June 2019 Update

Last time we updated you a month ago there were still ongoing ructions around the nest as the resident male Peregrine and the “new” female (formerly known as “the intruder”) continued to show their dislike and mistrust of one another.    In the intervening period the two birds started to first tolerate and then accept one another to the point where regular bonding could be seen in and around the nest platform.  Further evidence of their establishment as a pair could be inferred by the broody nesting behaviour displayed by the  female, her scraping out of nest depressions characteristic of that we usually see in March just before eggs are laid.  All this augers well for the continuance of breeding at St. Georges, if these two birds stay together then it may well be business as usual nest spring.  The birds have certainly been very faithful to the platform and perhaps have stayed around longer than we might have expected without chicks to rear.  It’s a long time between now and the next breeding season and anything could happen in the intervening period but there’s no doubt that this territory remains occupied. The circle of Peregrine life carries on.

One constant during this period of entente cordiale has of course been the remaining unhatched eggs. Plans are afoot to recover these eggs for examination and analysis at the University of Sheffield Dept of Animal & Plant Sciences as has happened in previous years to any unhatched eggs.

Although the nest has been deemed a failure this year it is still subject to the laws which protect Schedule 1 bird species from disturbance during the breeding season and, as the breeding season is still officially ongoing, the recovery must be done under licence by a trained and permitted person.  Plus there’s rope access to arrange and the accompanying H&S protocols, all to be performed by volunteers in their own time.  Once arrangements are made it is hoped we will be able to share a guest blog here from the team who will be doing the lab work on the recovered eggs, with a further blog later in the year once the results of the egg analysis are known.  Watch this space!

 

There will also be a further blog post here in the next few days regarding other Sheffield Peregrine related news…

Keep Watching.

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How long?

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On Monday 13th May the male Peregrine was still attempting to incubate the eggs whenever he hadn’t been dislodged from the nest.  Today is 40 days since full time brooding began and perhaps  as many as 8 days since they “should” have been expected to hatch.  We watchers know the eggs won’t hatch at this stage, regardless of the long periods they’re left unattended, but the question is ‘why doesn’t he?’  Birds don’t think and rationalise like humans do, they don’t ponder and reason, or count the days back to laying, they act on instinct, especially raptors.  The Peregrine’s urge to breed keeps him there, it’s hard wired into his DNA.  Factors such as hormones and length of day triggered him to return to his territory in mid-winter, to re-bond with his mate, to provide food for her, to copulate, to defend the territory, to incubate eggs.  The same urge keeps him trying to incubate eggs in vain and it is only a waning of this instinct which will cause him to give up.  That waning may be through time as hormones lower, it may be stress from all the intrusions and physical threats or he may be forced off physically once and for all.  He’s not sad because he’s lonely and he’s not looking at his watch thinking ‘I’ll give it till Thursday,’ but its difficult viewing as he doesn’t yet appear to “know” what we know.  We can’t help feel sorry for him, even though it won;t help him at all.  It’s made all the more difficult watching other Peregrine webcams and seeing chicks arrive and grow, Wakefield have 3 chicks so far and Derby finally have their first.  Be sure to check these out sites and follow their fortunes – we wish them luck between now and fledging.

But that’s not the end here.  There will be plenty to watch here over the summer and it will be fascinating and be important for the future of our nest site.  It may not be a summer of watching fluffy white chicks but it will still be a summer of learning about and being entertained by these amazing birds.  For a site with doomed eggs and a missing resident female there’s still peregrine action all day on the webcams!

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Signs that the incubating will end soon are the feathers and carnage in the nest platform from two recent pigeon kills.  Rarely do we see such a mess even with hungry chicks to feed!  The diligence required to keep a habitable home must be receding.  Once the eggs are truly abandoned we will see what happens around the platform.  It may be that the birds stick around much more than we might anticipate in a bid to retain/takeover the nest.  Possession is undoubtedly 9/10ths of the law in Peregrine land!  Or it may well be that the action, the battle for territory, moves to a wider arena around St. Georges, in which case visits to Broad Lane in person will be the order of the day.  I cannot envisage either bird giving up on their claim and prize perches will be coveted and watched.  Look out on the top of the Arts Tower to see who is holding the upper hand, the tops of the construction cranes are worth a scan too.  Binoculars essential.

