The shape was unmistakable and so too was the sound. The bird travelled due north across the strath, its wings half folded in the classic ‘w’ shape. Although it was impossible to even estimate its speed, its rapid passage from hillside to hillside was to say the least, impressive. And as it sped through the air, it screeched as only peregrines can.
As it approached the wooded hillside on the northern flank of the strath, its protestations seemed to become more agitated. It sounded like a revolving wheel badly in need of oiling. Furthermore, as it approached the trees another peregrine voice rose to join the protest … two wheels in need of oil! Later, still screeching, one of them was seen drifting high above us.
I was instantly transported to an event some years ago – on my own back doorstep – which certainly raised a smile. It was one of those lovely autumn days, one on which one of the neighbourhood buzzards clearly thought would be ideal for a little aerial stroll over the surrounding fields, as buzzards are wont to do. Little effort, a few desultory flaps followed by a leisurely glide. That clearly was the intent anyway.
And that was how it started. He was just drifting easily over the yellow stubble above the big field, when out of a clear blue sky and with absolutely no warning, hurtled what appeared to be, a very angry peregrine. Furthermore, all this seething anger was for the time being at least, directed at the buzzard. In an instant, the buzzard was shaken out of his apparent lethargy and instead, feathers distinctly ruffled, sent into something of a spin.
The peregrine’s flight was typically direct, for the buzzard uncomfortably so, as it was immediately clear that he was indeed the target. He banked sharply as the peregrine bore down on him and sped past with no more than inches between them. But no sooner had he desperately tried to regain some composure, than the peregrine began another run. More panic and more evasive manoeuvres followed as the peregrine once more shot past a few inches over the buzzard.
The attacks just kept coming one after the other and such was the intensity of this aerial combat that the buzzard several times seemed close to stalling but eventually somehow managed to struggle into the depths of the ancient ash tree, still at the time, fully in leaf. There he perched cowering, as the peregrine now circled the tree, still loudly voicing its displeasure.
At last there was some respite when the peregrine ceased his circumnavigation of the tree and instead settled on a fence post. But there was no let up in the torrents of abuse until, as quickly as it had appeared the attacker now took off and headed back to the hills from whence I presumed he had come. The buzzard, by now probably in need of some serious therapy, remained hidden from view!
I have never quite understood the motive for such an attack. I would not have thought that the buzzard represented any kind of threat or indeed competition to the peregrine. Indeed, reasonably versatile a hunter though the buzzard may be, it certainly is nowhere near a match for a peregrine.
Perhaps it came into the same category as the osprey I watched launch an equally malignant attack upon a heron, in which the poor heron was forced into the waters of the loch three times before finally struggling saturated, to the shore, where the attack continued relentlessly. Of course, both osprey – exclusively – and heron – largely – rely upon fish for their livings. But they don’t directly compete, the osprey plunging into the depths of the loch to catch its prey whilst the heron stalks the margins of the shore itself.
A couple of days after that first peregrine encounter, I had another, or at least, this time I heard but did not see the perpetrators again of seriously under oiled wheels! Somewhere in the forest an agitated peregrine conversation was taking place, within earshot but not in view.
The golden eagle is often spoken about with a degree of reverence, in both myth and reality, the king of the sky, allegedly the greatest raptor of them all. Eagles are indeed impressive hunters and magnificent birds but for sheer drama and speed, there is simply nothing to compare with a stooping peregrine.
Again memory serves me well. The image persists of a peregrine soaring near the top of the glen before assuming that ‘w’ wing posture and accelerating with breathtaking speed down the glen like an Exocet missile. Far below I could just pick out a small flock of cushy doos flying above the floor of the glen. The peregrine’s exceptional eyesight had clearly selected one of those doos as its immediate target.
The speed of descent increased phenomenally as in a blur the peregrine homed in on that distant target. I did not witness the denouement but knew that the fate of the doo was sealed. It would either be killed outright by a blow from the talons of the peregrine, bunched like a prize fighter’s fist, perhaps even de-capitated, or it would simply be plucked from mid air and life literally squeezed from it.
These recently encountered peregrine vocalists may of course have been parents of fairly recently fledged families, or indeed, more probably, may alternatively have been the fledglings themselves. During these crucial weeks, the new generation must learn and learn fast, the art of hunting. They will instinctively learn to fly as only peregrines can, at high speed but they must also learn control and they must above all, learn to kill, otherwise they will not survive.
Peregrines have known good and bad times. A really bad time came during the Second World War, when large numbers of them were eliminated. The destruction of peregrines, especially along the southern coastline of England was deemed necessary to ensure that carrier pigeons bringing news of the war and later of resistance movements on the Continent, would get through.
No sooner had they recovered from that, than the new DDT based pesticides developed during the post-war agricultural revolution, began to effect peregrines big time. Pigeons feeding upon treated crops were in turn consumed by peregrines and the chemical cocktail, which began to accumulate within the raptors’ bodies resulted in the production of soft shelled eggs, a failure to breed and eventually death.
Indeed, what happened to peregrine populations during that period taught scientists much about the dangers of poisons passing along the food chain, alerting them to the eventual dangers that could be faced by the human population.
Indirectly therefore the human race owes a debt of gratitude to peregrine falcons. For my part, I just revel in their sensational flying, if not necessarily in their raucous vocalisation!