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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

 

 

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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

2018 season up and running

With little time to devote to the blog this year, my first post is to celebrate the laying of the fourth egg today, which should complete the clutch.  Below is a screengrab of the male settling back down to incubate this evening, with the four eggs visible and a good idea of how a clutch of four is about the limit of his brooding capacity.

Male and 4 eggs 29 March 2

The news that the pair had started to lay eggs has generated a good deal of interest, and the University’s digital media team, Andy Kershaw of BBC Radio Sheffield and the Sheffield Star have all done interviews over the last couple of days.  It’s always great to know that there’s so much interest in the birds and great too to be able to spread the word and share some knowledge about them.

Spending an hour with Andy Kershaw at St George’s in the early morning sun was especially fun as it coincided with a good deal of activity.  With the female on the corner of the Arts Tower and the male on incubation duty, a Crow mobbed the female, shortly followed by another bird that didn’t look like a Crow, even with the naked eye.  A quick check with the bins confirmed it was a third Peregrine, which made repeated passes within feet of the female.  The pictures below were taken from St George’s, so at some distance…

PG fem and imm March 29 2018

PG fem and imm March 29 2018 3

The female eventually flew off in pursuit, although made no effort to attack the interloper, instead engaging in some half-hearted chasing.

PG fem and imm March 29 2018 2

The size difference and heavy streaking below on the bird to the left in the image above indicate that this third bird is a young male, fledged last year.  The images below also shows that it is quite brown above still, confirming it’s around a year old.

PG fem and imm March 29 2018 4

PG fem and imm Arts Tower March 29 2018

My immediate thought was that it could be one of last year’s chicks, which were fitted with orange plastic rings to aid identification and track their movements.  However, a few pictures snapped when it dropped its talons as it passed the female didn’t show any obvious ring of that kind, which I’d expect to see, even at that distance.

PG fem and imm March 29 2018 5

It could be that the plastic ring has dropped (or been pecked) off, or it could possibly be an immature male that fledged elsewhere and has moved away from its nest site to find Sheffield to its liking.  Seems a bit of a long shot, especially given the female’s relative acceptance of the immature, although we may never know for sure.

Back to the eggs, the sequence of laying dates is now probably complete, and was March 22nd, March 24th, March 26th and March 29th.  This pattern of laying the four eggs across the space of a week fits perfectly with previous years, but they have come a couple of days later than in recent years, which have seen the first egg laid on 19th or 20th March for the last four years.  Given the weather we’ve been having recently, and especially the overnight temperatures, perhaps this delay isn’t surprising.  On the basis of previous years, we can expect the first egg to hatch in late April, probably 29th, with fledging likely to occur around June 6th.  In the meantime, there will no doubt be a roller coaster to enjoy/ endure.  Will we have another cold snap that threatens the development of the embryos?  Will one of the adults puncture an egg with its talons (as appears to be imminent in the screengrab below from this evening)?

Male and 4 eggs 29 March 2018

And finally, if you do go down to St George’s to see the Peregrines (and you should!), keep your eyes open for other species too.  Woodpigeons, Magpies, Blue Tits, Blackbirds, Starlings and Mistle Thrushes are all busy with their breeding seasons around the church.  This Pied Wagtail was also there, busy catching insects around the church’s ledges this morning, under the gaze of the Peregrine above.

Pied Wag and PG March 29 2018

Blog updates won’t be as regular as in previous years given various other commitments, but I’ll try to keep on top of major developments.

Summer sign-off

Six weeks on from the fledging of the juvs, the new colour rings are proving their value, allowing easy identification of their coming and goings.

The pictures above show the ringing on May 18th, the three juvs ringed with silver BTO rings and the orange plastic rings labelled PRF, PSF and PTF respectively.  Since they fledged, there have been various sightings of PRF and PTF, but none reported of PSF.

Juv PTF Aug 6 2017

Both PRF and PTF have continued to visit the nest platform at St George’s on a regular basis, roosting there quite often and receiving food drops from one or other of the parents, which seem to be fully tolerant of their presence.  On the basis of some of the other urban sites monitored by webcams, this is not typical, and does not follow the pattern of previous years in Sheffield, where the juvs have dispersed from St George’s within a few weeks of fledging.

When the chicks were ringed, PSF was a little smaller than its two siblings, in wing length as in tarsus length.  With no subsequent confirmed sightings, it may be that it has succumbed to illness or infection, or perhaps it has move further afield: fingers crossed for the latter, although mortality rates are high, at around 60-70% in the first year.   About half of those that do not survive are thought to die from infectious disease, parasitism or other organic diseases.  Known causes of death include trichomoniasis (better known for killing large numbers of Greenfinches and other finches), botulism and myiasis (fly maggot infestation).

On a happier note, an early morning visit to St George’s revealed the male and PTF to be present.  They were content to sit unmoved, even when a couple of Feral Pigeons decided to land either side of the nest platform.

PGs and pigeons Aug 6 2017

One of them then took off and flew right in front of the male, landing on the turret opposite.  Even then he showed no sign of action beyond an interested stare.

PG male and pigeon Aug 6 2017

PG male and pigeon Aug 6 2017 2

So two of the Sheffield juvs are doing well, and if anyone has any sightings of PSF (as well as of PRF and PTF) do please share them, either via the twitter feed or by e-mail to chairman@sbsg.org

First Flight!

Friday night’s public talk, attended by some 140-150 people, was great, with very informative contributions from Dean Rea (Sorby Breck Ringing Group) and Deborah Dawson and Natalie dos Remedios (Dept of Animal and Plant Sciences her at Sheffield University).  Dean explained the thinking behind the colour ringing of the young birds this year (details to follow) and Natalie’s finale was to reveal that all three of this year’s young birds are… male! So that makes three years of males only.

The weather ahead of the talk was damp and far from ideal for watching the birds, let alone for them to make their first flights, although a good crowd enjoyed fine views of the birds through the telescope available.  On Thursday evening (1st June) a trip to St George’s proved exciting, with plenty of activity.  Most notable was the female’s visit to the church tower with some prey that she brought to the corner of the ledge a couple of metres from the nest platform (in the photo below), but did not take into the box.  She seemed to be clearly trying to encourage the young birds to move beyond the nest, but despite their loud protests and obvious desire to reach the food, they did not budge!

June 1 no feed

Yesterday (Saturday) evening was fine and sunny so a visit to check on progress seemed in order.  The three juvs were very active on and around the box, with two of them ably going up on to its roof and one flapping/ hopping out onto the webcam housing.

June 3 flapping

There’s obviously not much room on top of the box, and the more adventurous juv clambered over its brother en route to the webcam housing: those talons must have been uncomfortable!

June 3 clambering

Both adult birds were close to hand, with all five on and around the nest site on occasion.  The female landed on the webcam at one point, and when she dropped away there was a sense of the juvs watching and learning.

June 3 all 5

The amount of downforce generated by the vigorous flapping undertaken by the young birds as they exercise ahead of their first flight was apparent when one gave it a good go on the edge of the box, raising a cloud of down (which they are rapidly losing completely) and small feathers, some presumably from inside the box.

June 3 feathers flying

By the end of the evening, the moon rose behind the tower and provided a photo opp that was too good to resist as the birds settled down for the night.

June 3 moon

This afternoon, one of the juvs was on the corner of the ledge having made its first excursion from the nest.

June 4 one on ledge

And this evening, news from Andy J that one of the juvs hopped/ flapped up onto the castellations behind the box, only to slip down and take flight, circling the tower and landing back on the roof in reasonably controlled fashion.  So we have lift off!!