12th July – Bristol Peregrine Update 2

Peregrines again? Afraid so! Apologies if Brandon Hill Nature Blog has turned into Bristol Peregrine Blog recently, but after spending most of the Winter and early Spring watching the daily (and sometimes nightly) activities of the pair of peregrine falcons that were hunting around the Wills Tower and Brandon Hill, I have become a little obsessed.

I have spent most of this Summer following the various resident and visiting peregrines around the Bristol area, observing and photographing their breeding season and watching their daily dramas unfold – and who can blame me, when it has given me the opportunity to watch the above ball of fluff develop into the aerial assassin that it is gradually becoming…

Not long after my last post, I got my first glimpse of the town peregrine pair’s solitary chick poking it’s head up from it’s urban scrape. I was hoping for at least 2, but it seems that peregrines across the U.K. have had limited success this year due to the pervasive foul weather – even the prodigiously productive pair at the Avon Gorge have only managed 3 this year as opposed to their customary 5. Although fairly inconspicuous and tucked away, it didn’t escape the interest of the city gulls nesting nearby for long, and as it grew and began calling, stretching and wing-flapping, it attracted increasing amounts of attention daily. Although large gulls like herrings and lesser black-backeds aren’t normally on a peregrine’s prey list, inexperienced juvenile peregrines will occasionally take them – especially those just fledged, and although I personally think that the benefits that klepto-parasitic gulls gain by nesting in close proximity to peregrines from cached and dropped prey must outweigh the negative effects, gulls just don’t like them and will take every opportunity they can to mob and harass them.

As the town chick got closer to fledging and the adults brought in food for it increasingly regularly, the attention from the gulls reached fever-pitch and just as it was preparing to take its inaugural flight, they mobbed it so heavily that as it flapped from its ledge, it fell straight into the water in the harbour below. It did its best to flap across to the opposite side of the river, but the gulls continued to harass it and as the walls on the far side are so steep, it had no choice but to turn around, straight back into the path of the fierce onslaught from the gulls – one of whom lifted him up briefly, before dropping him unceremoniously back into the water. After all of his efforts, he began to run out of energy and just as he was getting within reach of the bank he could barely even flap his saturated wings. Thankfully, the commotion hadn’t gone unnoticed and the compassionate and quick-thinking women working in the offices nearby made the workmen at the harbour-side development with access to the nearest wall aware of the grave situation. With the help of a few breeze-blocks thrown into the harbour to create a bit of wake and a large umbrella, a drowned-rat of a peregrine was fished out of the harbour by its foot – a sorry state and barely breathing. Luckily, local peregrine expert Ed Drewitt and photographer Bertie Gregory had been there earlier that day and had left their contact details, which meant that the close-to-expiring peregrine was taken home and rehabilitated for the night, ready to be released and returned to its parents as quickly as possible the next morning.

All of the surrounding offices were glad to help and after releasing the revitalised juvenile from one of their rooftops, it was back on its ledge the next day, calling to its parents as if nothing had happened.

Since its ordeal, the parents seem to be behaving a bit more vigilantly and have been chasing off the gulls as soon as they bring in food for the youngster. The juv. has been going from strength-to-strength, chasing its dad around Bristol’s rooftops, practising its stoops, barrel-rolls and food-passes and even seems to be getting his own back on the gulls – incessantly chasing them in substitute for siblings.

It has been great to watch it soar over Bristol’s skyline, briefly alighting on buildings probably never before graced by a peregrine’s presence and grow daily in skill and confidence.

This year’s Avon Gorge brood has also fledged – over a week before the town pair’s young. I was lucky enough to be there just after the first one flew and landed on the cliff-side, looking down at the busy road below.

I watched the adults there flying between the nest and the old raven’s nest opposite, where they had been caching their kills, often restricting feeding to encourage the others to join the first fledgling. Happy to report that they are all flying well now (despite a bit of drama involving landing on the path and a jacket, but nothing compared to the townies).

