In his book ‘Birds of Louth’ published in 2007, John Clarkson reported just one sighting of a peregrine, in November 1993. Julia and I moved into a property overlooking St. James’ Church in October 2006 and with clear views of the east and south sides of the church from our bedroom and garden, we began recording the birds seen on the church tower and spire. On the afternoon of 18 December 2007, we spotted a pair of peregrines flying around the tower, giving the local jackdaw population heart palpitations!
The next few weeks brought regular sightings – sometimes a pair, other times an immature female. Birds were seen stooping at passing pigeons, bringing in prey to pluck, and frequently returning to the church at dusk to roost. There was enough activity to warrant a nest tray being constructed by Wildlife Conservation Partnership volunteer and Lincolnshire’s bird of prey expert Bob Sheppard, who had made similar trays for the nesting peregrines on St Wulfram’s Church, Grantham. The nest tray was installed on the north side of the walkway on 12 February 2008.
However, by that time, reports of the birds were becoming few and far between, and although the birds were still seen in the vicinity there was no sign that they had adopted the nest tray. Some local birders thought that the birds were possibly too immature to breed that year, while others considered the opening of the tower to the public in previous years was hampering the birds’ possible nesting efforts. It was certainly the case that the nest tray would be accessible by anyone climbing the tower when it opened at Easter, and a small notice requesting visitors not to go around to the north side, would become an open invitation to the curious.
After no sighting in April, on 9th May at 22.40 I spotted something flying around the spire of St. James’, illuminated by the church lights. Looking through binoculars, it turned out to be a peregrine, which settled to roost on one of the crockets on the east side of the spire.
So, a more diligent recording of the peregrines began, augmented by reports from other birdwatchers, particularly at times when we were away from the town. During August two peregrines were seen together, though looking at photos taken, there appeared to be three different birds – an adult male and female, plus a first-year female. This combination gave rise to some speculation regarding breeding. The male appeared to be equally settled with either of two females, only one of which seemed to be present at any time, so it was expected that the older female would see off the juvenile whenever she was around. If the adult female was a resident bird, we thought they could breed in 2009. However, it was possible she was a wintering bird from further north that would depart in the spring, in which case the juvenile female would take up position, claim the territory and defend it next winter, after which she should be able to breed in 2010. If only it was that simple!
It had been expected that as normal, the tower would be closed to visitors at the end of October, which would give the birds time to assess the tower as a secure nesting site. However, the tower remained open while the shop selling charity Christmas cards was in operation.
So, into 2009, and after several weeks where no peregrines were sighted, one was seen on 28 January landing on the north side of the spire with prey. This was followed early in February by a pair that made regular appearances for some days.
Sightings then became sporadic until June, when a single bird was present for much of the month, but was frequently disturbed by visitors to the tower. I noted one occasion in particular on 11 June, when a peregrine circled the tower a number of times calling loudly before eventually flying off. Could it have had anything to do with two couples in their late teens, who spent 45 minutes there at that time, shouting to people below, waving their arms around, spitting and throwing cigarette butts? If I were a peregrine, I'd relocate elsewhere! I subsequently climbed the tower to check the nest tray, and it was easy to see why the birds failed to nest – the only protection given to the nest tray was an old door, wedged on the north walkway and so close to the tray that it was possible to reach around the door and touch it!
2010 started well; birds, often a pair, were present for most of the month and by the end of January, they sat close together – could this be the year? However, on 2 February the LBC were informed that the Church Council had met the previous night to discuss the implications of having peregrines nesting on the walkway around the tower, and decided that they no longer wanted to encourage the birds to nest, which would result in having to stop public access to all of the walkway. Whilst this was disappointing news for all birdwatchers, we had to respect the church's decision that it had to cater for the needs of the wider public.
A week later, John Clarkson and Bob Sheppard met with the Rector, Canon Stephen Holdaway and Churchwarden Robert Haynes. The meeting was amicable and positive. Bob outlined the biology and the legal framework and the church representatives informed us of the difficulties they faced through loss of goodwill from visitors who ‘may have travelled a long way’ to enjoy the panorama from this, the highest parish church in the country, and the consequent loss of income.
