Symonds Yat – a short story 1984-2017

July 25, 1984
The air is heavy and still. It needs a thunderstorm. We pass by some old derelict farmhouse outbuildings and cut across two fields going over barely negotiable stiles. The track narrows and Coppett Hill ridge closes hard against the river Wye at this point. A herd of deer make their presence felt and scrabble up the wooded hillside as we approach. The sun is coming up, mist on the slow moving river and all is perfectly still.

It is 1984 but could be 1784 here on this enchanted morning – with no sign of modern civilisation. As we move forward towards the impressive limestone Coldwell Cliffs the meadow widens and the oppressive becomes expansive. Here the Wye runs alongside the cliffs in a wide U shaped bend. It is now that Yat Rock and the cliffs loom high on the horizon, dominant, spectacular, powerful and majestic.

And now ‘kek kek kek kek kek‘ a guttural scream rents the air. The hairs stand out on the back of my neck. A shiver runs down my spine. An adult female Peregrine has launched from high on the face and attacks a much bigger Buzzard mercilessly. She repeatedly stoops and throws up, stoops and throws up, striking the hapless raptor with feathers a-flying.

This wild landscape is enhanced by the presence of the Peregrine. She adds a living dimension and makes these cliffs more wild, more spectacular, more menacing. I watched her with the tiercel and her four young till sundown and that day changed my life. I have been unashamedly in thrall to this unmatchable, wonderful raptor these last 30 years.

Down the years

Since that first day I have learnt all I can from the extensive literature and spent as much leisure time as possible watching Peregrines at Symonds Yat and elsewhere. To learn the ways of the Peregrine I have found that it is important to watch throughout the seasons, to follow their flights unstintingly and to take notes. Keep the ‘bins up when they’re in the air. Never give in to neck ache, shoulder ache or any other ache for that matter. Keep focussed. Then and only then will you be guaranteed to see the legendary hunting flights, the stoop,
the breath-taking flying manoeuvres that these perfectly adapted falcons are capable of.

After a few years behaviour patterns become discernible. One Peregrine’s habits and psychology can be discerned from another. Hunting technique can be rationalised and distinguished one bird from another. A change of resident territory owner can be inferred from changes in behaviour, habits, preferred perching locations as well as the physical characteristics of the bird itself.

Selected records from 1982 – 2017

My collated records now show that over the past 36 years five separate pairings have produced 91 young at an average rate of 2.53 per year. They have used 6 different eyrie sites on 2 separate rock faces over this period. In 1983 the eyrie was robbed and in 1984 the RSPB/ Forestry Commission started the Peregrine project. Since then there have been no losses to robbery.

In 1985 the sodden dead chicks were seen to be eaten by the adult. The female resident from 1982 – 1992 suffered a badly injured foot in 1985 which she carried for the rest of her life. It did not, however, appear to inhibit her hunting prowess.

In 1989 a Golden Eagle was observed from the viewpoint. Strange but true.

In 1993, 2005 and 2015 Barn Owls nested, apparently successfully, within 20 metres of the eyrie!

Since around 2005 we have also witnessed an increasing amount of Goshawk sightings from the viewpoint and this can make for some interesting interactions.
Even now, after thousands of hours of observation of many thousands of flights and hundreds of successful hunts, the thrill of watching Peregrines has never waned. It is always just like the first sighting. Captivating. Awe inspiring. Magical.

Steve Watson