Will be back at Brandon Hill soon now that the peregrines have finished nesting and are safely fledged.. And anyway, it won’t be long before they are local again and back on the Wills Tower for the Autumn and Winter! :)

A few more of my peregrine photos from this year’s breeding season here
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25th May – Bristol’s Urban Peregrines Update

The last few weeks have been ideal for watching Bristol’s urban peregrines – the sun has been out and both adults have been very active, up and hunting for most of the day. The chicks are obviously old enough now to be left alone for short periods, and must be big and voracious enough to need feeding almost round-the-clock. Conditions have been pretty much perfect for hunting too, with a slight breeze to give them a little lift and plenty of warm sunshine, producing thermals to ride high into the wide blue yonder.

The Avon Gorge peregrines have been just as busy as the city pair, with 3 confirmed healthy chicks (2 F + 1 M), ringed this week by Ed Drewitt. On top of feeding their brood, they have been kept busy recently, seeing off passing buzzards brought out by the warm sunshine – and even a few red kites have drifted by this week. It will only be a few weeks now until Bristol has a fresh horde of juvenile aerial predators, getting up to mischief and most likely finding themselves in trouble with some of the local gulls and other residents.

Other exciting news this week is that there has been a lot of tawny owl activity at Brandon Hill. After hearing the males calling in Berkeley Square on Sunday night, I have twice heard a female at the hill and last night, I heard a juvenile calling for around half an hour in the tree-tops by the Charlotte Street entrance. I don’t think they’ll stick around for too long and will probably be back up at the Downs or Ashton Court very soon, but it’s nice to have them drop by and have the opportunity to hear their calls so close to town and catch glimpses of them, lit-up from underneath as they fly around Cabot Tower.

Lastly, I found this slow-worm last night, which I thought was worth sharing. It was a real monster, found just by a road-side verge on the way to Easton-in-Gordano!

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20th May – First fledglings of 2012

Since getting back to the UK and Brandon Hill, it’s been a pretty miserable time weatherwise, but inexorably the season and wildlife pushes forward and after a few interesting Spring migrants passing through the park (including siskins, willow and garden warblers, plenty of swifts and hirundines and a hobby flyover), the first fledglings are taking their inaugural flights. Long-tailed tits, robins, dunnocks, wrens, blackbirds and the first mistle thrushes I’ve seen nesting at Brandon Hill are out and the blue and great tits aren’t far behind, with nests bursting with noisy nestlings, ready to join them.

There has been no sign of the pair of peregrine falcons that spent most of the Winter hanging around the Wills Memorial Tower, apart from the occasional solitary tercel perched on Clifton Catholic Cathedral, but I’m pretty sure it was the pair that nest at the Gorge – and hopefully they will be having as successful a year as they have for the previous few, despite the weather. Bristol’s urban peregrine pair are also busy nesting and I’m starting to see them both up and hunting, so they must be confident that this year’s chicks are well enough developed for the Castle Park gulls not to be too much of a threat. Interestingly I found some common tern remains just under one of their perches the other day, which added to the recent teal and greenfinch remains just goes to show what a varied diet they have and what birds fly unnoticed directly over the city centre.

The ponds around Cabot Tower have been busy with activity, with tadpoles starting to develop into froglets and toadlets, newts displaying and patrolling their territories and plenty of young three-spined sticklebacks out basking during the sunnier days. A few damselflies have even been out, but only one or two and no dragonflies yet..

The Cabot Tower visible migration watches have been significantly silent this Spring, with no significant passage of passerines over the city at all, which suggests that the Autumn migrants making their way over Bristol after passing south through the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley must be following a completely different flight-path on their return journeys (most likely slightly to the west of Bristol judging by the finch and pipit counts at New Passage this Spring). I’ve spent some lonely mornings up there with just a hazy sunrise and a carrion crow or two for company, but I’m already looking forward to this Autumn to see if the site is as successful as it was in 2011.

