Monday, 11 January 2010

A World First for Derby's Falcons

(Update:  Enhanced video clip now available- see end of post)
Derby's peregrine falcons have done it again. This time it's something so significant that today we've issued a press release to local and national media. In fact, it's a world first - proof on video that peregrines in cities are hunting for food at night.

Read on for further details. . .


You might be surprised to learn that, until now, there has been no film footage in the public domain to prove conclusively what scientists have long been saying: that peregrines hunt at night in towns and cities.


Most readers of this blog will be aware that peregrines have been recovering from the appalling near-extinction of 60 years ago and are now moving into towns and cities to breed. We know from the prey remains found at sites like Derby, Bristol, Bath and Brighton that they must be catching some of their food at night.
Birds like woodcock, little grebes, water rails and quail are all timid species that only fly after dark. So when we find them in prey remains we can be confident that peregrines must be taking advantage of the town's night lighting to see and hunt them. But proving it is a different matter.

In Taiwan we know that recordings were made in 2004 of live prey being captured at night. But this footage was never publicly released. Our research suggests that no other film exists anywhere in the world which shows this behaviour.

Here is the YouTube clip and description of what happened. (Its contents might upset some viewers)

Just before Christmas one of the Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project team happened to check the 'tower webcam' that looks across the tops of gargoyles where peregrines often roost, feed, and even mate. It was 10.45pm on a clear, frosty night. It had been dark for six hours. A peregrine was standing on the nearest gargoyle, alert and in hunting mode, and was looking outwards around the night sky.

Suddenly she flew off out of camera-shot, but returned within minutes carrying prey. This turned out to be a woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) and the video recording we later retrieved shows it was clearly alive and struggling to free itself from the peregrine's powerful talons. After a while the falcon dispatches the wader with a swift bite to its neck. (We see her feel for it a few times prior to this, but we must remember that to her, the prey was in darkness. Our footage is taken under infra-red light which she cannot see, and is lit only from below by the cathedral's floodlighting. She then stands on her quarry and lifts it slightly nearer the back ledge where it would be less likely to fall off. She then flies off to a further perch before disappearing again. (The story of what happened next will be the subject of a separate blog post, and is almost as unusual as this clip.)

The woodcock remained there for the next sixteen days (from 20th December to 5th January) before one of the peregrines started to pluck and eat it. The remains had disappeared by 7th January, so it was either eaten, moved, or possibly dropped.

The Taiwan footage not withstanding, we believe our YouTube video to be the first in the world showing film evidence of night hunting. You may remember that, since peregrines cache food they have caught earlier, it was vital that film evidence showed clearly a peregrine bringing back a live prey item, rather than one it could have caught and killed earlier.

Derek Ratcliffe, in his 1993 monograph on The Peregrine Falcon, mentions that these birds will hunt on moonlit nights in rural areas. He was writing long before urban nesting became widespread around the planet. So, with hugely increased levels of lighting in cities, it is no surprise that peregrines have found it easy to catch night-flying birds that pass within reach. This behaviour has been observed at many urban sites throughout the world (including the Empire State Building in New York) - and we feel lucky our cameras have been the first to capture and publish this unique footage from Derby Cathedral.

Those peregrine experts who have already viewed the clip (including Ed Drewitt and Nick Dixon here in the UK) have been very impressed with what it shows. They recognise its importance in the study of urban peregrines - so we are delighted our webcameras have helped make this breakthrough in Derby. For those wondering where in Derby all this amazing habitat is where woodcock, snipe, quail and golden plover are found, the fact is that these prey items are mostly "passing through". Or over. They're possibly following the River Derwent which runs north-south through the city centre, en route to more suitable habitats, and they're using the cover of darkness to make their journey safer. But the cathedral tower is less than 200 metres from the river, so a peregrine sitting atop its ancient stone walls can easily pick it off as it passes by.


Footnote:
One has to feel sorry for the unfortunate woodcock, of course. There was an influx of these and other birds into the UK just before Christmas, caused by freezing weather over the continent. In these conditions many birds habitually move westwards to seek warmer conditions. This winter it is just as cold here as it is in places like Holland and Germany and many species, especially water birds, are struggling to stay alive. We are lucky to have cameras that give us an insight into the private lives of peregrines, and we have to accept that killing prey is simply a natural act for any predator.