This blog will continue too, keeping a periodical eye on events and talking all things Falcon.  After all Peregrines are for life…

 

A Turbulent Year (2)

With eggs laid and brooding under way, things seemed to have settled down as April 2019 progressed.  On the face of it normal serviced had been resumed…. although lingering in the background was always a concern whether the disruption of late March would have any repercussions further down the line.  Hopefully it had all been a one-off incident, a mere bump in the road.  No further sightings of the intruding bird were reported.

The end of the typical 31/32 day incubating period approached and coincided with the May Bank Holiday weekend.  Perfect.  Sunday 5th and Monday 6th were the likely hatch days.  Around the rest of the country intruder-free, web-watched Peregrine nests were starting to hatch eggs already.  Our turn next we hoped…

May 2 plastic male

Looking back, with hindsight, the birds seemed a little restless as soon as May started and the eggs were being left unbrooded longer than we are used to at this stage.  Left for 20 mins, left for 75 mins.  In previous years its been unusual for eggs to be uncovered for much more than a minute or two.  Could the anticipated chicks inside the eggs survive such periods of cooling?  Were the chicks in the eggs even developing? Or were the birds sensing something wrong?  Justifiably there was speculation about an intruder but no bird was sighted.  If there was an intruder what would the birds do?  Surely one bird would sit tight whilst the other drove off any interloper?  Having never been in this position before at St. Georges we just didn’t know…  there’s so much still to learn about avian ecology but we humans are an optimistic species so we remained hopeful.

May 2nd & 3rd: The female was seen holding her leg up as if injured but no explanation why.  She was very watchful, looking around, agitated.  Disappearing for hours on end.  Eggs left unattended.  Male left to incubate on his own.   All at the most critical time.

May 4th.  No doubt now that there is an intruding bird about.  How uncanny that the intrusions coincided at precisely the time that eggs were due to be laid and now the precisely the time they were due to hatch but, as far as we know, no drama in between. The intruder appears to be a female.  The same one as before?  Was the nest being watched all the time?  Or was something else going on?

The erratic behaviour, disturbance and  absences continued all weekend and the picture wasn’t clear.  Female peregrine’s injuries seemed worse.  The male’s presence was more consistent.

On the egg front:  31 days passed and no signs of any action.  32 days passed…. things really ought to be happening soon or we’d be into uncharted territory for St. Georges.  Food was brought in early morning on the 6th May by the male and there was an exchange of brooding duties with female taking the meal off to eat.  Later in the day is that an intruding female in the nest?  An egg looks like it gets stood on and there’s a cracking noise heard on the webcam.  As the Twitter feed noted, more action than Line of Duty… and far more stressful to watch too!    Things get worse when twitter suggests there’s a Peregrine on the ledge eating a dead Peregrine…. fortunately it’s only a dead pigeon but nevertheless 2019 just doesn’t want to go well for us.

The intruding bird now appeared intent on driving the resident female off the nest, she drove the male off too but attacks seemed more frequent when she brooded the eggs… but then again we can only see what is happening ON camera and not what is happening off it. It’s not scientific but many watchers see the intruder as a bigger stronger bird and she is seen on camera more and more.  Eventually at some point on the afternoon/evening of the 6th a tipping point is reached and the resident female is disappears and does not return.  The male is left to brood on his own.  The intruder hangs about to make sure the resident female doesn’t return.  When she periodically drives the male away from brooding she enters the nest box which will ensure the resident female cannot slip back onto the eggs.  The intruding female makes no attempt to brood the eggs,  none of her behaviour appears accidental.

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Picture: @Wendspix1

https://twitter.com/Wendspix1/status/1126140067905462272

Just as happened in Norwich last year, this is a nest takeover which means it is highly likely the nest will fail.  The male forlornly continues to brood the eggs when he can get back onto them but they are left for long periods unattended.  Even if the now overdue eggs were to hatch a lone male could not hope to raise the chicks singlehandedly.   He would have to go out to hunt leaving the young chicks exposed to the cold, unable to keep warm.  Are the eggs even viable still?  When will he give up?

However on Tuesday May 7th hopes are raised again as an egg hatches in late afternoon.  Against online expectations its the first egg, the white one, which hatches.  This egg is a week older than the other 3 and it was hard to believe it was actually viable – just goes to show how nature can surprise and confound and go against our expectations.  The male brooded the fluffy white chick (albeit halfheartedly) but it wasn’t long until another intrusion occurred and the little chick was left alone in unseasonably cold weather for over an hour.  Far from the ideal start in life and the intruder was not about to start showing maternal instincts for eggs which clearly are not her own.

