Wildlife artist witnesses drama in the sky above York city centre

I don’t really frequent cities much and usually only venture into York once a year. But I’ve been preparing for a talk on where to watch wildlife in Yorkshire and so I thought I’d head into the city for a change of scene and to see what hidden wildlife I could find in an urban environment.

York is home to a variety of wildlife including the peregrine falcon.

I parked in St George’s Field car park where I have heard that waxwings sometimes plunder the rowan tree berries. But the trees were already stripped bare. So, I headed to York Minster as I’d heard there was a pair of peregrines in residence on the towers. I can see this building on a clear day from the top of escapement near my gallery in Thixendale.

I scanned the main façade with my binoculars which only revealed a few pigeons. But this was alright as they’re the food of choice for peregrines.

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I headed round the back into Dean’s Gardens and scanned the main tower. Straightaway I saw a peregrine, sitting on a gargoyle close to one of the main windows. I was all fingers and thumbs trying to get my tripod and camera ready. But the peregrine was relaxed and content, he wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

I trained my camera on it and took some pictures. I could see it was a male. They’re much smaller than the females and have finer features.

Moving to get a different angle, I could see that there was a female too, tucked away on a nearby buttress between two mullioned windows. They occasionally preened and changed position, ruffled their feathers then settled back, seemingly in no great rush to ‘get up’ this morning. They’re such skilled hunters and with an abundance of pigeon prey then can afford to take it easy.

But a few minutes later the male was off flying overhead. This is when peregrines are at their best, their pointed wings give them a beautiful aerodynamic shape. He disappeared from view, but was back minutes later, landing on the bell tower, much closer to where I was sitting.

The female spotted him and flew over to join him. Soon after, I noticed pigeon feathers floating down from above her. At this point I couldn’t see the male so I walked back to get a better view and spotted him higher up on a gargoyle. He’d obviously stashed a pigeon there, possibly the day before, and was now finishing it off.

It didn’t satisfy his appetite. He was still hungry and was eyeing up pigeons flying underneath him. I was surprised how close the pigeons were landing to the female.

They seemed to know instinctively that peregrines are only a threat to them when they’re airborne. They were quite at ease as they sat a few metres away from their main predator on a ledge. But the temptation was too much for the male. The fluttering pigeons below him were now in his sights, his head was fixed in their direction and he started flapping his wings to spook the pigeons off the Minster. It was a new one on me. I’ve never seen a peregrine using this tactic before. Yet it worked. The pigeons took fright and set off. The peregrine launched himself off the gargoyle and into the air and performed a spectacular stoop.

The five pigeons plummeted to the ground almost tumbling and twisting through the air swapping positions to confuse the peregrine as it dropped down behind them at full throttle.

As the pigeons got closer to the ground they pulled up over the small tree above my head. I could hear the wind rushing through the pigeons’ wings. The peregrine pulled out of his stoop like a well-honed fighter. This time he missed.

I wanted to see what else the city centre offered and headed off to Museum Gardens, a great green space in the heart of the city, and I found a volery of long tailed tits working their way along the trees. They were joined by a few great tits and blue tits too.

Next, I spied some lovely old yew trees where I found black birds, song and mistle thrushes and redwings feeding on the berries. Then I spotted something a bit more special: a pair of gold crests collecting insects. Their quiet contact call gave them away.

As dusk started to fall I headed to Parliament Street where I’ve seen pied wagtails gather in their hundreds. They like to roost communally and are drawn to the city because it’s warmer, but disperse during the day to feed.

I walked the street, which was bustling with shoppers, hearing the odd call. By 4pm I was getting disappointed and I turned to leave, then a flock of more than 20 flew onto the roof of Marks & Spencer. Before long, two other large flocks joined them. Soon there were more than 200 pied wagtails. But I noticed that they were nervous and suddenly a sparrow hawk appeared from nowhere and chased them. There was chaos in the sky as wagtails swerved in all directions, some daring to chase the hawk away, forcing it to retreat.

But it returned, flying flat out across the facia of a building. As it flipped up over the rooftop, clouds of pied wagtails took to the air. The hawk missed again, but on the third fly-by it plucked a wagtail out of the air with sharp talons.

The noise of all the birds was incredible yet not one of the hundreds of people in the street below even looked up! I was surrounded by folk and felt like shouting out, ‘Wow did you see that!’

Yorkshire hotspots revealed

As another year of incredible wildlife watching draws to a close for wildlife artist Robert Fuller, he is hosting a talk at his gallery at Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale in the Yorkshire Wolds tonight.

Robert’s talk is all about ‘Where to watch wildlife in Yorkshire’ and starts at 7.30pm. To book tickets, visit the artist’s website at www.robertefuller.com

Meanwhile, his exhibition ‘My Yorkshire: An Artist’s Perspective’, which pays homage to the wealth of wildlife that lives alongside us across the region, continues daily at the gallery until Sunday, November 30, featuring several of Robert’s latest paintings.

For more information about the exhibition, call the gallery on 01759 368355.