World's fastest creature swoops into North East cities
PUBLISHED: 00:16 17 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:54 20 February 2013
It's the world's fastest creature, it's here in the North East, and it could be closer than you think
On a cold, bright February morning Budle Bay, a couple of miles up the coast from Bamburgh, is a happy hunting ground for birdwatchers. Thousands of wildfowl, waders and gulls converge on the mudflats to feed and roost, and its possible to tick off several dozen species from the warmth and comfort of your car, parked by the white railings at Waren Mill.
But twitchers arent the only ones lured by the spectacular congregation of waterbirds. Theres another hunter on the scene, and a far more dangerous one at that. Its Britains most exciting avian predator, the fastest creature on the planet, the peregrine falcon.
Stooping from on high at breathtaking speed, the peregrine aims to hit its target on the wing, killing it by the sheer force of its impact. A plump wigeon makes a satisfying meal, but peregrines will go for anything from a tiny goldcrest to a massive grey heron - witness the panic among even the largest of Budle Bays waterbirds when the soaring falcon dives among them.
Even the most casual nature enthusiast is aware of the peregrines reputation as the most rapid of raptors. Top speeds
in a stoop of anything from 180mph to 217 mph have been widely quoted, though measurements using tracking radar have suggested a more modest
115 mph may be more realistic. If youre that plump wigeon then the exact top speed is academic.
Whatever the true figure, the sight of a peregrine falcon in a high speed aerial dive, its characteristic anchor-shaped profile cutting through a cloud of waders like a hot knife through butter, is unforgettable.
At such speeds any accidental collision with the ground could prove disastrous, which is why the peregrine largely hunts flying prey. Special baffles in the peregrines nostrils enable it to breath at high speed. It will occasionally snatch an unwary bird from the ground or a perch, but only when flying at lower speeds in level flight.
Peregrines hunting among the wildfowl of Budle Bay have most likely moved down from their breeding territories in the Cheviots, where prey is less abundant in winter.
But while upland areas of the North East are still the most important breeding strongholds, there are signs that an increasing number of peregrines are taking to coastal life and establishing breeding sites by the sea. Visit the Farne Islands in the spring and summer, for example, and youve a very good chance of spotting peregrines hunting the resident feral pigeon population.
The increasing peregrine population has been a notable conservation success story over the past few decades. Since the 19th century peregrines have been persecuted by gamekeepers, and in the Second World War large numbers were exterminated because of concerns that they would kill military homing pigeons. But it was the use of persistent toxic pesticides such as DDT in the 1950s that hit the peregrine hardest. These built up in predators at the top of the food chain, poisoned adults, caused eggshells to thin and reduced breeding success. By the early 1960s 80 per cent of the UK peregrine population had been wiped out.
Since these pesticides were banned the peregrine population has gradually recovered, reaching an estimated population of around 1400 breeding pairs by 2002, when the most recent survey was carried out, compared with only 385 in 1961.
Sadly, persecution does still go on, and only last year the case of a man intercepted at Birmingham Airport with 14 live peregrine eggs destined for Dubai, made national headlines. The RSPB continues to report cases of egg and chick theft and deliberate persecution by what it calls rogue elements of the pigeon racing and game shooting communities.
Conservationists, however, have worked hard to help the peregrine bounce back. In Kielder Water and Forest Park, where more than a dozen pairs hold territories, but where suitable nesting sites are at a premium, the Forestry Commission even went so far
as to rebuild a nesting ledge on a
quarry face, after the original ledge crumbled away.
Peregrines invariably choose inaccessible, undisturbed sites for their eyries, such as grassy ledges high on crags, quarry faces or sea cliffs. The nest itself is rudimentary, little more than a scrape in the earth or old debris, made by the female before she lays a clutch of three or four eggs. She will share incubation duties with the male, but once the chicks are born its the female who does most of the early brooding and feeding, while the male goes off hunting to supply food.
As the chicks get larger the female resumes hunting, and once they fledge both adults are involved in teaching them to hunt and handle prey in flight. By four months old the young will be independent, ready to begin their peregrinations as they seek a territory of their own. They face a tough adolescence, with less than a third reaching breeding age.
Those that do survive will pair up for several years, sometimes for life, and defend a territory in which they may have several nest sites. For all that peregrines demand inaccessible nest sites, they are surprisingly adaptable, occasionally opting for spots in such unlikely locations as power stations, radio masts, bridges and dams. A falconer friend recently rehabilitated and released a peregrine found injured at the foot of a BT telecoms mast, upon which the birds had nested.
As the population has grown, so peregrines have started moving into urban areas, nesting on high buildings and even cathedral spires. With the large populations of feral pigeons and starlings that frequent our cities, perhaps its not so surprising that peregrines are finding them attractive locations to set up home.
Local pigeon fanciers may not be overjoyed by the news, but keep an eye on the sky next time you visit Newcastle city centre. Rumour has it that this most magnificent of predators has even moved into the toon.