When the male returned eventually perhaps he sensed the chick was already in a bad way and, as previously chronicled, he started to peck at it in a way which didn’t look good for it.  A few short hours into it’s doomed life the chick was picked up by the male and taken away from the nest, either dead or close to dying.  Brutal. Hard to watch. Nevertheless natural behaviour.

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The sad end to what may be 2019s only chick.

Which just about brings us up to date. What started out in the winter so optimistically has progressed into spring in an unexpected, sad and disappointing fashion.

The male continues to brood the 3 remaining eggs when he isn’t being chased away but what is clear now is that this is the end for the 2019 breeding season in Sheffield.  It remains to be seen how long he bravely continues before he gives up.  Even if the eggs were to hatch, it would be extremely unlikely he would be a bee to successfully keep any chicks alive long enough for them to grow feathers to keep themselves warm.  And that’s without taking the likely actions of the intruder into account….

The story doesn’t end here though.  It is merely taking a different turn.  There are many questions to ponder which will be addressed in a future blog.  The biggest question of course being what happens next?  the only way to find out is to keep watching and keep taking an interest.  The Sheffield Peregrine territory at St. Georges will endure, it is a proven, successful and productive site, which is precisely why it has been fought over this year.  Which direction the story takes next only time will tell.

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We wait.  As does he.

CG 9/5/19

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Turbulent Year (1)

Over the 7 previous years the Sheffield Peregrines blog and webcams have been running (2012 – 2018) there have been ups and downs and a few dramas for “our” birds but on the whole the St. Georges nest site has been a productive and generally steady urban Peregrine nest site.  The webcams, blog and Twitter feed have proved popular, as have visits down to the churchyard to peer up at the birds in person.  Regular Peregrine followers have entered a familiar routine of the birds returning each winter, mating and laying in March, followed by 31/32 days of anticipation, then chicks hatching by early May and then growing rapidly, finally fledging in the long days of summer.  We’ve all become accustomed to the Peregrines’ success and we probably all expected it to continue….

Sheffield Peregrines 2019 has however rather bucked this trend.  Whilst other well known and well watched urban Peregrine sites around the UK, such as up the road at Wakefield, seem to be business-as-usual it has been a turbulent year at St. Georges for both the birds and their followers alike.  This blog is an attempt to summarise and discuss some of the goings on so far…

PG fem and imm March 29 2018 2

It all seemed to be going to plan in March with the birds occupying the nest platform, bonding and mating.  The birds looked to be the same returning birds we’ve had for the last few years, everything was familiar.  By the middle of the month the female was spending more time in the nest box and started to create a depression in the gravel.  Based on this behaviour and lay dates from previous years eggs were expected any day soon.  So far, so good.  All running like clockwork.

Along comes the 21st March, in some previous years egg laying had already started by this date, but not yet this year.  Webcam watchers communicated via twitter and were convinced there would be a new arrival any minute.  However, what did arrive was rather unexpected, not an egg but an intruding Peregrine instead!  This (third) bird appeared from nowhere and the resident female left the nest platform.  Watchers on the ground noted definitely 3 individual birds simultaneously as the birds chased each other around, the 2 resident birds noisily defending their territory.   From the cameras the intruding bird was judged by observers to be a female falcon due to its size and was said to have different markings from the resident female, plus she could be distinguished by a metal leg ring. Aerial battles ensued and at one point a bird thought to be the resident female, sat on the corner of the tower was dive bombed by the assumed intruder almost knocking her off, right in front of the webcam.

What happened next isn’t 100% certain.  Despite the two camera angles and watchers on the ground it can be difficult to identify birds individually.  Even with ringed and colour-ringed birds it is not always possibly to ID birds as rings get hidden by feathers, legs can be out of sight etc, as Osprey watchers will know it’s often very hard to view or photograph even the bigger rings those bigger birds carry.  On top of that, ringed or not, Peregrines tend to move through the air at speed!  All anybody had to go on was the discernible size differences between males and females, a small silver leg ring on one bird and subtle possible/perceived differences in the birds feather colour and/or patterns (something notoriously tricky with Peregrines)

The consensus at the time was that the intruding bird was a female, due to her size.  This is undisputed.   She appeared to usurp the resident female and very soon after (an hour at most) there were bonding and copulation attempts between her and “our” male.  Nobody can be 100% certain that this was the intruding female without strong identifying features but were sure as we can be that this is what happened.  All of this was unexpected and unsettling at a crucial time. Footage from @doggie3132

