Nick Winn, and a group of other enthusiasts, watch peregrine falcons every weekend from spring to autumn. Mandy Leivers runs education projects about the natural history of the Downs and knows the peregrines, and the watchers, well.
Well peregrine falcons are the lord and masters of the skies in my view, they are beautiful, they are majestic, they are amazing to watch, it’s nature in the raw. I come up to this particular point her eon the Downs, we call it the Peregrine Point, where you can actually view live peregrine falcons going about their daily lives. I’ve got quite a few friends who regularly come up here at Peregrine Point with our seats and cups of tea and one thing or another, usually on a Saturday and or a Sunday we’ll sit here and watch whatever comes by and indulge in friendly sort of male banter. Fortunately there are a couple of ladies come up with us as well so that does keep the rather more errant individuals in our group in order.
The peregrine watchers tend to be out here from April through to about October because that’s when the peregrine falcons are the most active. We are indeed just above the Portway at the Peregrine watch point and just behind us you can see a very scruffy crow and two jackdaws, and they are actually just waiting here thinking that they might get a little titbit because the peregrine watchers that come here do actually feed the birds, and there’s a little squirrel as well that comes and sits on the bench waiting to be given cherry cake and allsorts.
It’s thoroughly enjoyable coming up here, you get out in the open air and you’re at one with nature which I think is so lovely and so important. On a good day it’s great. The best weather is when you’ve got a bit of a wind which is causing a bot of a thermal, you’ve got a few clouds going over and the peregrines love that. They’ll take the thermal or ride the wind to an enormous height, but they’re very vigilant. They just keep an eye open for any potential prey that’s coming through, and then when they make their selection off they go. You’ll see them stoop down onto whatever bird that is and when the peregrine actually strikes the prey the feathers will sort of literally explode.
They have the sun behind them so that anything that is flying beneath them is dazzled and won’t see the see the peregrine, because they can’t look into the sun. And then it’s fantastic to watch as they do a couple of very strong strokes and shoot down, and then they close their wings into what’s known as a ‘stoop’, and then they hit their prey and you’ll see them bringing it back to the cliff face opposite. I think the thing that attracts people the most is that peregrine falcons are the fastest animal in the world they can fly at over 200 miles an hour, and I think its that sort of raw speed and powerfulness of these fantastic hunters, you know they are top of the food chain and they really are quite spectacular to watch. Mid to end June is the most exciting time as that’s when the youngsters leave the nest, and there’s kind of like this sense of anticipation. You can, from below on the Portway you can look up and see the young peregrine falcons sitting on the edge of the nest and you can see them flapping their wings, you know, warming those muscles up and there’s always a bit of competition as to who can see the young peregrines leave the nest for the first time. I think you get quite hooked as well because it’s a bit like watching a soap I think, you know what’s the next instalment, and if you’re very lucky you’ll see an adult peregrine come in carrying food and they do a thing called a ‘food pass’ where the youngster has to come in flying upside down and grab the food from the adults talons. Of course the first couple of times they always mess it up but then that’s part of learning to hone their hunting skills.
I’ve lived in the vicinity of the Downs now for about thirty years. I’ve always specialised in the care of the elderly and mentally ill. I got a lot of joy from nursing but I come regularly walking up here on the Downs just to sort of get a bit of spiritual uplift and it’s so easy to just come up here and enjoy the simple things. I’ve written poems about this and I feel strongly about it, it’s the simple things in life that matter.
Wings bent he swoops,
Dive down and stoops
On luckless pigeons, one, his quest
Sharp talons thud, through feathers blood
Bursts out and blemishes a breast.
Resounding round a limestone ledge the squeals and squeaks of eager chicks,
Three fluffy youngsters keen to fledge in front of brambles, briars and sticks,
Wings swish to slap on rocks and flap, as food appears before their eyes,
Fresh from the sky, and captured by the awesome master of the skies.