The bats have just returned after a slow Spring, with serotines, Leisler’s, a couple of soprano pipistrelles and a common pip swarm or two on Friday night making a massive change to the few solitary common pips feeding on the flies buzzing around the up-lights surrounding Cabot Tower so far this year..

The meadow, although a few weeks behind, is just about ready to burst into blossom, so I’m hoping for a few more butterflies in the coming weeks. So far holly blues and red admirals have been the only common sights, but it won’t be long before I see some other familiar faces, but who knows what will happen if the bass-ackward weather continues into the Summer this year!

Update: 2 male tawny owls calling in Berkeley Square just as I finished this post. Only the second time I’ve heard them calling this close to town – nesting gulls going bananas!

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17th April – Atlantic Adventure (mostly off topic!)

A close encounter with common dolphins – please watch in HD!

I’ve just returned to Bristol after over a month away, most of it spent at sea, aboard The Bessie Ellen – a tall ship built in Plymouth in 1904. She was once part of a fleet of nearly 700 West Country trading ketches, of which only 3 now remain (including the Irene of Bridgwater, which can often be seen in the Floating Harbour at Bristol). Below is a picture of her I took during a night watch in Velas, São Jorge, Azores.

My Atlantic odyssey began in the Canaries at San Miguel Marina on the southern tip of Tenerife, where I spent a few days exploring the island before embarking on the passage to the Azorean isles. After receiving a series of overwhelmingly negative reports of the Canaries from my friends, I wasn’t expecting too much, but was pleasantly surprised by the dramatic landscapes and abundant wildlife. I didn’t even have to leave the moderately modest grounds of my hotel to see some great birds including Spanish sparrows, Canarian chiffchaffs, blackcaps, Cory’s shearwaters, kestrels and hoopoes – not to mention all of the butterflies, lizards and nest-building swifts..

Below are some hoopoes making a food-pass – part of their courtship ritual. I watched the male digging out grubs from the earth under the shrubs surrounding the hotel for an age, before he flapped up to a telegraph wire, where he spent just about as long trying to attract the female with a pooping and wheezing call. After a long while, she came over to collect her prize, after which he got straight back to work, diligently digging in the dust and dirt.

As soon as we set sail from the Canaries, the frequency of wildlife sharply dropped, apart from a few groups of shearwaters and bottlenose dolphins on the passage through the islands. After a day at sea and our first night sail, pretty much all there was to see was open ocean, occasional Portuguese men-o’-war and sea turtles floating by, the starlit sky – which seemed to be reflected by the bioluminescent plankton disturbed by the motion of the ship cutting through the water, and a few streaks of lightning from distant storms. During the passage to the Azores, Cory’s shearwaters were the most common birds, followed by bonxies, gulls and an occasional petrel. When we were about 200 miles off the Azores, we had an unusual sighting of a bird flapping low above the water, which I first assumed to be a petrel, but as it approached and its silhouette became clearer, I realised it was a kestrel. It hovered above the boat for a short while before it flew off in the direction of a large tanker on the horizon. With the lack of thermals at sea to give it any uplift, and our distance from land, I assumed it to be lost and destined to doom, but as the tanker (the Doric Champion) passed to our stern, the kestrel appeared again and I realised that it must have been a stow-away, living on passing insects and the mice and scraps on board, and had only approached The Bessie Ellen to look for pickings. About 50 miles later, a solitary swallow found us, which flitted around the rigging a few times, very nearly alighting on one of the shrouds, before continuing its journey north (the only swallow I encountered over the entire journey). As we approached the Azores, common dolphins riding the bow-wave under the bowsprit (see video at top) and Cory’s shearwaters became a familiar sight and we got our first few whale sightings, including fin whales, sei whales and an unforgettable encounter with 3 blue whales – one of which rolled over whilst feeding to display the full length of its pectoral fin!

The Azorean islands were lush, verdant and beautiful, and apart from a few vagrants like a solitary brown booby passing over and the endemic canaries, most of the wildlife was quite familiar, including buzzards, grebes, finches, starlings, sparrows, herons and egrets.