It perhaps seems strange to us humans that the male would copulate so quickly with another bird when he has such an (apparently) strong bond with his longstanding partner.  It is in situations such as this that webcams on urban Peregrine nests come into their own.  Few, if any, traditional rural Peregrine territories have been observed and recorded 24/7 in the way that urban nests have been in the last decade or so.  Is this normal behaviour?  Perhaps this is normal in the Peregrine world even if such haste might be frowned upon in the human world?  Perhaps if one bird, male or female, proves itself to be strongest then the drive to copulate and breed is instant and irresistible in a world where survival of the fittest is the daily norm?  The animal kingdom is not a world of sentiment or romance.  Only continued observation and recording across the many UK nests fitted with cameras over the next few years is the key to having greater insight into these and other unknowns.  Ultimately this is the purpose of installing them and in a way is a grain of new knowledge unfolding in front of us, live on camera.

June 2014 grappling two

But… everybody had expecting an egg any minute, what now?  This is where it gets tricky.  Those of us watching regularly think the interloper female did occupy the nest on the night of the 21st but by the 22nd the original female, “our” female, was back.  It’s never particularly helpful to anthropomorphise the birds but animals do give off body language to communicate their health, state and condition and the body language of the bird which reappeared on the morning of the 22nd could perhaps be described as wary, uneasy or sheepish.  Not the body language of a confident bird and the body language of the female seen the night previously was far more upright and confident.  But again nothing is 100% certain with unmarked birds.  Bonding and mating ensued.  One way or another the male saw plenty of copulation in a 24 hour period, whichever female or females it was with….

An egg!  Around midday on 23rd March the much anticipated first egg arrived and was spotted by various followers online.  The egg was white whereas in previous years they have generally been brown.  Theories speculated that this was the new female laying the egg,  something just didn’t look or seem right but then again after the trials and tribulations of the previous 48 hours perhaps that was to be expected?  No firm conclusion could be drawn.

It was another 7 days of anxious, unprecedented wait before egg number two arrived on the 30th.  Then a more familiar pattern of an egg every other day, #3 on April 2nd and #4 on April 4th.  Perhaps normality had been restored?  A clutch of 4 eggs has been typical at St. Georges even if they haven’t all always hatched.  Still questions remained – foremost being about egg colour.   The first egg was white, the final 3  the traditional brown. Could the colour discrepancy be evidence to support the different mothers theory?  Or was the lack of brown shell pigment in egg 1, then the long delay until egg2  down to the stress of the intrusion and fight?  Full brooding never begins until the last egg has been laid but egg and eggs can stay in a suspended stage of development between laying and full brooding.  Would a week be too long for the first egg?  It had been left unbrooded for seemingly many and quite long periods of time over it’s week of solitude.  Would it still be viable?  Would it be this year’s unhatched egg?  If so could it be taken for testing to determine and compare parenthood?  What happened to the intruder and would she return?

There were so many questions but only time would tell.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Chick Hatches…

The first chick hatched this afternoon, Tuesday 7th May, a day later than had been expected.  In any other year this would be a cause for celebration but in this turbulent year, nothing is straightforward.  After all the trials and tribulations of the last 5 weeks it would have been nice to have things go smoothly, as hoped for in the last blog, but it doesn’t look that way so far…

The first sign of something  happening was when web watchers saw the male, who is brooding the eggs currently, apparently eating egg shell.  A little while later, after some shuffling about the male moved to reveal a fluffy white chick.  So far, so good.  However it wasn’t long before an intruding Peregrine arrived and the male fled the nest.  The intruder hung around in the nest platform for a while, ignoring the chick and eggs, but eventually left.  Once gone, the male returned but eggs and chick had been left unattended and cooling for 40 minutes or more by this time. From this point the paternal instincts of the Peregrine seem to have gone a bit awry.  The newly hatched chick appeared to be getting pecked at by the male and was not being brooded properly when compared to the diligent brooding which has occurred in previous years.  The fragile looking little chick was stuck out of the side of the adult male, who was paying much more attention and care to the eggs, and whether it was being kept warm enough to last through the night was uncertain to say the least…

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The chick didn’t look particularly strong but then if it had been pecked at, and left in the cold, and had not had a chance to get its strength up, so it’s hardly surprising it looked weak.  The male certainly didn’t like the look of it and just after 9pm took matters into his own hands, picked up the weak or lifeless looking chick and flew off with it, presumably to dispose of it.  He came back shortly afterwards and continued to brood the remaining 3 eggs. It’s tough going this year but certainly not dull!  Keep watching!

