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August Star Species: Peregrine Falcon

This month we turn our attention to the fastest animal on the planet, the peregrine falcon.  Here, Gerry, our Forest of Dean Forest Ranger, tells us all about this amazing bird of prey and how it has captured his heart.

“The peregrine falcon is a large and powerful falcon that is renowned for its speed. It can reach speeds of 180km/h or more on its hunting stoop – the steep dive it makes as it homes in on its prey. No other animal or bird on earth is faster.

Its long, broad, pointed wings makes it swift and agile in flight and it will climb to great heights before turning suddenly for the dramatic hunting stoop, sweeping up its oblivious prey in an instant. That prey varies but, in our native British woodland, it consists primarily of woodpigeon, blackbirds, starlings and the occasional rabbit. In extreme weather conditions carrion may sometimes be eaten. Although high on the food chain, it does have its predators, including eagles and other peregrines.

Peregrine falcons making a comeback

The peregrine is one of the most widespread birds on the planet, appearing on every continent except Antarctica. They will often nest on limestone crags, cliff-faces and quarries. Recent increases in population in the UK have also seen them thrive on city centre cathedrals and high rise buildings where they can nest safely and feed on the abundance of feral pigeons.

For years, peregrine falcons suffered persecution from gamekeepers, landowners and egg thieves but better legal protection and tighter restrictions on pesticides have helped their populations to recover. There are now estimated to be 1500 breeding pairs in the UK and here in the Forest of Dean we have one of the best viewing points in the country for nesting peregrines, at Symonds Yat Rock, overlooking the river Wye.

Peregrine falcons at the Forest of Dean

The RSPB and Forest Enterprise have been running a ‘Raptors on the Rock’ peregrine watch at Symonds Yat Rock since 1983. Primary aims of the project are to educate the public, raise awareness and monitor the nest site. Every year, visitors from all over the world view these popular raptors from this famous viewpoint.

Over the last few years, the breeding peregrines at Yat Rock have averaged 3 fledgling birds annually. Visitors are often treated to the sight of an adult bird returning to the rock ledge with food for its young during the summer months. I chat regularly with guests who talk excitedly about their peregrine sightings from the rock viewpoint. It’s one of the ‘must do’ experiences to enjoy during a stay at the Forest of Dean.

My peregrine falcon encounters

Personally, one of my favourite peregrine moments was whilst on holiday in the Isle of Wight a few years ago. I was visiting The Needles, a popular tourist spot on the western edge of the island. As I was making my way along the walking trail that runs adjacent to the sea cliffs, I was amazed to see a peregrine at eye level with me as she climbed steadily upwards with broad wing beats. I watched transfixed as she continued to rise before suddenly turning and stooping at great speed to take a seabird in flight. It was an exhilarating experience to be so close to such an amazing demonstration of agility and power. Due to my prominent position on the cliff face, I had a bird’s eye view!

Another amazing experience was when I was involved in rescuing a captive-bred peregrine that had crash landed into a hard wire fence at my old ranger site. She was disorientated, hungry & dehydrated and we had to get her to a raptor specialist as soon as possible so that she could get the specialist care that she needed to make a full recovery.

I felt privileged to handle her and play my part in her rehabilitation. Her powerful talons, her glinting eyes, her exuberant wild spirit and her piercing ‘scraa, scraa, scraa’ call still resonate with me today.”

Come and see the peregrine falcons

Peregrine falcons have been sighted at a number of our locations but for the ultimate viewing experience it has to be the Forest of Dean. The spring and summer months, from April to August, see them arrive and hopefully hatch and raise their young. Come and stay this September for a chance to see the chicks fly the nest or book now for next spring when the peregrines return.