It is against the law to photograph and/or intentionally disturb a Schedule 1 bird at the nest site without a "Schedule1 license" issued by Natural England. Penalties can include a term of imprisonment or a £5000 fine. The license is issued to a person who can meet strict criteria. Licenses are only issued to represent 1% of the breeding population of the species. I am in possession of a Schedule 1. license to photograph Peregrine Falcon at this nest site.
In addition, this blog entry is only posted after consultation with officers of the Devon Bird Watching and Preservation Society and great care has been taken to preserve the safety of the birds at this nest site.
I have been keeping a diary for the last few weeks and here it is starting from June 9th 2013.
This is the nest of a breeding pair of Peregrine Falcons that have bred at this site for the last few years. When I visited today,for the first time this breeding season, even though I knew roughly where the nest was, it took me quite a while to locate it. It was exciting to see these fully grown, almost ready to fledge youngsters. In the field I could only see 3 but when I looked at the images back at home I could clearly see 4 healthy babies. The birds are breeding well away from any human interference. It is very difficult to climb up to an area opposite the nest ledge where I could get a clear view of the nest from the hide that I built and remains from last year. There is thick cover which enabled me to approach without disturbance. Peregrine falcons are extremely sensitive to the presence of humans and without the thick cover it would be impossible to approach the nest, even from 50 metres, without the adult birds being aware. I stayed at the nest site for a couple of hours, in that time I watched the young birds snoozing, preening and sleeping off the last meal. I was hidden beautifully in a hide which I can carefully approach from under he cover of woodland. From this vantage point I have a clear view of the nest and also the sky above. From time to time both parents would fly around calling occasionally. I was able to get this photo as one of the birds flew over me.
On the 10th when I visited there was still 4 youngsters on the nest ledge and I watched the comings and goings of the parents who were delivering prey with much excitement from the youngsters as they approached the nest giving me the chance to get myself ready to watch the delivery. Prey has been mostly small song birds as well as the odd Magpie and young Carrion Crow.
Photography is not easy. I am positioned more than 50 metres from the nest and have been using a 500mm 4.5 Sigma prime lens with a Kenko 2x convertor attached. Some degrading of the images is caused by the use of the convertor. Here, one of the nestlings carries a prey item to eat it without competition from it's siblings. The prey has been plucked away from the nest by the parent before delivering, making it impossible to identify but it is Blackbird or Thrush sized. The parents, instead of feeding the chicks are now just dropping prey on to the nest ledge. A "free-for-all" then" ensues as either the strongest or hungriest grabs the prey. I watched one young bird "cover" it's prey by crouching and extending the wings over it's meal. This is well known adult behaviour.
The young peregrines are quite delicate feeders. In this photograph even though one bird is possession of prey the other bird is not aggressively trying to take it, allowing the other to feed quietly. As I subsequently watched these birds for countless hours, this has been quite an interesting example of behaviour. It could be that with a never ending supply of food, the birds do not need to compete too much.
Here is a clear view of the four siblings. Peregrines lay up to four eggs so it is normal for there to be four chicks. Incubation starts when the last egg is laid so that all the chicks hatch on the same day. There is difference in size and development though, as you can see, some still have down protruding, this is probably due to females being larger than males.
At t the Peregrine nest on the morning of the 10th it wasn't long before one of the parents delivered prey to the four young birds. There was quite a degree of commotion with the adults screaming loudly. Suddenly one of the adults delivered a prey item to the youngsters, it looked like a Common Starling but it was hard to be certain. It seemed that one of the youngsters was dominant and it grabbed the prey from the parent and then protected it before taking pieces of flesh off it quite carefully. The other youngsters seemed content to let their sibling feed without interference. The parents, in stead of feeding their nestlings are now just delivering prey and letting them feed themselves. I would estimate that they are due to leave the nest at any time, possibly tomorrow. But as the days went by, one bird left the nest ledge and would return to join the others from time to time.