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CG 7/5/19

 

 

Not long to go

Right, so the blog is back online.  Apologies to you all for the hiatus, work, illness then family commitments rather put a spanner in the works over April.  Normal service should now be resumed.  Webcam watchers and Twitter followers will know that rather a lot has happened since I last posted  (a bit of an understatement) but I’ll deal with all that drama in a separate blog shortly.  In the meantime let’s deal with things as they stand….

We currently have 4 eggs being incubated.  The last one arrived on 4th of April.  Like many other birds Peregrines will keep their eggs warm as they arrive, one at a time, usually a day or two apart but they may leave the eggs unattended from time to time  for short periods.  This is perfectly normal.   Only when the final egg has been laid does the diligent, round-the-clock, constant incubating commence.  During this period the eggs will only ever be exposed to the outside temperature for very brief moments and this very infrequently, for example when the birds change over or if the female turns the eggs.

Since the Webcam was installed in 2012 we’ve been able to follow and record the nest activity and the data across that time tells us that generally the first egg has started to hatch 31 or, more commonly, 32 days after the last egg was laid.  Now this year was a little different with all the commotion and goings on in late March but as things have been pretty settled and routine since the last egg was laid let’s hope that things carry on as in previous years with no nasty surprises – which would mean we’d be looking at the first egg pipping on Sunday 5th or, more likely, Monday 6th May.  Fingers crossed everything will run smoothly and we get a May Day chick but if this year so far has taught us anything, it is that we can’t take anything for granted in nature, so keep your eyes peeled as of now!  There are no guarantees, but whatever happens, good or bad, it all adds to our knowledge and understanding of how these birds live their lives and the trials and tribulations they face.  By this day last year we already had our first chick despite the fact that the birds had incubated through the “beast from the east” and a covering of snow.  The challenges this year have been somewhat different but our fascination and anticipation remain the same….   Fingers crossed.

More soon.

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Photo: David Wood

CG 1/5/19

 

 

 

Place your bets

Webcam watchers will have seen the birds endure a rather wet and windy week from the 11th to 17th March, courtesy of Storm Gareth.  As a species which has evolved over millions of years and found it’s niche nesting on cliff faces, Peregrines are well used to windy conditions but it was hard not to feel a little sympathy for them last week as they got blown about.  The female shifted about from perch to stone ledge to nest platform but didn’t seem to get much respite anywhere…. the downside perhaps of the commanding viewpoint they call home each spring.  At one point one of the birds, almost inevitably, tried the camera out as a perching point so we got a view of not very much for an hour or two.  And when it left the raindrops didn’t make the view much better either.  Thankfully things have calmed down a bit now although you can still see the breeze up at the top of the tower from the way it displaces the bird’s feathers when sat on the perch.  March 18th marked the first day of 2018 with 12 hours and 1 minute between sunset and the days are longer than the nights from now on until September.  A highlight of the astonomical calendar.  Let’s hope the lengthening days bring warmer temperatures and settled weather.

 

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The fact that the birds stay and endure the elements as they did last week just goes to emphasise the strength of their instinct to sit tight and protect their territory.  There will  other perches around city’s skyline which offer a more comfortable perch in the lee of the wind and perhaps this was where the male was at times last week when not on camera.  The combination of the site, the bird’s renewed pair bond and perhaps their sense of their previous success mean the instinct to stay put is unbending.  The birds will have looked cold, wet and miserable to human observers last week as we view the birds in our own terms but it’s a testament to the amazing natural technology of feathers that they stay warm and dry.  If the feathers didn’t work so very well the birds would perish in such harsh conditions.   The tightly interlocking barrier the outer feathers form is aided by oil from the preen gland gives excellent water repellency to keep the rain out.  Downy feathers closer to the skin keep the warmth in.

So today is 19th March, the earliest date on which the first egg has been laid in recent years.  Time to start watching closely!  In 2018 the first egg was laid on 22 March, which is a more typical average date.  The female has made a bigger depression in the gravel ready for the eggs so it would appear that the time is nearly upon us.    However, we saw less bonding activity last week due to the weather which, for no scientific reason whatsoever, makes me think we might have to wait a day or two yet.  What do you think?  Keep watching to find out….

CG 19/3/18

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