Colin Knowles is one of a dedicated team of climbers using their skills and know-how to help with peregrine ringing in the South West. We asked him to tell us more about his work with these elegant falcons, and explain how other conservation-minded climbers can get involved.
The combination of pesticide use and illegal killing by gamekeepers decimated peregrine numbers in the mid 20th-century. Now, though, these elegant and agile birds are beginning to bounce back – and it’s partly thanks to climbers. Small groups of BMC members across the country are helping bird ringers to reach hard-to-access peregrine nests, using their skills with a rope to assist in conservation. We tracked down Colin Knowles, one of the climbers helping with peregrine ringing in the South West, to find out more.
How did you get involved with peregrine ringing?
Several years ago, a well-known naturalist called Ed Drewitt approached the BMC and asked us to survey a long-standing peregrine nesting site in the Avon Gorge as he was thinking of installing cameras there. A team was put together for that purpose, and when we were done with that Ed said it would be great if we could help to ring the chicks there. He is a Schedule 1 bird ringer and had been ringing the chicks at Bath Cathedral as well as in other more accessible areas. But he couldn’t get to the nests that required rope work for safe access – and that was where we came in.
How exactly do you help him out?
The physical ringing itself is actually done by the Schedule 1 ringer. We access the nesting area, capture the chicks in soft bags, transfer them to a haul bag and then either lower or raise them to where the ringer is waiting. The ringer does all the work on recording the weight, wingspan and other factors, then the chicks are bagged up again and put back into the nesting area. Our job is basically retrieval and re-release. Ed has now ringed 100 chicks, and over 80 of those were with the help of the BMC.
Isn’t that a bit disruptive for the birds?
Funnily enough, that single visit to the nest really doesn’t seem to bother them. The mature peregrines tend to fly around a little and then sit back to watch what’s going on. They don’t appear to be unduly distressed by the operations – it’s almost as if they don’t understand we might represent a threat.
How much time do you put into peregrine ringing?
We can only actually ring during a relatively small window. The chicks have to be a certain size before we can put the rings on their legs, and we can’t ring when they have flight feathers because they might dislike us appearing and throw themselves off the ledge.
Blimey – does that happen often?
It’s not unusual for young birds to attempt to fly before they are ready and then be unable to get back into the nest. Quite a lot of urban rescue goes on every year, where prematurely flying chicks have to be returned to their nests.
What time of year does this all kick off?
It’s the end of May in the Bristol area, but down in South Devon the breeding season tends to be later because of the peregrines’ food source. The sea cliff-nesting peregrines rely on sea birds as a source of food, and that’s a different dietary balance to the urban peregrines of the Bristol area.
As peregrines tend to nest on cliffs, I’m guessing that the work done by you and other climbers is pretty essential?
And is it a dangerous job?
It can be hazardous. Climbing cliffs are generally in reasonable condition, but peregrine sites aren’t designed with climbers in mind. We have to deal with access on unstable surfaces, often from above, with serious hazards in terms of falling debris. We’ve been working mainly within the Bristol and Bath area, but recently we linked up with Schedule 1 ringers in the Wye Valley and Devon, and we’ve been surveying sites down there. With some of the more hazardous sites, we have to either say it’s a no go or we have to have a very large team. In some of the Bristol sites you can do it safely with a team of two, but there are places where you need a team of six.
So any climbers keen to get involved with peregrine conservation need to be highly experienced…
That’s true, but it’s mainly a question of being able to confidently work on a rope system going both up and down, rather than being a top-notch climber. People who have done adventurous climbing on sea cliffs and expeditions will have a better idea of how to how to do this because they are used to operating in hazardous terrains rather than just, say, single pitch climbing at Stanage.
Why is your work important to peregrine conservation?
What it comes down to is that the more we know about these birds, the better position we’re in to help them. We’re doing something slightly different here. There is a regulation metal ring that has been in operation for a long time and is used by all ringers, but Ed’s also ringing the peregrine chicks with a large, luminous plastic ring with letters so large that they can, in certain circumstances, be picked up by binoculars. Every time Ed gets a reported sighting of a peregrine with a coloured ring, we can add to a map showing where they’ve been. Our colour-ringed birds have been spotted in Hertfordshire, the West Midlands, Suffolk, Derbyshire and the Isle of White. As that evidence accumulates we’ll be able to understand more about young peregrines than ever before – and that’s important, because the young birds are generally the most vulnerable.
Have you noticed peregrine numbers picking up in the wake of your work?
We’ve observed an increase in population pressure that indicates to us that numbers must be going up. For example, two years ago we had a remarkable incident where a second pair of peregrines tried to nest in Avon Gorge beneath the suspension bridge. The standard nest site is on one of the cliffs in the main area and the bridge is just 300 metres down the road – at the time, that was the closest co-location of nests every recorded in peregrines.
Unfortunately, it was also a clear indication of the second pair’s inexperience, as they chose a really poor site and abandoned it fairly soon. Once we were sure they weren’t coming back, we retrieved the eggs and sent them off to a specialist unit at Lancaster University for analysis, and we also built two artificial nests nearby in anticipation of the peregrines’ return. They haven’t come back as yet, but the nests are also suitable for use by kestrels and other birds so it wasn’t a waste of time.
This all sounds like a lot of hard work – what do you see as being the rewards for you and other climbers?
I love birds – since I was a teenager I’ve loved birds – but other members of the team are more or less engaged with bird watching and all of us just think it’s a fantastic thing we’re doing. Everyone in the team loves the idea that we’re doing our best to help an apex predator maintain or increase its population. What we’re talking about here is a small group of socially aware climbers who are prepared to go out and do stuff for the greater good.
Finally, then, what advice would you give to climbers who are interested in doing something similar in their area?
Interesting question. We stumbled on our ringer by accident, and the additional two ringers we’re now in contact with us came through Ed knowing them personally. However, the body that oversees all of this is the British Trust for Ornithology, and it might be worth getting in touch with them to find your local Schedule 1 large raptor ringer.
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