If you live in the UK, do watch out for a special BBC2 TV programme this Wednesday at 8pm called "Snow Watch" from the Springwatch / Autumnwatch teams replacing the scheduled nature film. Night hunting by peregrines isn't a response to cold or bad weather as such - it happens throughout the autumn and winter especially. However, we have sent our clip to 'Snow Watch' and they might just use it in their programme.

Update:
The BBC have just enhanced our film clip, and sharpened its focus. You can view it in their news article here.
In December 2010 one Derby resident even reported  that a Woodcock had been seen in her garden during intensely cold winter weather, and submitted a photo as evidence which you can see here


The Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project Team

photo credits:
Woodcock (Malcom Hobbs)
Female peregrine "waving" (Colin Pass)
Tower-cam ( Nick Moyes)
All images are copyright of the authors.

89 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! Can hardly take it all in!

What a scoop for the Derby Team!

J.J Derby

afilsdesigner said...

Looking at the 'Nighttime Hunter' video, are you sure it's a Woodcock? Looks much more like a Wood Pigeon to me as it has a clear white collar and is the right size plus its beak looks the right shape.

Great shots though and well done to the team.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed, but wonder where it might have got the woodcock, Derby city centre to me doesn't sound a likely place, but I'm no expert!

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

It is absolutely, definitely and positively a Woodcock. We get them being captured and brought back to the cathedral tower every autumn and winter. (see blog posts for 11 Dec 2009, for example) The point we were trying to get over here - sorry if we didn't do it very clearly - is that peregrines are ranging out and taking birds that are moving through Derby's airspaces. they're not catching them on the ground. With prey like golden plover, arctic tern, corncrake and quail, that would be a very impressive habitat indeed. So the peregrines' prey remains are showing us what is moving through, perhaps along the river corridor at night.
I hope this explains things better - we'll review the way we've worded the article in the light of your observation.

Anonymous said...

When reading earlier comment, I had doubted that a wood pigeon would be flying about at 10.45 at night, so am glad of confirmation and explanation by Project Member..

From another non-expert!

wayne1984 said...

i you look on the video within the first three seconds of playing time, you actually see the longish bill of the woodcock, you have to watch very cosly to see it, but its definatly there

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

Oops - sorry for the temporary disappearance of this post on Monday night. - a minor publishing error whilst I was adding a small bit to the paragraph 3rd from the bottom.

Anonymous said...

Well done the Derby Team!!!

Glad the post 're-appeared' - I thought it was my computer misbehaving as I had read the blog at work and intended watching the video when I got home but it was gone!! I have now watched it and am very impressed.

Steph (Canada)

Terry, Herts UK said...

Quite a coup for the team :)

Makes me wonder if the new hotel has had any influence on the birds' ability to hunt at night, with its light colour exterior and lighting, etc.

It will be interesting to see whether this successful kill leads them to hunt more often at night.

Can anyone identify whether the predator is the falcon or the tiercel?

Nick Brown (DWT) said...

Hi Terry: we think it was the falcon - just on size.
As to night hunting generally, our birds have been doing this successfully since 2006 and so managed perfectly well bfore JI was built. Of course as you say, it may have become easier now there's more light but certainly every winter we have found lots of woodcock, little grebes and so forth, so they have been 'at it' for years.
Nick B (DWT)

Phoebe said...

Well done team! What a great experience and to be the first to capture such a scene! Our Derby peregrines sure know how to surprise us. Brilliant!

I wonder what else these birds have up their sleeves.

Anonymous said...

Is there any evidence that they take bats when they are about (you might have found some of their remains last year?

DM - Sussex

Ann ( Canada ) said...

Yes indeed very possitive and exciting news. Well done to all the team. Big pat on the back once again for Derby.Congratulations to the whole team for all the encouraging and inspiring things you do for the project.

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

Neither we, nor the experts to whom we send the remains for identification, have yet found bat remains as far as I know.

The only mammal caught so far has been a rat. There's a video of this on our archives somewhere.

Pax Canada said...

One on the tower cam, looks cold there, rain here on the west coast and highs of 12c

AnnieF. said...

