Peregrines Make History
A sighting of a Peregrine Falcon is guaranteed to brighten any day’s birding and the keen-eyed observer can usually locate an individual somewhere in the NarVOS area as birds are recorded each year. Since 2006 one of the best places to find a Peregrine has been in the King’s Lynn Docks area and especially around the grain silo, where a female was regularly seen.
In October 2007 a juvenile male bird appeared at the silo, keeping his distance from the female which was thought to be an adult. He looked so small compared to her but after three weeks he left and she was on her own again.
Needing a helping hand
However, as the female continued to take a liking to the silo tower and surrounding area NarVOS member, Ashley Banwell, approached Agrilink, the users of the tower, for permission to erect a nestbox in the hope of attracting the interest of the female and, hopefully, a male.
In early 2008 another NarVOS member, Jon Hall, constructed a large nestbox and in March both Ashley and Jon, with the help of Agrilink staff, erected it on the silo.
Soon after, in March, a first-summer male appeared at the silo which may have been the juvenile from the previous year. For the next few weeks the new arrival and the female kept their distance until she began sharing her kill with him. Shortly after this development he flew in so fast that he knocked her off the railing and onto the silo’s catwalk. Undaunted, they proceeded to display, providing magnificent sights of these beautiful raptors. She was observed landing and raising her tail for him to mate but this was the first and last evidence of mating that year.
One of the problems Peregrines can suffer from is rheumatism in their legs, caused by the recurrent impact when catching prey, and during 2008 the lone female’s leg seemed to be getting weaker.
The male stayed around until that September when he flew off high to the east. During the winter of 2008-9 the female appeared to be on her own yet again, as no sightings of the male were recorded.
The 2009 year started with the male Peregrine still absent. He was missing for about six weeks whereas the female was on site most days, feeding mainly on Feral Pigeons and the odd Collared Dove and Blackbird. The female took two of the Turnstones that feed on the spilt grain on the dockside, dropping one in the dock. In mid-February the male returned and received a good display from his mate with the female continuing to kill and the male waiting for what was left.
During March mating was noted twice. The female was now having problems holding her kill with the injured left leg. Over the next few days she was not seen to move from the small middle platform on the silo and was not seen again. She may have died.
In the period that followed the male was seen occasionally sitting on the top railing cocking his head to one side looking at the skies as if expecting his old mate to return. The male was on his own up until the second week of April when a second-summer female appeared. At first, the pair kept well apart from each other, until the male started to display in front of her after he had killed. Next, he would place the kill on the parapet which included Feral Pigeon, Blackbird and Collared Dove. Just as the male started to feed, the female would swoop down and take it from him. Once, the male took a Greenfinch and displayed to the female with it in his talons. He also displayed with a carcass from a previous kill. Shortly after this they mated.
On a sunny Saturday in May one regular observer, John Lambourne, saw what was at first thought to be a third Peregrine. A spectacular aerial battle then took place when the second-summer bird was chased off by the newcomer, along with the male. However, the third individual turned out to be a Barbary Falcon complete with jesses. The male Peregrine and Barbary Falcon put on impressive displays which took place a few times.
On 17th June a female reappeared. Prior to this the male had been very alert as if anticipating this latest arrival. Their display coincided with the departure of the Barbary Falcon and the female may have been the one that had been chased off by the ‘intruder’. Sometimes she would kill pigeons and just let them drop and at other times carry them for a time with feathers flying and drop them alive.
In order to increase the chances of the pair nesting Ashley suggested the erection of a nest tray, as an alternative to the nestbox. Jon duly obliged with a suitable structure and this was erected on the north side of the silo.
By December 2009 the pair had been together for six months with the female doing nearly all the killing. Now well into winter, the male disappeared for a few days at a time. Just before Christmas they were both absent for a few days with the female returning first.
Getting it together
In 2010 the year started much the same as the previous one had ended with the male missing for most of the rest of the winter period and only returning occasionally to the site. The female was a more regular visitor. From the second week of February the birds were seen mating occasionally and this went on throughout the month although there seemed to be no signs of the female becoming broody.