I cant be sure where on the ledge the eggs were actually laid but at the moment, just prior to fledging the nest the birds are quite mobile and move around an area of the ledge which is about 6 feet wide. This grass knoll seems to be a favourite spot. After a few days 3 had fledged leaving just one youngster on it's own. This bird appeared to be several days behind the others in development giving me the impression that it had hatched a day or so later than the others which is contrary to information that I have previously read.
It's hard to get really good photos from the distance that I am from the nest ledge. I am having to crop my images considerably so its remarkable that I have a few that are almost acceptable. It's interesting to see the different pattern on the head in this juvenile compared to an adult.
......and the young bird then gets on with it's meal, a starling left by the male who, instead of feeding the chicks like he did when they were young, now delivers plucked prey for the youngsters to feed themselves. It must be precarious existence for the other residents of the wood as it seems that nothing is off the menu. The chicks spend between 35 and 42 days in the nest and are responsible for eating at least two prey items a day for the first 25 days or so, increasing to probably 4 a day from 25 to 42 days. This represents a flock of around 150 birds of various species. I had noted last year that Magpies (Pica pica) seemed to be taken by this pair.
They preen constantly running the tail feathers through the beak. This is obviously instinctive behaviour. Several times I have seen birds standing on one leg as they scratch but then being unable to maintain their balance and almost falling over even though it's very obvious that they are very strong, they have yet to develop a good sense of balance.
Youngsters can be told from the adults by the lack of a yellow eye ring and cere (above the beak) and also they have a buff/cream band at the end of the tail.
The adults seem in tune to every sight and sound as they stand guard over the youngsters. In the photo below a dog has barked nearby which caused quite a reaction from this adult, the female. It remained on this perch for around 15 minutes but always remained alert, looking and listening intently.
The birds have some favourite perches around the nest area and one is this perch (below) which I have a clear view of from a hide just above. The youngsters used this very same branch last year so there must be something very inviting to the young birds (and adults) as well. Note the absence of yellow around the beak and eye which is blue grey in the youngsters.
The young bird was calling and begging for food almost constantly. It was interesting to see that even though it can fly strongly and in a controlled way, even being able to land on this relatively slender perch, it found it difficult to maintain it's balance as it moved around on the perch.
On the 14th June I visited twice. There were still two youngsters still to fledge and then the 2 became 3 when one returned to the ledge. When I returned in the evening and watched the 2 youngsters on the ledge on a dead tree to the left of the ledge the female was keeping guard, noisily calling now and again. In the same tree one of the youngsters sat on a perch beneath her and then the male arrived and began to pluck a recently caught prey item. This took about ten minutes before he flew over to the ledge and delivered it to the two chicks.
Behaviour by now had started to change with the young birds spending most of their time in a large bare Oak adjacent to the next ledge and the parents away, some 100 metres in a wood opposite where I can hear them from time to time. A lot of the behaviour of the young birds is very instinctive like this covering of prey which all birds of prey do. Having now taken possession of the prey item from the female, the young bird makes a statement that it his hers before starting to feed on it.
The female caught this prey very close to the perch that she is on. I watched her catch sight of the prey and then quietly dive down through the leaves of the oak towards her quarry . Seconds later she was back on a perch plucking the victim. All the while, one of the youngsters was waiting on a higher branch and as she plucked it, it was calling loudly, begging to be fed. It took several minutes before the female flew up and handed over the prey, a small song bird.
Now the youngsters have left the relative safety of the ledge and they are spending their day in the bare Oak. Compare this youngster to the adults, it is more brownish with different facial markings and lacking the white throat and breast and has a buff/cream band to the end of the tail which is totally absent in an adult.
This is the female, she is about to slip quietly off the back of this branch to predate a small songbird. I have been surprised to discover that the majority of prey is small rather than pigeons and ducks etc. This is probably due to the abundance of small birds in the woodland next to the nest site whereas Peregrines that nest on coastal cliffs would predate larger birds such as waders and seabirds.
