2015 began as 2014 ended, with one or two peregrines present on the church most days. At the end of January, I found the remains of a wading bird below the church tower, followed by the remains of a red-legged partridge at the beginning of February.
Throughout February and March, sightings of the pair increased to the point where we thought the birds were attempting to nest. On 25 March at 07.50, the male flew from the southeast onto the castellations on the east side of the tower and dropped directly down onto the walkway. An hour later the second peregrine arrived, flying in from the east. It alighted on the south face of the tower and drop down onto the walkway there, presumably walking round to its mate.
Discussions commenced between the rector, Nick Brown and Bob Sheppard, following which, they were joined by John Clarkson, Churchwarden Robert Haynes and I and the tower was climbed to see what was happening on the walkway. There was no gravel or debris that the peregrines could use to nest on at this level so it seemed unlikely that they would breed here, though there was plenty of evidence of their presence with parts of woodcock, lapwing, golden plover, oystercatcher, pigeons and starling littering the area. We returned to street level where we were joined by Churchwarden John Troughton and discussed how to proceed.
It was agreed to be pro-active and provide nesting material to allow the birds to breed if they so chose, so we returned to the tower carrying bags of gravel, a tray and a CCTV camera, all provided by Robert.
The peregrines returned to the site at 17.50
The following day (26 March), the peregrines were seen via the camera link to have found the nest tray and excavated a depression in the gravel in preparation for egg-laying, we hoped. From then on, the TV screen in the church nave was closely watched for tell-tale signs, and on 1 April a church volunteer reported that the female was on the nest tray at 13.15, though no eggs had been seen. On 2 April a small crowd gathered around the TV to watch both birds on the nest tray. The female shuffled around in the gravel for a while, before leaving with the male. I recorded that signs were really positive; even the church volunteers were excited!
Throughout the next couple of weeks, both birds were seen on the nest tray where the female was seen to be ‘scraping furiously’ on 4 April and food passes between the pair were occasionally witnessed. Finally, the first egg was seen on the morning of the 15th.
When the church was opened at 08.30 on the 17th, a second egg was spotted, having arrived overnight or early that morning.
There was some spectacular action that day; in the morning, the male stooped from a great height to attack a curious carrion crow and chased it off, then at 16.00 there was a very noisy food exchange when the male brought in a pigeon. The female flew from the nest to collect it, and could be clearly seen perched on the spire, gorging herself.
On 21 April the third egg was seen, although it was thought to have been laid two days previous.
The 21st was a quiet day with a sparrowhawk, then a juvenile rough-legged buzzard passing overhead without any fuss, while the male peregrine watched proceedings from the spire. Another noisy food-pass at 17.00 was seen, then it was all quiet again.
By the 24 April it was clear that the clutch would consist of three eggs. incubation lasts about a month, so the first chick could be expected between Tuesday 19th May and Saturday 23rd May.
For the next month, those monitoring the birds had some worrying times. While one adult was usually seen on the TV screen incubating the eggs, there were periods when the pair took to the air for up to an hour – how were the eggs keeping warm?
On 12 May I reported that the female was still on the eggs, but the male had not been seen or heard for a week when a kill had noisily brought in. The female left her eggs for over 4 hours on the 9th, when the weather was particularly bad, although she had been in attendance most of the time since. Where was the male?
On 17 May, a feral pigeon attacked a visiting juvenile peregrine when it landed near the pigeon's nest. For some minutes, the pigeon swooped on the resting peregrine, sending feathers flying. The sound of the juvenile complaining vociferously was the first call from any peregrine in Louth for 12 days. Later that day, the nesting female chased off this persistent juvenile before returning to her eggs.
Then, on 22 May, the first chick hatched at 13.10, followed on the 23rd by a second. Word spread and visitors to the church crowded in to see the new-borns.
Finally, at 11.40 on 24 May, visitors were relieved to see three chicks on the nest, being fed by both adults.
Slowly over the next few days there was more action on the nest tray following a very quiet month. The male continued to do the hunting, usually plucking the prey before handing it over to his mate to feed the chicks. He also cached food nearby for her to collect. She will brood the chicks whilst they are small to protect them from rain and sun, but on warm days they will often be left alone, although the female won't be far away.
For the following three weeks there was much activity, both on and off the nest tray; the adults brought in regular supplies of food and the chicks were visibly seen to be growing. Then on 11 June Bob Sheppard, Alan Ball – both licensed ringers – together with trainee Daniel Wade climbed the tower while I was asked to remain at ground level to reassure concerned locals that nothing untoward was taking place. As a matter of course, the ringers always inform the local police of their intentions in case anybody contacts them to report shrieking birds. Wise precautions as the adult birds quickly spotted the ringers on the walkway and immediately began flying round the tower, screaming at the intruders. The juveniles could also be heard calling and the cacophony attracted passers-by and brought nearby residents from their homes to find out what was happening. Although the whole process took just eleven minutes, a large crowd had gathered and they had good views of the adults circling the spire, with the female being far more aggressive than the male, who flew at a greater height and was less vocal.
With the ringers enjoying their tea and cake in the coffee shop, we learned that the three juveniles were all males, weighing 580g, 630g and 715g. Each chick now had two rings, a metal BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) ring on its right leg bearing a unique number, and a large orange plastic ring on its left leg with a black letter and number that can be read from a long distance with a telescope. Orange is the colour used for peregrines in the East Midlands, and so together with the identification number – our birds are W3, W6 and W9 – they can be individually recognised.
After about an hour, the birds settled down and life for them went on as before. Later, Bob sent me a further update, which on reading, I found somewhat disconcerting!
‘The chicks will soon leave the nest tray to wander along the walkway. They will rarely be seen then, until they begin learning to fly next month.
At this stage they become vulnerable to falling off on windy days. They rarely hurt themselves but the ground around the church is not a good place for a young peregrine. If seen, put on a pair of gloves, pick the bird up and put it in a box. Carry it up the tower, open the door to the walkway and tip it out of the box…’
First, catch your peregrine, I thought!
By the third week of June, viewers of the TV screen could clearly see the juvenile plumage showing through the fluffy white down and a week later the transformation was complete. Around this time, sighting on the TV screen became a rarity as the juveniles went ‘walkabout’ around the tower walkway, then on 30 June a juvenile was seen looking through the castellations on the tower; I got my gloves and box ready!
Things now moved apace. By 6 July, one of the juveniles was regularly seen on the parapet exercising its wings, with another looking through the castellations. The third hadn’t been seen at this point, but all three kept up a constant, monotonous screeching, their appetites insatiable.
At 09.00 on 8 July I photographed the larger of the three on the nave roof, with the other two calling down to it. We had just missed its maiden flight, but it was the first time we had seen all three since they were ringed. We also missed its return flight, for on 9 July all three were seen together on the tower again.
I was away from home on 11 July when I had a call to say there was a juvenile sitting on a car bonnet in Westgate. I hurried home to see a very unhappy youngster perched on the church’s perimeter wall by the traffic lights. It had already been caught once by John Clarkson, who tried ‘launching’ it, but it only flew for about 50 metres before encountering a brick wall, where it managed to cling to the vertical surface for a short time before dropping down to this lower wall. It was clear the bird couldn’t be left in this situation, so John and I tried to catch it again with a view to taking it back up the tower, but we were unsuccessful, and instead, the bird flew at an alarmingly low height along Bridge Street, crash-landing on the roof of the Old Mill House and sliding down to the guttering where it remained. It was some time until the three juveniles were seen together again.
Meanwhile, the other two siblings were honing their flying skills and on 14 July, one of them made its first kill, which it dumped unceremoniously on the roof of the nave before starting the messy business of plucking. Its brother was in close attendance, but the spoil wasn’t for sharing and it was eventually dragged over the apex of the roof and out of site.
Throughout the remainder of July and into August, we were treated to some spectacular views of the juveniles, on one occasion a bird took up residence on our next-door neighbour’s chimney pot for a time; then a few days later, two of the siblings engaged in a high-speed chase though our garden, well below roof height, avoiding the trees and disappearing around the far side of the neighbouring Rectory.
As August drew to a close, these close-up antics ceased and although the birds were seen and heard frequently on the spire, their forays took them further afield, returning usually at dusk to roost. During this time at least one of the adults would be in attendance, though there was no visible contact between adult and young.
13 September 2015 was the 500th anniversary of completion of the church spire, celebrated by a huge firework display. We did wonder if that would frighten the peregrines away for good, but within 30 minutes of the smoke drifting away, an adult could be heard calling from its perch on the spire, and a second bird flew in soon after.
As the year drew to a close, what would our birds do? Breeding birds mostly stay in their territories, although a pair may temporarily split up and cover a larger area between them, but young birds disperse in the autumn (most peregrines do not start breeding until they are two or more years of age). Our adult male was seen and often heard, perched on the spire. One of the three juveniles occasionally appeared, but the female was not seen for some time; perhaps she needed a break…