It looked as though for yet another year they were not going to nest but towards the end of March they mated again. It was another week before the female was seen to go into the nestbox and she was not spotted again until the male started to do some sitting. It was then that it looked as if the female must have been incubating.
During the time the female was sitting, the male was taking prey to her. After 31 days the male started taking smaller items of food to the box and occasionally you could see the female dragging the prey to the back of the box. The smaller prey consisted mainly of Blackbirds and Starlings, which was a sign the young had hatched. It was then it was decided to investigate the nest and on the 8th June two small but healthy chicks were found. When NarVOS members, Allan Hale and Ashley, returned together with John on 14th June they were successful in ringing and colour ringing the two well-grown chicks.
Soon after the second visit to the nest, the older chick could be seen from below, trying to reach the front ledge of the nestbox. About a week later the smaller of the two also made it to the front ledge and it did not take them long after this for them to explore the area around the box and walk along the rails. The first flight occurred on 6th July with the first, the stronger of the two, on the wing a week before the other.
The larger and stronger sibling could be seen mock diving at the pigeons. The smaller of the two was strengthening its wings one day when a really strong gust of wind took it straight off the rails at the top of the elevator and it ended up on the ground, necessitating a rescue operation. John was given permission by the Dock staff to take it back to the nest site and soon after it was on the wing again (this time intentionally!) with the family and two young putting on great displays.
A month later the female was taking prey away from the nest site with the two young following. They headed north each time soon after this with the young returning only occasionally to the nest site, but neither parents took any notice of them. A family of Peregrines, namely 2 adults and two recently fledged young, were seen on a ploughed filed near The Wash a mile or so north of King’s Lynn in early August, almost certainly the same family.
The year of 2010 will go down as a great one with the nesting Peregrines giving a great deal of enjoyment to all who watched them. They also made history as the first nesting Peregrines in Norfolk for 150 years.
From strength to strength
Great things were expected of the Peregrines in 2011 and the year started as usual with the male being absent for much of the time. He had been visiting the site only a couple of times a month since October, but then towards the end of January he settled in at the silo.
First mating was observed on 21st January and was witnessed on seven occasions during the following two weeks. The pair were only seen to mate once during February but within ten days the female took to the nestbox and the male regularly supplied her with food.
On 10th May the nestbox was inspected and three eggs were being incubated. It was estimated that any chicks would be ready for ringing by 8th June and on that date three healthy youngsters were duly ringed. In addition to the metal ring, each was fitted with an orange ring with codes BK, HT and HV. It was hoped that these would be spotted by observers giving us valuable information on the birds without having to re-capture them, or finding them dead! At ringing the birds’ primary feathers had emerged from their ‘pins’, but were less than one third grown. From all the information gained thus far, we were able to establish that the date of the first egg was 17th April.
On 4th July one of the chicks (orange BK) took its maiden flight. Clearly it was not quite developed enough and it landed in the dock and drowned. Three days later the remaining two young Peregrines successfully left the nestbox. They soon started doing dummy dives into the flocks of pigeons without making a kill. This continued into the second week of September but from 21st September only one youngster was seen, suggesting that the other one may not have made it. The last sighting of a young bird was towards the end of October. It was never seen to kill, nor to be fed by its parents during these latter months so the assumption was that it was fending for itself away from the site.
Allan was invited to view the corpse of BK after it had been retrieved from the water by Dock staff and placed on the dockside. However, on his arrival the corpse had gone.
While NarVOS and its dedicated members can take satisfaction from their part in this successful story, thanks must be given to John Desborough at Agrilink and to the British Ports Authority for allowing us access to the docks, giving permission to erect the nestbox and to monitor progress. Without this support it may not have happened.
The nestbox and the tray remain at the silo and during 2012 the Peregrines chose the tray. The opportunity was taken to do a clean-up of the nestbox. In it was the very bird allegedly drowned the previous year (orange BK). The corpse had long, but not full grown, primaries. It is very unlikely that the number was misread, and it is not possible that one of the Dock workers returned the corpse to the nestbox. Is it conceivable that an adult Peregrine retrieved it? If so, why? Might it have thought that a recovery was possible or could it have been seen as a potential food item (like carrion)? We will never know.