Adult females are significantly larger than males with more body bulk. Markings on the head are not as distinct as the male and the throat and upper breast is not pure white like the male. However they are still difficult to tell apart unless you see them close together. If you compare the photos of the male with this you can see that comparatively, she has a slight brownish appearance whereas the male is slate blue. The male spent a lot of the time interacting with the female, when he heard her calling he would quietly answer her. However when she flew towards him he seemed to give up his perch to her giving me the distinct impression that she was dominant over him. Given that she is almost a third bigger than him, this is understandable. The adult male as well as being smaller has a more solid black head, a cleaner white throat and is more sleek and elegant than the female.
Spotted Flycatcher are really common on Menorca and I saw them almost constantly. Having said that, they are not always willing to stick around if they are disturbed too much but using the car as a hide enabled me to get really close to this bird which was obviously feeding youngsters in a nest nearby.
I haven't had a Greenfinch in the garden for a couple of years so, just like a bus, two came along together this morning. I was obviously pleased to see them, both females incidentally. It's ironic because my neighbour has decided to chop down a beautiful large apple tree in their garden today, in fact as I speak it's happening. I am short of devastated but very upset. This tree has been responsible for attracting lots of wildlife in to my garden this last 10 years or so and it was a beacon to all the birds passing through from the open areas of the river country park who used it as a flight path as they moved on to the open country side on the edge of the "village". We have had all sorts of birds in this tree, a Redpoll being the highlight, but Redwing, Mistle Thrush, Goldfinch, Siskin, Goldcrest, Chiffchaffs, Willow Warbler and Blackcaps have been the highlights not to mention several Sparrowhawks. This blog was actually set up to record the wonderful wildlife that has been encouraged in to the garden by this gorgeous tree and now it's no more. A beautiful, glorious tree in full leaf and very healthy giving off life giving oxygen, nature's way of dealing with polution. It's very sad and extremely frustrating.
When I had visited the Kingfisher nest site yesterday I had been dismayed to see that the high water line was almost up to the nest even though there was still several minutes to go before high tide. I had to leave because it was almost dark and went home keeping my fingers crossed in the hope that the burrow would not be inundated. Spring tides are always higher than neaps and we are on springs at the moment . I took some confidence, and still do, to note that during the May spring tides the predicted levels were even higher and yet I know that the Kingfishers had managed to raise at least 3 youngsters to fledging. So it appears that they may have been able to endure in spite of what must have been avery close thing. If you look at the picture you can see that last night the water level reached the very edge of the nest and I am banking on the structure of the nest burrow to have preserved the safety of the clutch. Because the nest burrow slopes upwards I am assuming that the actual nest cavity which is hollowed out at the end of the tunnel is going to be several inches higher than that water line. Fingers crossed. If that doesn't prove to be the case then we have to accept that nature is very unpredictable. The Kingfishers have chosen a very precarious site, right on the edge of the rivers highest level. This afternoon, even though I didn't see any activity at the nest that is not to say that incubation was taking place as usual. I did hear and see a bird fly by as normal so I can only assume that, in spite of the danger, things are still progressing. I am returning to the nest site this evening when I hope to see some activity at the nest to confirm the situation.
*Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update*
I returned to the Kingfisher site this evening to continue my observations. I have to confess that I am now seriously concerned that the nest has failed. I sat again for 1 1/2 hours waiting to see some activity at the nest. I didn't..........! It could be that I am just being unlucky, I don't think it's unusual for a Kingfisher to spend 2 hours on the nest before changing over. I have no experience of watching Kingfishers at the nest so I have nothing to compare. I do know that while one is incubating it is normal for the other bird to be well away from the nest. The only sniff of an indication that everything is still OK was when, both earlier today and this evening, a Kingfisher flew past the nest burrow calling as it went. I think that this may indicate the presence of a bird in the nest and the flying bird was on both occasions, calling to its mate..... but who knows?
*Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update* *Update*
We are in the middle of a crisis at the Kingfisher nest site. The river is tidal, this wouldn't normally present a problem, however the height of each tide is dictated by the phases of the moon and there are two types of tide. The highest ones are spring tides, and the lowest are neaps and the height difference can be dramatic. Yesterday was a very high spring tide and when I visited the nest to check I could see that the morning tide had been up to within a foot of the nest hole! The worry is that the evening tide was going to be higher and when I left at 9 0'clock it hadn't quite reached the high line of the morning but there was still 30 minutes to go before it reached its full flood. Would it inundate the nest? It was getting dark when I left so when I return this morning I am hoping for a successful outcome. I didn't hear or see a Kingfisher last evening but that's not unusual as one was probably in the nest and I wasn't there for even an hour. It can be a lot longer before you hear or see one when they are incubating, so even though I am slightly concerned we will have to wait and see if everything is OK. All in all I am slightly pessimistic.
Its quite hard to photograph swifts and yesterday, after being invited by the owner of a cottage on the edge of Dartmoor to come and look at the birds using nest boxes under the eaves of his thatched cottage, I went to try and get some good images. This is definitely a project in progress now because it will be just a matter of time before the conditions are right to get some pictures that I am satisfied with. They are not called swifts for nothing, they fly incredibly quickly but I could see that once the light is right I will be able to photograph them as they come and go from their nest boxes which are in use now.
While I was waiting last evening I passed the time by photographing the Collared Dove that was using the nearby roof as a vantage point.
I arrived at the nest site this morning after not visiting since last Tuesday evening. I had found it really stressful then and there is not a great deal I can do to help if disturbance is taking place, so I would rather not know. When I got there, just as on my last visit it was as though there was no nest nearby, Kingfisher wise, it was quiet and there was no sight or sound of a bird and if you didn't know of the nest burrow just opposite, you would be no wiser. My ears are tuned in to the sound of a Kingfisher calling and I noted down every time I heard one. My notebook tells me that it was about 15 minutes before I heard one, just twice in a minute or so and then within 30 minutes one flew in front of the hide from up river. When the first hour was up I had briefly seen one bird and I suspected that the other one was sitting tight on eggs in the burrow. At least I hoped so. The usual dog walkers and stone throwing owners had come and gone but most hadn't lingered too long and as there was no sign of a Kingfisher then they were causing no disturbance whatsoever. After I had been there 75 minutes, suddenly a bird arrived and called loudly but unfortunately that coincided with the arrival of yet another dog and owner so the bird who I suspect had arrived to take over, moved on up river. There was now a period of well over 35 minutes when there was absolute peace and quiet with no people or dogs and this would have been a great time for a change over at the nest. It didn't happen then though and I did begin to wonder if everything was OK? I now know that to be the case and it just proves that the none incubating bird keeps away from the vicinity when the other one is sitting. It was during this quiet time when a Carrion Crow actually perched on my hide (with me sitting in it), proving that it is an accepted part of the landscape now. I love it when this happens. After 15 minutes short of 2 hours the first really interesting activity took place and I will quote from my notebook. "KF calls loudly and again flies by me.... and now again. Now I film it next to the nest (see above) but it gets disturbed by someone who, totally oblivious walks right past on the bank above the bird just 2 feet away. (I wonder how many times people do that)? The bird flies of (still unseen), and flies towards me and then, calling very loudl it flies off up stream. It's 18 minutes later when the walker and his doggie had gone and then it flies back and settles on the same stick. In fact, in exactly the same place. Note: This is usual behaviour, once a KF has used a perch it will repeatedly use it. Unfortunately there was still a dog and owner near but this time, even though he is aware of them he stays put on the perch. During that 18 minutes I saw a bird fly strongly up-stream, this was the female leaving her sitting duties. I could clearly see that this perched bird was the male and after a few seconds, up he went to take his place on the eggs. The female had spent more than 2 hours in it's nest. All in all, after a lot of patience, a great outcome. It seems as though incubation is progressing nicely.
I went back in the evening with a few hours to spare and watched the male flying up and down the river in front of the nest. He perched for a while on his new favourite perch and I took a few photos. The river is around 25 to 30myards wide at this point and therefore my photos, being so distant are really just record shots. I hope you understand?
This is a blow by blow account of this evening's session at the Kingfisher site. It shows that this breeding pair of Kingfishers, who have already successfully fledged youngsters at this site are tolerant of an incredible amount of disturbance.
