One of the joys of growing up in north west Wales was that even in the dark days when DDT had driven Peregrines to the brink of extinction, you could still see them (if you knew where to go). As I grew up, I took great joy in seeing Peregrines regain a lot of the ground they had lost during the DDT years. Later, as a policeman and latterly a Wildlife Crime Officer, I witnessed a number of occasions when this resurgence brought the falcons into conflict with humans, which sometimes resulted in Peregrines being illegally persecuted. As a result, various watch schemes were set up and illegal persecution has all but disappeared.
This year, BTO has been coordinating the national survey of Peregrines, last undertaken in 2002. One thing that is obvious to all is that Peregrines have colonised our towns: the well-watched nests at Cathedrals up and down the country offer prime examples of this colonisation. But up here in Snowdonia, it is still in the wild and inaccessible quarries and sea cliffs that most of the birds live, and they still bring joy to anyone who witnesses their mastery of the air. I saw this joy in the faces of visitors to RSPB South Stack when the recently fledged chick flew in and perched in plain sight for all to admire. I also saw this joy when 12 year old Findlay Wilde visited South Stack earlier this year and got a superb photo of the hen Peregrine who had chosen to nest on a ledge in full view.
Like hundreds of BTO volunteers and raptor study groups, I have been visiting known Peregrine breeding sites this year to gather data for the national survey. On Thursday afternoon I set out on my final visit to a secluded quarry site, where some weeks before I had been privileged to record four Peregrine chicks, at the time just bundles of fluff in what was clearly a good nest site. Even after 50 years of birdwatching, I still get that buzz of excitement when I’m about to see the outcome of this year’s breeding season. This particular nest is difficult to view but I could see splash on the cliff below and what looked like the remains of prey on the nest. I pulled my scope into focus and slowly zoomed in, a feeling of dread building inside me. It was not prey items in the nest, but four Peregrine chicks, dead. I was gutted.
Photo Reg Thorpe, RSPB
Natural mortality happens of course, but these chicks were healthy and close to fledging, so for all four to die at the same time following a period of calm weather raises serious questions. Call me a cynical ex-policeman if you like, but in my mind, persecution has to be considered. Regular, long term monitoring gives us vital data about the changing fortunes of birds and the problems they face. There are a number of people and groups across Wales who dedicate most of their spring to monitoring this iconic bird, and they, like me are angered by this loss of four chicks. As the results of this year’s Peregrine survey begin to unfold, what else will come to light?
I can’t help but feel a bit frustrated these days that I won’t be involved in the developing investigation, but North Wales police are now on the case, and I know my ex-colleagues will do a very thorough job. It will be interesting to see what the cause of death was following the recovery of the corpses.
And so, what has been a very pleasant spring of monitoring Peregrines, getting to some lonely places and seeing other magnificent birds of prey as well, finishes with massive disappointment, not just for me but for all who have had the privilege of seeing the fastest bird on the planet this spring. Alas, there are now four more Peregrines that will never take to the skies to brighten up even the darkest of days.
Kelvin Jones, BTO Wales