Following the success of King’s Lynn’s Peregrine nestbox its design, from the Hawk and Owl Trust, was subsequently used to make and erect a similar one on Norwich Cathedral. In 2013 a pair successfully raised three chicks there, delighting the city’s residents and visitors alike.
Unfortunately, for reasons beyond our control, we have been unable to generate the publicity that has been afforded to the Norwich Cathedral Peregrines. No webcam, no attended watch point and no television broadcasts or newspaper articles. However, Peregrines have now bred at King’s Lynn Docks for four successive years – quite a record.
A 2013 epic
Ever since the Peregrines first nested at the docks in King’s Lynn we have monitored progress and fitted the youngsters with rings before they fledged. This year was different as, due to the result of damage to the roof of the silo, no access was granted to the nestbox. However, several NarVOS members had been reporting on progress through the breeding season. We knew that the female was incubating, we knew roughly when the chicks hatched and as a result of Stewart South’s diligence we were able to pinpoint a fledging date of 7th July. Three youngsters fledged, leaving the only unknown as the number of eggs laid. Not bad considering we had no access!
On 29th July Allan got a call from Ashley who had information from the silo staff that the female had physically dumped one of the youngsters into the docks. The story from the staff was fascinating as they had actually seen events unfold with the female swooping down and knocking the youngster off of its dockside perch into the water. They failed in their rescue attempt but the bird was still alive and floundering in the water. A quick telephone call to Associated British Ports resulted in the launch of their ‘speedboat’ and a successful recovery of the drenched bird. It was popped into a cardboard box and Ashley was duly summoned.
Ashley met Allan at North Runcton to transfer the bird, still in the box, and from there it went to a lady in Beachamwell who works in animal welfare on behalf of PACT Animal Sanctuary. She was to give it a health check and dry it out, in the hope that we could release it back where it came from.
Now here it became interesting! After drying out it was deemed healthy, but it had ‘changed’ into an adult male (thoroughly wet through, in the dark of a cardboard box, one Peregrine looks very much like another). Despite the provision of food, it had not eaten, so it was a race to get it back just as soon as possible. The bird was now in a purpose-built carrying cage, looking forlorn but still very handsome.
It was at this stage that we started wondering about where the bird had come from. Was it an interloper that the female had taken exception to, or was it the female’s mate, the father of her chicks? If the latter, why on earth was it attacked?
It was back at the docks ready for release less than six hours from the time it was unceremoniously dumped into the water. It had a sizeable welcoming committee of Allan, Ashley, Stewart, and about five of the staff from the silo were also present. Hoping for a happy ending it was now release time. In the hope that eventually we might get further news of the bird a ring needed to be fitted before we opened the door and waved it goodbye. Now Peregrines can be very feisty indeed and need to be handled carefully. Problems from the beak are not usually too bad (but be careful!); it’s from the talons that the real danger lies. With great dexterity, Ashley got the bird out and Allan fitted the ring.
It was then put down on to the tarmac well away from the water so it was not the subject of another rescue. With fingers, and everything else, crossed, we stood back. It didn’t move. We were conscious that the bird was probably stressed so the decision not to ‘launch it’ seemed like a good one. Ashley spoke to the bird sternly, giving it all the advice that it needed! A couple of flaps and it was airborne on those hugely powerful wings, but the drama wasn’t over. It flew low towards the water, then extremely low when it reached the water. Oh no, it wasn’t going for a swim again, surely?
Suddenly it rose majestically and flew to the top of the silo where it perched close to the female, much to our relief. They were best mates again! So it was the male of the pair and as Ashley so succinctly put it: “Why did she hoof him into the water in the first place?”
We all made our way home immensely pleased with the outcome and proud to have been part of the rescue operation as well as getting ‘close ups’ of such a magnificent bird. And full marks to the staff at the docks for their prompt action; without it the bird would have surely perished.
The Peregrine is a specially protected species and the project was licenced under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.