The only common sights that weren’t familiar were the Azorean gulls, black crabs, lizards and men-o’-war that had washed up on the volcanic beaches around the old whaling station at Porto Pim, Faial.

All in all, I can’t recommend the experience of adventure, hijinks and skulduggery aboard a tall ship in the Atlantic highly enough. It was worth the trip just to be close enough to hear wild dolphins whistling, squeaking and clicking at each other!

Although it has been an awesome opportunity, full of amazing experiences I’ll never forget, it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to getting back to Bristol to catch the arrival of spring migrants at Brandon Hill and see the busy butterflies, nesting birds and bats out of hibernation and feeding over the meadow again. Just before I left,the newts were busy displaying in the AWT wildlife pond and the frogs and toads had been busy spawning in the pools around the tower..

The peregrines had left the Wills Memorial Building to find a more suitable nest-site, but the pair in town were still hanging around Castle Park. Spring was just starting to spring, but the redwings were still at the hill and the meadow was bare. After a quick walk around yesterday though, it’s clear that spring is well underway, with plenty of nest building going on, a few flowers like the snake’s head fritillaries starting to go over, whilst bluebells and ramsons are full out, but there’s still plenty of it left to spring. The redwings are long gone, but I’ve noticed a few new songsters – blackcaps and chiffchaffs are back on territories and yesterday, a willow warbler stopped for an hour or so. I Haven’t seen any swallows or swifts since I’ve been back in the UK, but as Cabot Tower is open this year I’ll be up nice and early with the Cabot Tower Bird Study Group this weekend to see what else is coming home to roost, perhaps after their own Atlantic adventures!

peregrine image ©Duncan Miller 2012
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Bristol’s Pied Wagtails and Orchard Planting at Brandon Hill

After not seeing a single wagtail at Brandon Hill all Summer, I was glad to see the greys and pieds start to return in the Autumn and white wags bouncing past overhead from Cabot Tower, during the Autumn migration watches. Most of the greys and all of the whites were just passing through, but the pieds had returned to stay for the Winter, after a busy breeding season, mainly in the northern uplands. All of a sudden, Bristol was alive with small black and white birds, dashing around by the Floating Harbour, bobbing around the rooftops, wagging their tails or announcing their prescence with a loud, but sprightly ‘chizzick’! These mainly British and Irish birds are the darker and slightly more sedentary race of the white wagtail, which occurs across the continent and parts of Asia and Africa, and have become quite closely associated with towns and cities in the UK. Urban areas are the perfect habitat for pied wagtails, as they are often built up around water-ways and are usually a few degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside, which means that there are lots of insects for them to eat and plenty of cosy places to shelter. During the Winter, for extra protection against the elements, pied wagtails will gather together at dusk to form large communal roosts – sometimes containing thousands of birds, which return year upon year to established sites. Roosting communally also has other benefits for the birds – those struggling to find food can follow birds in good condition to richer feeding sites and extra pairs of eyes are better for looking out for predators, particularly under the glowing artificial lights of the city.

This Winter I have been watching the pied wagtails all over the city and aware of their roosting behaviour, I have been keeping an eye on their direction of flight as dusk approaches as I was convinced that there must be a sizeable roost somewhere in Bristol. The birds around the Harbour all seemed to be flying north or north-east, roughly in the direction of Castle Park and after many nights of following them, I could tell roughly which area they were using. I first came across the tell-tale sign of the roost-site shortly after, whilst walking through the centre of town one morning  – two London plane trees on the central reservation of a busy main road, with fresh droppings on the floor surrounding them and large buildings on either side. That night, I came back and found the birds, and I have been returning frequently during the last few weeks to watch the goings on. In total there are around 500 wagtails, which gather on the rooftops surrounding the roost each night – some nights it’s quite uneventful, with the birds filing in shortly after arrival, but other nights, they mill about and gather in massive groups which often attracts the attention of a local sparrowhawk. I have seen the sparrowhawk on a number of occasions now, but the peregrines from Castle Park are roosting and feeding on Castlemead quite regularly at the moment, and they always chase it off and don’t seem too interested in the wags.

