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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Dawn Sentry

41C02890-8630-4BB2-B0AD-09A292EF6313Heading into work or classes this morning? You’re being watched from on high. Smashing image of one of our birds on perch in first light.

The camera looks East, the nest platform faces North

Welcome Back!

Well it’s that time of year again.  Welcome back to the Sheffield Peregrines blog.  There have been regular winter sightings of the birds all around the City Centre, the top of the University Arts Tower continues to be a popular spot, over the Wicker arches and Pitsmoor regularly too.

Since the mid to late January the Peregrines have been frequenting St. Georges Chruch more and more, beginning the process of re-establishing their territory and guarding this prime piece of Sheffield real estate from the wandering eyes of any passing Peregrine looking for a room with a view.  The birds became a daily fixture as February drew on and the temperatures rose, clearly enjoying the unseasonably warm and sunny weather and towards the end of the month a bird could be reliably spotted on station on the camera perch late afternoon each day and some days for much longer periods.  The female has been in the nest platform itself from time to time, reacquainting herself with her surroundings.  There’s been the odd bit of courtship too.  If you do see anything interesting happening with the birds be sure to Tweet @peregrines2019 as the bloggers and Twitter admins are unable to monitor the cameras 24/7!

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What a great view it is to see a bird on the perch with blue skies and the cityscape behind, perfectly lit by the setting winter sun.  (Thanks to @suenaylor for the screen grab)  It’s a great view for us and no doubt it must be an advantageous one for the birds too given their continuing success at St. Georges since 2012.  Success which is underlined by winter sightings of previous Sheffield Peregrine offspring.  Our 2014 male fledgling is once again in residence with his partner in Wakefield and the 2018 chick (Orange leg ring ‘PSA’) has been spotted several times in the Dearne Valley  east of Barnsley including at RSPB Adwick Washlands and around the Manvers trading estates which neighbour the RSPB’s Old Moor reserve.  It’s great to know this bird is alive and well and fending for itself and it’s fascinating to see which direction it has dispersed in.  Perhaps even more so given that Old Moor already has long-standing resident Peregrines which hunt over the pools and scrapes for wildfowl and waders and regularly perch on the electricity transmission pylons there. Do look out for ‘PSA’ if you are visiting the Dearne Valley and report any sightings to @peregrines2019 and @shefbirdstudy with location time and date and any photos if you have them.  Here’s a photo of PSA posted on Twitter by @StonesGary – nice work Gary!

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Will PSA establish a long term home in the Dearne Valley or be chased out as the more experienced resident birds begin to think about breeding?  None of this information would be known of course without ringing the birds or without everyday people like YOU, readers of this blog who take interest in the birds and report their sightings.  Chicks from the last 2 years clutches have big bright orange leg rings which (given a bit of luck) can be read by anybody with binoculars, a telescope or telephoto lens, and a bit of patience.  So anybody can take part and contribute to the knowledge and understanding of our local Peregrines and their behaviour, you don’t need a Zoology degree or any kind of training and you don’t necessarily need fancy expensive equipment.  Simple information such as times and places build up to form knowledge – Citizen Science.  Your information is as valuable as the next person’s and we are building this knowledge together, in real time.

It’s with great anticipation that we look forward to the 2019 breeding season.  Who knows what it will bring?  Hopefully not the freezing cold the birds endured during March and into April last year, incubating eggs surrounded by, and covered in, a couple of inches of snow!  That they took all that in their stride and still successfully fledged three chicks only goes to underline how amazing these birds are and how lucky we are to have them living amongst us here in Sheffield.

CG 4/3/19

 

 

Ringing success

On Friday 18th May, an experienced team of ringers, working under a schedule 1 license, climbed St George’s church tower to ring the chicks.  The timing of the ringing was a very close match to previous years in terms of age of the chicks, and carefully chosen to be within the fairly narrow window available to do so safely.

Needless to say, the female – which had been feeding the chicks shortly before – kept a close eye on proceedings, circling the tower.

PG fem May 18 2018

On a couple of occasions she even perched up on the platform perch or one of the turrets before setting off again.