Snow-covered prey on the ledge and a peregrine on the edge of the nestbox.

Gio said...

Congratulations to the Derby team! :D
It's doubtless Peregrines hunt also at night, but to know and to see is different, so great scoop!!
About bats, I'm sure they are often on the peregrines' menu in Bologna (Felix uses to offer some to his mate Aisha who much appreciates), in Rome, (Italy) and in Cleveland, OH.
See there a home page post by Harvey Webster:
"Bats for Breakfast" -- 06 May 2009 commenting a very good Scott Wright's photo.
http://www.falconcam-cmnh.org/news.php?default.0.5

Anonymous said...

Have just caught the update...brilliant to see the enhanced version by the BBC of Derby Cathedral Peregine Project's video of the first proof of peregrines hunting at night.....and to hear Radio Derby giving the news publicity in several of their bulletins yesterday.

Exciting times! Well done, everybody.

Joan Law, Derby

Nick Brown (DWT) said...

Noctule bats have been recorded as prey at sites elsewhere in the UK I think....
This large bat flies up in the open sky and not down among the trees so it should be easy to catch. It also emerges well before dusk in the summer...
We've not seen bats of any type round the cathedral but noctules certainly do occur within a few miles of the city - so one day perhaps we might find one!
Nick B (DWT)

AnnieF. said...

Two peregrines, one on the ledge & one on the nestbox.

Phoebe said...

Looks like the falcon in the nest right now. Checking it out.

Pax Canada said...

One on the nest ledge

Phoebe said...

I didn't see the falcon come back but she is now eating prey on the tower cam.

Nick Brown (DWT) said...

On the subject of bats, Nick Dixon tells me that at St Michael's Church in Exeter he has twice found the skulls of noctule bats and that there has been one more recovery of noctule remains elsewhere making a total of three.
Nick B (DWT)

Pax Canada said...

lovely shot on the tower cam

Sue in Bucks (Scout) said...

Hello all
What exciting news, fancy Derby has made a scientific "first". Well done!!!!! I bet when the webcam first was put in place, you never guessed how important it would become! It was a good reminder that the peregrine was actually working in total darkness - it's easy to forget that we are seeing an infra red version. I was also thrilled to hear about the ravens, I have a very soft spot for these extremely clever members of the crow family - although I don't think they would make good neighbours with the peregrines, so find my loyalties torn. To solve the "bat" question, perhaps if/when you have a peregrine watchpoint, you could have an evening "bat watch" and "listen" with bat detectors? I'd certainly be up for this as I'm expecting the birthday fairy to bring me a bat detector! It's so hard to actually see bats and almost impossible to identify them visually, you do need the detector. There must be at least some bats nearby due to the close proximity of the river Dove? I bet you'd be surprised how many bats you hear but are not seeing.

AnnieF. said...

A peregrine is calmly preening with its back to the tower cam.

Sue in Bucks (Scout) said...

PS - just in case you wonder where the river Dove is, I of course meant the DERWENT. Sorry!

Phoebe said...

Sue, you caught me out there! haha
I have the river Dove not 2 miles from me and I didn't click :S

Anonymous said...

when I logged onto the site no picture appeared and in small print it says I need adobe flash player does anyone know why this has happened thanks

Pax Canada said...

alert over :) seems to be working ok nowMust have been something I did

AnnieF. said...

One on the edge of the nestbox.

AnnieF. said...

One on the ledge by the tower cam.

AnnieF. said...

Ditto my last post - can it be the same one? I haven't checked since then.

Karen Anne said...

Anonymous, if you go to:

http://get.adobe.com/flashplayer/

you can download free Adobe flashplayer

You may need to close and restart your browser after installation for it to work, I don't remember.

If this was working for you before, I would try reinstalling it.

Phoebe said...

Hi, it's gone very quiet on here? Has anyone seen the peregrines lately, and also the youngsters from last year? I had a brief glimpse yesterday of an adult on the nest but it flew off in a blink!

Phoebe

Pax Canada said...

one on the tower cam,one on the nest ledge

Joyce S in Derby said...