"I arrived at the nest site at 6.30 this evening to be confronted with people paddling deep in the water in front of the nest. My heart sank, I don't know how long they had been there of course but I decided to ask them to move away explaining that breeding birds were near here and they were probably causing a massive disturbance. They complied immediately and moved away which was good to see. That small party was replaced by another walker and his dog almost immediately so it will be interesting (to say the least) to see if the birds are going to be able to tolerate this level of disturbance. I certainly hope so, but only this evening's session is going to give me the answer. If I was a Kingfisher then there is no way that I would have chosen this site, the problem being that as the spring turns in to summer there is much more disturbance.
House Martins are a summer visitor that has declined by 66% in the last 20 years. Imagine that if you can? 20 years ago when you may have seen flocks of a hundred this is now reduced to 30 and if this trend continues this 30 will be reduced to less than ten in the next 20 years. That will be a reduction of 90%. Obviously that can't be sustained, is the species on the road to possible extinction. How sad would that be? I remember my father telling me that in the summer time in 1930 when he was a boy, the air was black with Swallows, Swifts and Martins and they were that numerous that they would block out the sun! We had Martins breeding on my house here in Exeter 25 years ago, in fact every house in my street had House Martins nesting, last year there was just one nest. I was therefore very pleased to see quite a large flock gathering mud for their nests on the muddy puddles in the flood relief scheme near Exeter Quay. I went back this morning to try and get some in flight photos which at first was very successful but then a couple of workers arrived to cut the grass which spooked them a bit ( to say the least).
At the nest site. this evening there were some good developments. It wasn't long before I heard and then saw a bird fly past the nest burrow and down the river, and then back again. What transpired then was very reassuring. I have been trying to ascertain if there is a second clutch of eggs laid yet and if incubation has begun? Not being all that experienced with nesting Kingfishers, I still have a lot to learn so I have found it difficult to interpret behaviour. There was a lot of calling and it seemed as though the male was quite agitated as he flew to the bank by the nest, then he was disturbed by the usual dog walkers and I watched him come straight towards me and alight in the tree by the hide. To start with, this was different behaviour than I had seen before. The bird was quite aware of the presence of people and a dog just opposite and yet he chose to remain in the true watching, he flew back to the nest even though there were people nearby, previously when there had been people near he had flown away, only returning when it was completely quiet. I wasn't sure where he was but I switched the camera in to film mode and focused on the nest entrance for a couple of minutes. I didn't see him enter the burrow but when I checked the video I saw that he had quickly and quietly taken his place in the nest burrow. It seems that he had been waiting to take over his incubation duties and that's why he hadn't flown clear of the area. I think you can safely assume that there is a clutch of eggs and incubation has begun. I am thrilled that everything is progressing just the way I hoped it would.
Its now June 1st and it's two weeks since I first realised that the Kingfishers at my licensed site had successfully fledged at least 3 youngsters. Things have got quieter and quieter around the site as every day has gone by, so much so that this evening I even began to think that they had moved on to another site. This morning it had been an hour before I heard, and then saw a bird and then because of walkers nearby it didn't linger. Of course, the female could have been in the nest all along, there is absolutely no way of knowing. Then this evening, again it was extremely quiet and it was also almost an hour before I first heard a bird and like this morning, its possible that the female was in the nest and I suspect that this was the case. With the male calling to my left my attention was drawn to that bird and I couldn't be sure if the female left the nest burrow, not being able to look in two directions at once. Then I caught sight of the female who was calling from near to the nest burrow. This was just the result I had been hoping to see. Then I witnessed some very interesting behaviour . I watched her fly up to the nest but instead of flying in, it hovered around the entrance for at least 5 seconds but probably more before returning to the mud beneath. It postured repeatedly, crouching low with an outstretched beak, bobbing up and then back down again which I took to be an invitation to mate. The male was nowhere to be seen now! This went on for a minute or se before she flew up to the burrow and disappeared inside. I have no idea if eggs have been laid, but my suspicions are leaning towards that.