A shorter version of this article was published in the Nature & Wildlife edition of Amateur Photographer magazine.
Walk around the perimeter of any of our great cathedrals in the late Spring or early Summer and there’s a good chance you will hear the loud screeching of birds calling to each other. Look up and you may be lucky enough to see one or more of the UK’s magnificent birds of prey hunting or passing food from adult to youngster in the air. These birds are peregrine falcons.
Peregrines are reputed to be the fastest animals in the world – although this is only true when they dive (or ‘stoop’) vertically in the final stages of their hunt, reaching speeds of up to 240 mph as they attempt to catch their prey. In level flight, they reach a much more ‘pedestrian’ 40 to 60 mph - but even this is only exceeded by some ducks, pigeons and waders. The peregrines that I watch, regularly catch wading birds and pigeons, so their hunting methods clearly don’t rely on their speed in level flight alone!
Peregrines have adapted well to life in our towns and cities. So well, in fact, that a cathedral or church tower without resident peregrines is rapidly becoming the exception rather than the norm. But it was not always so. In the 1960s the peregrine falcon was a rare sight in our skies. The wide use of organochlorine pesticides – DDT being the most notorious – had very nearly succeeded in creating the ‘Silent Spring’ predicted in Rachel Carson’s famous book. Insect eating birds had concentrated this lethal poison further up the food chain – with the peregrine, as apex predator, suffering particularly badly. Falcons that did survive to maturity went on to lay eggs that were fatally weakened – they would break when the females attempted to incubate them.
Fortunately, pesticide controls were brought in just in time. But it has taken many years for our fragile ecosystems to recover – and many would contend that we have still not learnt the lessons. For now, however, the peregrine falcon is a success story. Those that have left the countryside behind have had to learn to adapt from a life on cliffs and remote rocky outcrops to the soaring towers of our churches and cathedrals, tempted into the urban environment by the ready availability of prey species that have, in turn, come to call our towns and cities home. Anywhere that feral pigeons come in to feast on our discarded food and rubbish, the peregrines tend to follow and set up their ‘scrapes’ (nest sites) on the urban equivalents of their more natural habitat.
I have been fortunate to be part of a project to install and maintain the peregrine cams on Lincoln Cathedral and, as a keen wildlife photographer, I have also documented the success and failure of the breeding pair that has lived there for many years.
Peregrines are not easy birds to photograph. When they are stationary, they are often perched high up on a structure and a 600mm lens is still a bit short to get good images for the photographer standing far below. In flight, they are either silhouetted against a bright sky or flying across a background of similar contrast that will test even the most advanced autofocus systems. Birds in flight (or ‘BIF’) is one of the most challenging situations for a wildlife photographer, so patience, practice and good technique is required – along with a fair amount of luck! However, as Arnold Palmer said, the more I practice, the luckier I seem to get!
The other factor that the UK wildlife photographer has to contend with is, of course, the weather. My ‘ideal’ shutter speed for peregrines in flight is 1/2500 and, with a maximum aperture on my 200-600mm zoom of f6.3, high ISOs are often unavoidable. I have recently discovered Topaz’s excellent DeNoise AI software and I can thoroughly recommend it to all photographers who are often forced to shoot at a higher than ideal ISO.
In terms of cameras and lenses, I started off photographing the peregrines with my Nikon D500. Fitted with the 300mm PF f4 lens and the 1.4x teleconverter this gave me a light-weight combination with a focal length of 420mm at f5.6. Taking the crop sensor of the D500 into account, the angle of view was equivalent to a 630mm lens. The high frame rate (for a DSLR) of the D500 made it a great choice, but later on I also added a D850 to my arsenal (I am also a portrait photographer, so this also convinced me to buy a D850) to take advantage of the much higher resolution available. Earlier this year, whilst sorely tempted by the new Nikon 500mm PF 5.6 lens, I did my sums and realised I could get the Sony A9 and the new Sony 200-600mm f5.6/6.3 zoom lens for a similar amount of money. So, now that I can take advantage of the 20 fps and outstanding focus system of the A9, my keeper rate has gone up considerably. Once you have a bird in focus with the A9, it stays in focus for as long as you can keep the bird in the viewfinder.
For a location like Lincoln cathedral, a tripod and gimbal set-up is not really of much use. The birds are so high up on the structure or airborne almost directly overhead that getting the necessary elevation on a tripod and gimbal is all but impossible. Being tied to a tripod also limits the photographer’s ability to react to birds as they suddenly fly in to view or to adapt to rapidly changing situations. You can be much more flexible - and reactive - with a good, well designed strap attached to the tripod mount of your long lens. I use a Black Rapid Sport strap, but I have also heard good things about Peak Design straps. On rare occasions, I have successfully used a beanbag on my car roof as a camera and lens support - but this method tends to rely on getting the right parking spot next to the cathedral. Even with the best of straps or supports, it is not unusual to have a stiff neck, arms and shoulders after a long session staring up at the birds. Users of the micro four thirds system may have some advantage here!