The outcome was that the tower would be closed if the birds show evidence of breeding. The tower was closed in any case until 5th April, by which time we should have known either way. If breeding occurred, the tower would remain closed until the chicks were well established, after which, limited access would be permitted. Furthermore, a web-cam was sponsored.
The pair of falcons were visible for much of February and odd days in March, but a visitor to the Church on 5 April was disappointed to be told that there had been no signs of breeding on the nest platform and that pictures from the web-cam were no longer being shown in the church. By this time, the pair hadn’t been seen together for about three weeks and the male had been absent for several days at a time. 5 April was also the first day of the new 'visitors’ season'; the coffee shop opened, and visitors climbed the tower.
Positive signs that a pair might breed were seen in September 2010, when on the 17th, there were great views of a male that had been calling throughout the night, and a female, performing aerobatics whilst he continued his familiar call and she screeched and yapped. They chased each other, came together and tumbled downwards before parting and gaining height again. They eventually flew off northeast, leaving passers-by stunned by the display, which I thought would hopefully be the precursor of greater things next spring. Sightings such as this continued throughout the remainder of 2010, with several reports of prey being shared.
As 2010 closed and 2011 dawned, there were definite signs that the two birds had bonded. They were calling to each other when bringing in prey that they subsequently shared, and roosted close together. However, once again, the tower had been open to visitors until Christmas.
With frequent sightings of the pair during January and February, the camera installed by the nest tray was re-linked to the TV screen in the church. When Julia and I went to view the screen on 18 March we had to ask for it to be switched on. There was no activity, although we had seen a single bird below the walkway on the east side. Whilst there, visitors were allowed to climb the tower and when we questioned this, we were told that
the peregrine activity was mainly at night and if they were seen to be breeding, the tower would be shut.
However, peregrine sightings dropped from 25 days in January, to just 2 in April. The major problem appeared to be public access to the tower, which occurred as early as March putting paid to any nesting activity, even if nesting overtures had already been made. It was a known fact that peregrines will not tolerate any human disturbance around a potential nest site.
Sightings throughout the rest of 2011 were sporadic, but on 21 October, I noted that a peregrine flying towards the church was attacked by a carrion crow, one of a flock that had been hanging around the town that afternoon. The crow initially chased off the peregrine, but it managed to get back to the church a few minutes later.
Early in 2012, there were tantalising glimpses of single birds and sometimes a pair, but by April there was little of note. It was thought that these winter sighting suggested that the church was used as a roost probably by Scandinavian birds that spend the winter here, departing during first week in April (peregrines breed some weeks later in Scandinavia than they do here) and on 10 April it was decided to remove the nest tray for the remainder of the year.
In January 2013, St. James’ had a new Rector – The Reverend Nick Brown – replacing Canon Stephen Holdaway who had retired in October 2011. On 3 March, I checked the LBC forum on their web site and read a post from Bob Sheppard. He reported that for the past fortnight he had been in discussion with the Rector who had been considering the situation regarding the opportunities for peregrines to nest on the St. James’ tower walkway. With regret he had decided that the nesting tray would not be installed in 2013 nor in the future. The main reason for the decision was that the church wished to retain year-round access to the tower walkway. He said they earn a reasonable income for charging visitors to climb the tower, and ‘many visitors travel long distances’ to do this and would be disappointed to have the opportunity denied to them. Bob proposed that a line be drawn under this situation, the wishes of the church be respected and LBC members not ask for the nest tray to be installed in the future.
As if in protest, the birds went missing for some weeks in the summer, but by the end of August they were back, with either a single bird or a pair noted throughout the autumn and winter, although surprisingly, there were no records during December 2013.
2014 seemed to be following the same pattern – peregrines recorded throughout January, February and March, but then few sightings until August, after which, singles or pairs became regulars on the church for the remainder of the year.