Birdwatch: Fast flight of peregrines to city centre structures

Peregrine falcons nesting at Malham Cove are now hunting for food for their newborn chicks.
Peregrine falcons nesting at Malham Cove are now hunting for food for their newborn chicks.
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It’s the best free show in town, with increasing numbers of peregrine falcons nesting on city centre buildings.

Last week, while shoppers strolled by unaware of their presence, I watched a pair swooping around a nest box on the spire of Wakefield Cathedral, and there are also pairs on the towers of York Minster and on the St George’s Church lecture theatre at the University of Sheffield.

One of the birds previously hatched at Sheffield and fitted with a leg ring in the nest is now at Wakefield while the Sheffield pair have produced two chicks this year.

Other pairs are in Leeds where I recently saw one perched high on the dome of the town hall, while in Hull there are pairs at BP’s Saltend refinery and on the Humber Bridge. There are also pairs nesting at cooling towers and chimneys at most Yorkshire power stations.

Others still nest at more traditional sites such as Malham Cove in the Dales, on cliffs above the Marine Drive at Scarborough and at the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs reserve.

Peregrine falcons, with their yellow feet, black talons and white faces contrasting with distinctive black hood, can travel in excess of 200mph when diving for prey.

Studies have shown that a wide variety of species are taken by these city centre birds ranging in size from goldcrests to mallards and in cities they can hunt at night because of brightly lit office buildings. In summer feral pigeons provide the main food source while starlings are also an important part of the diet.

The number of peregrines in the UK has increased more than four-fold since the 1960s when the population was devastated by the effects of organochlorine pesticide, which thinned the walls of their eggs and brought numbers down to about 360 pairs. There are now thought to be at least 1,500 pairs across the country, 24 of which are in London - the highest number recorded in the city for hundreds of years.

As numbers continue to increase more young peregrines will spread out looking for new territories and more will nest on urban buildings in future. They are much safer there than out in the countryside where some still face illegal persecution from gamekeepers or from racing pigeon enthusiasts who see the peregrine falcons as a threat to their prized birds.

Latest arrivals in the region included spotted and more pied flycatchers, a nightingale caught and ringed at Spurn, turtle doves, a golden oriole at Hatfield Moors, South Yorkshire, and Temminck’s stints at the Watton Nature reserve, Sunk Island and Thornwick Bay in East Yorkshire.

Alpine swifts were seen over Ilkley, the Warren at Spurn and Pugney’s Country Park, Wakefield and a red-rumped swallow over Beacon Ponds.

Two pairs of dotterel were present on Danby Beacon on the North York Moors.

Ospreys have been reported across the region including over Spurn, North Cave Wetland, Blacktoft Sands, Brantingham, Danby Beacon, and Great Heck near Selby.