechat in the nearby bracken.

I knew the reservoir was closed for improvement work, but didn't realise that the footpath alongside it was also closed. Good job I had an OS map with me! I worked out a convoluted new route up to Stoodley Pike, which took me up to Stony Royd, down a short stretch of Cragg Road (which is actually a green lane), then down and through the fir wood at Sunderland Pasture, across Dick's Lane (another green lane), and up to the Pike. Then it was down via Dick's Lane, Rake Head, and Crow's Nest Wood into Hebden Bridge.

Standing admiring the view from Stoodley Pike Monumnent, I heard a raptoresque call behind me and spotted a bird of prey flying low across the moor. It was about the size of a kestrel, but it clearly wasn't a kestrel. It was too far away to spot any distinguishing marks, but I fired off a couple of photos, in the hope of being able to identify the bird by zooming in on them later:

Unidentified raptor
Unidentified raptor (note the kill in its talons).

 

Unidentified raptor
Unidentified raptor moments later.

Having spent far more time than is reasonable poring over my two grainy photos, and through every bird book I own, trying to decide what the unidentified raptor was, I am plumping, rather surprisingly, for a hobby. My reasoning is as follows:

  • the tops of the wings are slate-grey;
  • the bird was too big to be a male merlin;
  • the bird appears to have a moustache;
  • (by this stage, I am thinking peregrine. Peregrines have certainly been reported in the area. But…)
  • the underside of the bird appears to have a brownish/russet tinge;
  • (so, I am now thinking juvenile peregrine, but…)
  • the first photo clearly shows a white collar at the back of the neck…

The only bird which seems to fit all of these criteria is a hobby. Even though the South Pennines is apparently close to the northern limit of the hobby's range. What swung it for me was a description in one (buy only one) of my bird books, which said that the hobby has an "almost complete white 'neck ring'. Neck ring is most prominent field mark". As far as I can tell, peregrines don't have almost complete neck rings.

Almost as an afterthought, I listened to recordings of the various raptors' calls on the RSPB website. I am pretty sure that the call I heard was indeed that of a hobby, but I didn't hear the recording until several hours after I had heard the bird.

So, a hobby, then!

But I'm still not 100% convinced. (Please let me know, if you know better.)

Identifying birds can be a real pain in the backside at times!

More photos from my walk» | Slideshow»

Postscript (25-Mar-2013): I stand corrected. The bird was a male merlin (see comments below).