Most of the photographs that illustrate this article were taken in the 2019 breeding season. To be totally correct with the terms, the word ‘falcon’ only refers to the female peregrine – the adult male is called the tiercel (from an old French word meaning ‘third’ as male birds tend to be up to one third smaller than females). These terms originated in the ancient sport of falconry and extend to the use of the word ‘eyass’ for a chick still in its downy stage. Frankly, I find it much easier to stick to ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘chick’ and ‘fledgling’ rather than trying to show off my French pronunciation!
In March 2019, the Lincoln female laid four eggs and three hatched. All three chicks successfully flew the nest, although two of them did need a little bit of help from humans. The first time that an immature peregrine leaves the nest is a big moment. They can fly (just about) but, as they’ve never done it before, they tend to end up lower down than where they first started! The Lincoln chicks flew the nest in June 2019 and passers-by were treated to the sight of at least one of the birds walking about at pavement level next to the cathedral. Whilst this made for some fantastic photo opportunities for me and others, it was also a very risky time for the fledgling. When, after a few hours, it showed little inclination of flying back up onto the cathedral it had to be captured by an RSPB volunteer using a towel and cat carrier and then taken back up on the cathedral roof to be released, unharmed. A day or two later in the early morning, one of the cathedral vergers was unlocking the cathedral toilets when he was surprised by one of the peregrine fledglings sitting just outside on a staircase. After a bit of persuasion, the fledgling got back to the outside world and the verger got over his shock.
During the Winter of 2019/20, with the help of Matt Ashton from the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, I installed a second peregrine cam looking out to the East from the Bell Tower and across a platform that the adult birds tend to use as a larder to store freshly caught prey. This supplemented the camera that observed the scrape or nest site. Whilst the adult birds tend to stay in the vicinity of their scrape all year round (UK peregrines do not migrate) they only use the nest in the Spring and Summer - preferring to roost on the outside of the Bell Tower. Once the chicks have fledged, the scrape is rarely visited again until the following Spring and so the Autumn and Winter are the ideal times to make changes to camera configurations. It must be emphasised here that peregrines have the highest level of protection - Schedule One - under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and disturbing an active nest site is a criminal offence. This is serious stuff but, as the Lincoln peregrines have their nest right next to the bell chamber - with very loud bells tolling every quarter of an hour during the daytime – our peregrines are either profoundly deaf or they have learned to live with the sound of bells (probably the latter!).
Both peregrine cams captured some fascinating footage in 2020 and one of the (rather low resolution) stills from the new camera shows the adult male looking out across Lincoln in the sunrise. Footage was livestreamed to YouTube with the help of Quickline – a local company that supplies rural broadband and uses the cathedral Bell Tower to house some of its equipment. Quickline very generously allowed us to plug into their equipment and without this the livestream would not have been possible.
For the 2020 season, once lockdown came into force in late March, the peregrine cams became our only way of observing the birds. At least three eggs were laid on 26th March but the scrape was dug so deep in the gravel that it was difficult to see the exact number. The adult birds take turns to incubate the eggs, but the female does the lion’s share of these duties and relies on the male to bring her tasty snacks and leave them nearby and the cameras were able to capture a lot of this action.
Sadly, the normal incubation time of 33 days came and went and none of the eggs hatched at Lincoln this year. It was heartbreaking watching the female continue to incubate them in vain until, finally, in early June she gave up. Our adult female is now at least 15 years old. She is on her 2nd or 3rd mate (you go girl!) and has successfully raised at least 35 chicks since records began in 2007 and so she has done a lot to ensure the continued survival of the species. Who knows what 2021 will bring?
Peregrine falcons can be observed at many sites around the UK. There are plenty of Facebook groups that you can join to find out more (Lincoln Peregrines is one good example). Peregrine cams have been set up for many of the nest sites – not just in the UK, but across the world – I watch peregrine nests in the USA and Australia via their livestreams on YouTube.
This time of the year – July into late August – is a good time to observe young birds being taught to fly and hunt by their parents and – if you’re very lucky – you may manage to photograph an airborne food pass from adult to juvenile bird. Good sites to visit include Cromer church in Norfolk and Belper River Gardens in Derbyshire, but check social media and the RSPB for the best places near to you. Take advice from the local photographers you may meet there – they tend to be a friendly bunch! Most importantly, don’t disturb the birds. Definitely don’t fly a drone anywhere near them – you would be breaking the law and the adult birds will probably injure themselves when they attack your drone and bring it down in an expensive heap. We have had to warn at least one irresponsible drone owner at Lincoln so far this year and the police take a keen interest in these incidents. So please be aware of this. Otherwise, our towns and cities remain a fantastic place to observe and photograph these magnificent birds – long may it continue!