At Brandon Hill this weekend, the Friends of Brandon Hill and Tree Bristol planted the orchard with a little help from the kids from St. George’s and QEH. We all had a great time and I’m looking forward to watching and helping the saplings develop into mature trees, which will provide some great wildlife habitat and plenty of fruit for the local community. Not sure that many people will know what to do with the medlars though!

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Brandon Hill Community Orchard

The Friends of Brandon Hill will be meeting this weekend to plant a community orchard at Brandon Hill Nature Park. Friday will be reserved for local schools to help out and learn about tree-planting, but all are welcome on Saturday 4th February. If you would like to help plant a tree that will provide some excellent habitat for wildlife and fruit for future generations of Bristolians, come along on Saturday morning at 10am. Tools will be provided, but it looks like it might be chilly, so bring a flask of tea and some wellies!

Orchard site and planting plan in the north-west corner of the park, behind the old bowling green and along the wall behind Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School.

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12th Jan 2012 – Murmurs of Spring

The pair of peregrines that have been making use of the Wills Memorial Tower this winter have been very active, and it seems that pretty much every time I have ventured out to Brandon Hill just recently, I have been distracted by them and end up heading down towards Park Street to watch them wheeling about the gothic grotesques or tussling with each other over a pigeon. The female is the better hunter and I am generally alerted to her presence by the loud calls of the male, who chases her around the tower when he spots her returning with a kill. There’s plenty going on at Brandon Hill at the moment, with tons more redwings than this time last year, but without any leaves on the trees to block the sound or line of sight to the north-east, it’s been hard to ignore the goings on at the Wills Tower and I’m not sure that I haven’t been tailoring my walks, so that I can keep my eye out in that direction (and I don’t really blame myself with such an impressive pair of raptors on my doorstep).  They seem to make a fresh kill at least once or twice a day, and even if I’m not out to see them bring it in, a quick scan around the lawn at the base of the building will often turn up a pair of pigeon wings or other remains that can’t have been there long, with all the gulls, magpies and foxes about. It might be that they have to hunt a little more frequently than usual if there aren’t any suitable cache sites to store their prey remains on the tower that the scavengers can’t easily access. Regardless, they are doing well and appear to be hunting diurnally mostly – since they caught the lapwing, I’ve been watching for them hunting nocturnally and have only seen them fly a handful of times after dark (latest was 11:30 pm) and I’ve not seen them with any more nocturnal migrants. It might be that the lapwing was an anomalous and opportunistic bit of behaviour – it certainly seems so from the remains I’ve found, but I haven’t spent enough time watching them late at night or early in the mornings to make any real conclusions.

The mild weather has continued and it seems that we are not going to get a proper winter this year. The wild flowers at Brandon Hill are a little confused, with some of last years plants still flowering, winter blossoms coming out a few weeks early and lots of very early signs of spring, like bramble and bindweed blooms and fully grown daffodils, ready to burst into flower. The songbirds can definitely feel the spring in the air too, and the blackbirds and dunnocks have now joined in with the tits and robins most mornings.

Lastly – and although not Brandon Hill related – if you haven’t been to see any starling murmurations this winter, I strongly suggest that you get out before spring officially arrives, as the flocks that have coalesced for the winter will start to dissipate before too long. For sheer numbers, the Somerset Levels can’t be beaten (above), but just north of Bristol, there is a much smaller, but just as spectacular roost on the banks of the Severn at New Passage. Just last night I shot this video of them swirling and dancing right overhead – much closer to them than you can typically get on the Levels (watch in HD if poss)..

See my Wildlife Map for the New Passage location – zoom out until you can see the starling on the bank of the Severn.

To find out where the Somerset Levels starlings are roosting (usually Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath), email starlings@rspb.org.uk or call the starling hotline on 07866 554142.

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