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Secrets from a Peregrine Falcon Nest
Last autumn I installed four cameras inside a peregrine falcon nest located at a vast industrial site on the banks of the Humber Estuary in Hull. This meant I could record events inside the nest at Salt End Chemical Park and relay live images of the action via a mobile internet connection back to my gallery in Thixendale, a full 32 miles away!
The nest, located 100ft up a grain silo, is well established. The male and female peregrines have raised multiple generations of chicks here. I hoped my recordings would reveal their intimate interactions right from their early courtship through to the moment their chicks fledged.
Read on to find out what I discovered and see some of the footage from my hidden cameras.
The first sign of action was when the female returned to the nest box in February. She immediately began to explore every corner, as if to check all was in order. Then both birds appeared in the box together. They circled one another, pacing round the box and calling frequently. They would repeatedly face each other and bow their heads.
This behaviour was followed by the female scraping shallow dents into the fresh, clean gravel that lined the floor of the box. I had put this gravel into the nest box the previous year and was glad that I had since these indentations, or scrapes, are all that this bird of prey will do in preparation for egg-laying. Watch the short film below to see this interesting behaviour and notice how she uses the ‘shoulder’ of her wing as well as her claws to dig.
It wasn’t long before the peregrine pair began to spend more time in the nest box and by mid-March, the first egg arrived. It was a beautiful, speckled russet-brown colour. Over the following week, the female laid another three eggs before beginning the long task of incubation. Back at my gallery, I watched the screens closely. It was mainly the female that incubated the eggs, but the male still came in regularly to take over sitting duties. He also brought prey in for her to eat.
One surprise was that the peregrine pair were active at night. It has been reported that urban peregrines hunt nocturnally using the lights from cities and my camera footage seemed to confirm this.
Four peregrine chicks hatch
After 30 days their eggs were due to hatch. I monitored the screens even more vigilantly. The female was looking at her eggs intently, turning her head to one side as if listening. Clearly she could hear the sound of a chick calling inside and chipping at the shell. She paused and then nuzzled the egg with her beak a few times.
The following day the male came in to take his turn on the eggs and she refused to budge. He circled her a few times but she hunkered further down onto the eggs. Hatching is an important task and she clearly didn’t trust him to do the job properly! She also refused a second nest change later that day.
Over the next two days the chicks hatched live on screen. It was amazing to see the female, a powerful predator, become so gentle. As she gave them their first meals, she carefully tore off small pieces to feed each of the four tiny chicks in turn. It was a fascinating moment and I felt so privileged to be able to watch it.
See the moment that the peregrine listened to her eggs as they chipped and watch the chicks hatch on the video below:
The young peregrine chicks grew fast on their protein-rich diet and by two weeks they were beginning to hold up their heads while their white down was developing a tinge of grey.
Photographing the peregrines
Back in autumn whilst the nest was quiet I had built a replica door for the back of the box. It was an exact copy of the original door, except it housed a compartment for my flashguns and a hole for me to push my camera lens through.
In the meantime I had fitted a dummy lens, made from an old yoghurt pot painted black, to the old door so that the peregrines got used to this shape. It had taken me some time, and even a trial run, to get my new door to match the old exactly. I even added a few splashes of paint to look like peregrine poo so that my new door look as authentic as possible.
It was now time to install the new, camera-ready door. I waited for the female to leave the nest to stretch her wings. I had spent so long planning this moment, it was really important I did not disturb her and her growing family. Then I worked quickly, swiftly replacing the old door with the new. Within minutes the female swerved back onto the ledge. She looked straight down my lens.
At first I thought she had noticed a difference in the setup. But if she had, her alarm was short-lived and she was soon distracted by her chicks. As they chittered, she ruffled her feathers, walked forward towards me and then enveloped the chicks under her warm belly.
I was tempted to start taking photos, but I didn’t: she was only 18 inches away. I let her settle for a while, reading her body language as she slowly relaxed. It wasn’t until I noticed her head sink into her body that I dared press my shutter button.
Watching the peregrine on her chicks
To my relief, she barely reacted. All the planning and preparation had worked. I sat there for the next five hours transfixed. It was an incredible feeling to be just two feet away from a wild peregrine and it definitely ranks as one of those magical stand-out moments of my career.
Below me, I could hear the sounds of heavy industry: articulated trucks coming and going and huge machines humming. Meanwhile, close by, was the quiet chittering and calling of four young peregrine chicks.
It was a cold, drizzly day and the female was keeping her chicks warm. Occasionally she would get up and wander to the edge of the box to call the male for food.
He didn’t seem to be having much luck hunting, so she flew off to check the cache. Peregrines cache any surplus food close by in order to keep their nests tidy.
Sadly my time was now up. The hours had gone only too quickly and it was time to set off home. When I got back and checked the live video feed I was frustrated to see that moments after I left the female had returned with a feral pigeon and carefully fed her chicks. I would have liked to have photographed this moment.
At three and a half weeks old it was time to ring the chicks. I returned with two conservationists from Spurn Bird Observatory who clipped British Trust for Ornithology rings to their legs so that they could be identified in the future.
Peregrine chicks fledge
Once the chicks were 42 days old I drove back to Hull in the hope of catching their first flights on camera. I had been watching them on the screens and they looked increasingly ready for off. The chicks had lost their soft downy feathers and spent increasing time flapping their wings to exercise their chest muscles.
I was up early that day. Before I set off, I checked the live screens only to find that there were only three chicks at the nest. One had already fledged and I had missed it.
When I arrived an hour later there was only one chick left on the nest. The other two had fledged whilst I had been driving! Watch the clip below to see the action as captured on my nest cameras.
Click to play video
After the peregrine fledging day
I climbed the 100ft tower to the hide, which is located at the top of a grain silo. I could see the three fledged chicks swooping through the air as they piloted for the first time on the wing. I was worried because it was a windy day, but they seemed to navigate the vast towers and columns of this industrial landscape with ease. Later that afternoon the last chick fledged.
I thought that this would be the end of the story. But when I went to take the hide down almost two months later I saw them again. I was reversing my car and noticed that my parking sensors sounded a little off-key – more like a peregrine than a sensor.
I opened my car door and looked up. There, on an electric pylon, were two peregrine chicks. They were calling an adult bird that was flying by.
As I went on to take down the hide both adults and chicks were swooping and diving through the air.
Then in August, when I was sure the story really had ended, a young male peregrine was spotted at Spurn Point. A birdwatching friend sent me some photographs of it. He’d zoomed in on its identification ring and confirmed that it was one of the chicks from the nest at Salt End.
This was great news as I had watched this bird from the moment its egg was laid and now I knew it was living and hunting independently. I felt inexplicably proud!
Paintings Inspired by this Peregrine Nest
Read more about the peregrines at Salt End here: