The fastest falcon

In fact, not just the fastest falcon, the fastest creature on the planet. Under its own steam, with a little assistance from gravity, the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) can reach up to 150mph (240km/hr) in a stoop. And that is a staggering number!

Cherry Hinton lies on the southern edge of Cambridge, and on the southern edge of Cherry Hinton is an ancient chalk pit known as the ‘Lime Kiln’. The Lime Kiln is a very interesting place, it’s a very large hole in the ground where the chalk has been quarried for millenia and converted to lime for building and agriculture. It’s lined with white chalk cliffs and it’s now a nature reserve managed by the local Wildlife Trust, and there’s nothing quite like it within a radius of many miles of Cambridge.

In June I had heard a rumour that a pair of peregrine falcons were nesting in the Lime Kiln. This was big news because until very recently I only saw them on the more wild and woolly parts of the UK coast where they hunt pigeons and seabirds. But in the last few years I’ve seen them fairly regularly, if infrequently, over the fields and fens of Cambridgeshire. I think the Lime Kiln must be the only rock face resembling the peregrine’s natural habitat within a 50 mile radius, which makes it even more remarkable that they found it and nested there.

To have a pair actually nesting on the edge of Cambridge was very exciting, so I paid a visit to the Lime Kiln to see if I could see them for myself. I’d been advised by a friend of the approximate location so it was fairly easy to find them sitting on the chalk face in full view, making occasional sorties into the air.

The peregrine is the fastest creature when it stoops on its prey, but it is not the fastest bird in level flight. That accolade goes to the wonderfully named ‘white throated needletail’ (Hirundapus caudacutus), which is a species of swift and can reach speeds of up to around 70mph (112km/hr) on the flat.

The peregrine’s wingspan is around 1m and the female weighs up to 1.1kg. So a bird colliding with a 1.1kg attacker travelling at 150mph is invariably going to come off second best. These awesome predators have other adaptations to protect themselves during high speed descents onto prey including a membrane which covers the eyes and baffles in the nostrils to prevent very high speed air flow from damaging their lungs.

The pair at the Lime Kiln have apparently nested there for the last three years and I believe that in their first year they raised one chick, the second year they got three away and this year they only managed one due to the dreadful weather through the springtime. But five chicks in three years is a fine tally.

I saw them over the Lime Kiln on several visits and watched them scaring the bejeezus out of the local pigeons, not during a a serious hunt, just a high speed chase on the flat, but the pigeons took it seriously and showed a surprising turn of speed too. I also saw a falcon in a stoop and another with prey in its talons which it passed to its beak whilst on the wing, which is behaviour more normally associated with the hobby.

These birds are magnificent and I’m hoping they return again to breed next year, and if they do I won’t be able to stop myself sharing some more pictures with you!

36 responses to “The fastest falcon

  1. I was there yesterday(26/4/2015) and saw two Peregrines – beautiful. They were perched on the chalk cliffs on the side nearest Lime Kiln Road, towards the south part.

  2. Pingback: Life in the kiln | The Naturephile

  3. The shots you’ve managed to capture are beautiful…what an amazing place. There’s just something wonderful about these kind of limestone cliffs isn’t there?

    • Thanks Sarah, what makes these ones so remarkable is that they’re in Cambridgeshire, which isn’t famed for limestone ourcrops of any description! It is an amazing place with its own unique micro environment.

  4. Makes me happy to see this, Finn! They are magnificent birds. Great photos and post. 😉

  5. Those are great photos! I’ve seen them in this area but never close enough for a photo.

    • Hello Fran, thanks for the link. I hadn’t seen it, but I knew swifts can stay on thew wing for months at a time. It’s an awesome feat! There is so much that we don’t know about the natural world and technology is enabling us to find out more and more unbelievable data. The BTO in the UK are attaching tiny satellite transmitters to cuckoos to investigate their migration patterns between the UK and sub-Saharan Africa. And get this, there’s even a satellite tracker small enough to attach to a dragonfly. And that’s good use of technology.

      • I agree, finally they are using technology for something good! I wonder if your sparrows actually make it over here? Would be interesting to see 🙂

      • If sparrows have made it down to you it would have been with human assistance. The only bird that I know of that travels from our part of the world to yours is the Arctic tern. Some years ago one was ringed in Northumberland in England and it was spotted in Melbourne, Australia in October. That’s a trip of 14000 miles. And they return to breed in the same place, an annual return trip of 28000 miles!

      • That’s a whole LOT of miles on the clock! 😉

  6. Wow!! Fantastic photos and what a rare great to see these magnificent birds. I’m jealous.

  7. what a fascinating post Finn…it must be quite difficult to see them when they’re travelling at those speeds, is it?
    Are these the ones that medieval falconers used to breed and keep?

    • Hello Valerie, fortunately they weren’t going that fast when I was watching them, they only get up to top speed in a dive. But even at normal speed they’re very exciting to watch.

      Regarding falconry, the peregrine was the bird of choice. And as with other facets of medieval life there was a strict hierarchy, only kings and princes and the very senior (male) nobility were allowed to fly them. The ladies were restricted to using merlins which are much smaller and could therefore only catch smaller prey such as larks. Which is where the expression ‘larking about’ originates.

  8. How amazing! Excellent motion shot by the way and what beautiful and magestic birds 🙂

  9. When I saw your first picture I thought this post was coming from somewhere abroad. It reminded me of chalk cliffs I’ve seen in Spain. What magnificent birds these are, I love their stripes.

  10. Wonderful bird and great images, thanks 🙂

  11. Vicki (from Victoria A Photography)

    Excellent shots, Finn. especially that last one where I can see all the feather details particularly well. Must be hard to photograph this fast moving bird mid flight. You did very well indeed.

  12. Nice post – but here in S Wales we never publicise the collation of peregerine nests unless they are monitored by e.g. RSPB in city centre because they are persecuted and many nests – and sometimes adults – destroyed. Not a problem in Cambridgeshire?

  13. Nice piece Finn. Will keep an eye out next year.

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