PG fem May 18 2018 4

The male was in attendance too, though he kept more of a distance.  After carefully setting up ropes to secure those involved, Simon went over the edge to take the chicks from the nest and put them in a cloth bag before passing them back to the roof of the church.  Once there, the three chicks were weighed and a series of measurements were taken, which suggested that we may have a female chick this year!  DNA swabs were taken that will be analysed by the university’s Animal and Plant Sciences labs, as will the unhatched egg, which was removed from the nest at the same time.  Each chick was ringed with a silver ring provided by the British Trust for Ornithology as well as a coloured ring to enable the birds to be tracked individually.

PG chick May 18 2018

This year’s chicks have PRA, PSA and PTA on orange rings, so do share any sightings of them once they’ve left the nest.  As soon as this had been done, they were returned to the nest, and we climbed back down.  Shortly afterwards, the female was back on the nest platform and things settled back down to normality.

All of this is very positive, and is the result of many people coming together to protect these wonderful birds.  And those rings are precisely what have told us that the male at Wakefield cathedral came from Sheffield, having been ringed as a chick at St George’s on 16 May 2014.  Sadly, however, not all news in the last couple of days has been good.  The same BTO rings that enabled us to confirm where one of the 2014 chicks has gone have confirmed that a Peregrine found dead near Bradford in suspicious circumstances was one of the 2016 cohort from St George’s.  Peregrines are protected by law, but that doesn’t deter some people from continuing to persecute them.  Whether or not this was the case here is unclear at this stage, but seems likely.  Do keep an eye out for the Peregrines around Sheffield: they still need our support to ensure others can enjoy the spectacle of these magnificent birds in our skies.

PG fem May 18 2018 3

 

 

And then there were three

Following the emergence of the first chick on Monday evening, the last two days have indeed seen further eggs hatch, as anticipated.  Having gone to bed on Monday with a ‘pipped’ egg alongside the chick, I expected a second chick to be present on Tuesday morning, but by lunchtime, little had changed as below.

May 1 chick and 3 eggs

The afternoon did see the expected second chick hatch, coinciding with the male bringing in some prey to feed the first chick.  The female’s reluctance to move aside over several minutes as he stood by with food in beak was puzzling, until a freshly pink chick became visible underneath the female’s wing; pink because the down was wet from inside the shell, although it wouldn’t take to long to dry and turn white.

May 1 second chick

It wasn’t long before the male returned with some food, which the female seemed reluctant for him to feed to the chicks.  Instead, she took tiny morsels from him and fed them to the older chick, the younger one not yet ready for a feed.

By midday on Wednesday a third egg had hatched, all within a 48-hour window.

May 2 three chicks

Noticeable in the front of the box for most of the day (and in the pictures above and below) was a patch of heavy black plastic that had somehow blown up the tower and come to land in the nest.  It’s a highly topical subject and a timely indication of how prevalent plastic is in our environment: Sir David Attenborough would not be amused!

May 2 plastic

Once the male had settled back down to brood the plastic blew up and landed on his rump and wingtips.  He seemed unsettled and startled but he did not leave his brooding duties and a short while later it blew off again and appears to have left the nest.

May 2 plastic male

Later in the afternoon, both parents brought food in for the chicks, at one point both at the same time!  It looks as if they won’t go hungry, with Feral Pigeon already featuring.

May 2 male feeding 3 chicks

By the end of the day, there was still one egg among the three chicks, which are all looking healthy and feeding well.  There’s no sign of any ‘pipping’ on that fourth egg, so it may be that it won’t hatch.  Tomorrow may be the last realistic chance for it to do so.  This is when the Peregrine’s synchronous hatching strategy becomes most apparent: having laid the four eggs over the space of a week and only starting to incubate once the clutch was (almost) complete, the eggs hatch over a much shorter period, resulting in chicks of similar size and with similar chances of surviving.  Fingers crossed for that fourth egg hatching tomorrow…

Chick!

It’s been a cracking afternoon in Sheffield – literally – as the first egg has hatched.

April 30 chick

This was my first glimpse of a chick, at 19:13, although it had looked all day as if something was happening, right on time.  A handover a little later allowed for a clearer view, and confirmation that there was one chick alongside three eggs.

April 30 3 eggs and chick

Thirty-two days have now passed since the last egg was laid, since when round-the-clock incubation has been a constant, and in each of the years for which we have data from the webcam, the gap between last egg laid and first chick hatched has been either 31 days (2016 and 2017) or 32 (2013, 2014, 2015 and now 2018).  And in every year, the chicks have hatched within one or two days of each other, so things should move quickly overnight and tomorrow: worth watching!

April 30 male and eggs

The screengrab above shows that at 13:52 this afternoon there were still four eggs, one of which appeared to show (in the white patch visible on the front left egg) the first signs of ‘pipping’ as the chick began to break out of its shell.  The enlarged image below makes it a little easier to see.

April 30 egg pipped

As in previous years, the adults adopted a tell-tale ‘eggs-to-chicks’ posture while on the eggs, tilted forwards and hunched.  They do this by resting their wings on the ground so as to hold their body partly off the eggs to allow for the emerging chick, as below.

April 30 female hunched

A look back to last year reminded me that the night before the first egg hatched in 2017 saw temperatures fall down to just one degree above freezing, and while last night in Sheffield saw a comparatively (!) balmy 3 degrees celsius, conditions are far from ideal.  Fortunately, the chicks seem to be pretty hardy on the basis of previous years and temperatures look set to rise over the next few days, although Wednesday – likely to be the first full day with our complement of chicks, however many that may be – is forecast to be very wet.  No doubt the parents will brood them carefully, doing all they can to keep them warm and dry, although handovers will see them get unavoidably damp.

April 30 evening handover

Above is what I expect to be the final handover of the day as the female took over duties for the night at 20:41.  You can make out a second ‘pipped’ egg, which should mean a second chick by tomorrow morning.  Over recent years it’s become apparent that chicks often emerge from their egg at night, so let’s see what the morning brings.  Tomorrow morning should also see the first feed brought in, so another thing to watch out for.

Yesterday the BBC showed again their engaging documentary following the lives of a family of Peregrines in Chicago as they hatched and fledged.  No doubt you can catch it on iPlayer if you missed it – or you can watch it all unfold live right here in Sheffield.

An Eventful Quiet Week

The month of incubation is generally a quiet time, but the first of the ‘quiet’ weeks has been anything but…  As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s always a roller coaster and I did wonder if (yet) another cold snap would give cause for concern.  Well, the start of April did indeed bring such a cold snap, and with it a quite substantial fall of snow, waking up to some 10 cm on the western side of Sheffield on the morning of Monday 2nd (Easter Monday).    A quick check of the webcam showed that the eggs were safe, thanks to the devotion and commitment of the parents, particularly the male, which sat tight through the worst of the snow.

April 2 2018 snow male

Once the snow had stopped, he changed position and shook himself off before settling back down.

April 2 snow male 2

Fortunately, the temperature wasn’t too low and the snow began to melt fairly quickly, and by the time the female took over incubation duties later in the morning it was already starting to go.

April 2 snow female

When analysing the two eggs that failed to hatch in 2015, Dr Nicola Hemmings (of the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences) commented that early-stage embryos tend to be fairly resilient to changes in environmental conditions, such as cold temperatures or delayed incubation, but the risk to the developing chicks is real.  Hopefully the committed efforts of the adults will mean that risk has been averted.

The other excitement of the week came when we learned that the team at Wakefield Cathdral have been able to read the ring of the male of their pair, and the ring number confirms that he was ringed at St George’s on 16th May 2014, one of the four chicks that fledged that year.  We’ve suspected that the ringed Wakefield male could be from Sheffield, and it is absolutely fantastic to know that this is the case.  How wonderful to know that the St George’s birds are contributing to the growing urban Yorkshire population, especially when birds in rural settings continue to struggle as a result of illegal persecution.

Great too to know that the ringing carried out by Sorby Breck Ringing Group is helping to build a picture of what happens to the Sheffield chicks once they’ve fledged.  This is the first definite proof of successful breeding of any of the Sheffield offspring and it’s really interesting that it should have set up in another urban environment.  And how fitting that we were able to advise the team in Wakefield on their plans to support Peregrines and provide them with their first nestbox, an exact copy of the St George’s model.  They’ve since moved on to a different nestbox, but the pair there have fledged 10 chicks and are on course for another successful season too.  A real snowball effect.

We’ve still not managed to read the entire ring number of the St George’s male, so if anyone fancies a challenge over the weeks ahead, it would be terrific to be able to find out where and when he was ringed.  What odds he’s also from an urban nest?

June 2014 4 chicks

It seems only fitting to close with an image of the 2014 chicks shortly before they fledged, with the Wakefield male somewhere among them.  Perhaps this is him below, taking one of his first flights and grappling with a sibling back in June 2014.  What a week!

June 2014 grappling two