There's one on the nest ledge at the moment 09:00 Thursday 21 January. I think it might be the falcon,because it looks very big!
Joyce S in Derby

Gio said...

All the recent images we catched are at
http://www.birdcam.it/forum/viewtopic.php?p=69715#69715
Some from today. :)
But no young..

Don N said...

Noises Off!

Today I was chairing a meeting in the Chapter Room at the Cathedral Centre (for those who are unfamiliar with Derby, the Cathedral Centre is the Cathedral offices, which are across the road from the West door of the Cathedral. Meeting rooms are available for hire by other bodies, as was my case, and they serve excellent food to the public in the Cafe on the ground floor).

Just after our lunch break, the peace of the street outside was broken by the repeated calls of what was obviously a very annoyed peregrine. Much that I would have liked to, my duties of chairman of the meeting prevented me from dashing downstairs and out into the street to discover the cause of the commotion. Maybe the ravens had returned. The calling went on for about five minutes before the cause of the problem presumably went away. I may never know exactly what had happened, but it certainly livened up the meeting!

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

Interesting that Don reported loud noises from the Cathedral on Thursday. Any disturbance will set them off, such as visitors to the tower roof or intruding peregrines spotted in their airspace.
The day prior to this observation, I was heading north out of Derby to meet colleagues at Derbyshire Wldlife Trust's offices in Belper. I noticed two very large black "crows" in the sky, heading slowly southwards towards the city centre. Their very thick bills, huge size and an apparent slow-motion flight told me that this was a pair of ravens, not crows. So we may well see them again in our city, and they could conceivably have been the cause of ructions that Don heard over Derby's Cathedral Quarter yesterday.

MEL said...

Can anyone identify what type of carcass the falcon is feeding on (I started watching 13.32 Sat. but it had already commenced eating) Plenty of white feathers around and falcon doesn't seem to be in any rush.

Phoebe said...

I just caught a peregrine on the tower cam with a quite large white bird as prey, she is tucking in right now!

Phoebe said...

The tiercel is sitting on the nest ledge, whilst the falcon eats lunch.

Lenz said...

Just viewed a Peregrine up on the tower ledge tucking into it's lunch.

Beautiful white n downy....what is it ? Can anyone identify the latest prey?

Pax Canada said...

One on the tower cam

Phoebe said...

I am puzzled by the prey brought in by the falcon today. It is pure white and looks quite large I am trying to put some screen captures on flickr in the hope it can be identified.

Nick Brown (wildlife trust) said...

I missed the white prey episode but would guess it would likely be a feral pigeon. The only whitish wild bird around in winter that the peregrines have taken before is a black headed gull - so it could have been one of those maybe.
Nick B (DWT)

Phoebe said...

Nick, It could well be a black headed gull, it was headless so no clues on that.

I have put some pictures on flickr group my name on there is Marski if anyone wants to look.

Karen Anne said...

Phoebe, I can't figure out how to search for your photos on Flicker?

Phoebe said...

Karen Anne, if you click on the flicr photopool at the top left of this project page it should take you to the Derby Photopool, you will see them in there - Marski2009 is my name. Good luck.

Ann (Canada) thank you for your post on my picture.

Anonymous said...

its the Tiercel on a white town pigeon.

Pax Canada said...

@Phoebe looked on flicker but dont see anything with 2010 on it

Pax Canada said...

@ Phoebe I found them :) it still says 2009, very good pics :)

Karen Anne said...

Thanks, I found the photos. That is one white bird, poor guy.

Phoebe said...

@Pax, that's my name Marski2009, it will never change.

The nestcam has stuck at 14:54, just to let you know.

Phoebe

Anonymous said...

the right camera is off at 14:54 today
daniela

AnnieF. said...

Camera still stuck at 14.54.

Pax Canada said...

I think the 3 way shot is frozen

Pax Canada said...

One on the tower cam

Pax Canada said...

two on the tower cam now

AnnieF. said...

One on the tower cam.

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

Thanks for alerting me to the frozen quad-view video feed. We recently took this issue up with Axis, the manufacturers of our video server. A related problem is our inability to change the text that appears above the single or multiple images. Clearly, our quad view is not "Nest Cam 2", but we can do nothing about it.
I plan, too, to make some minor changes and corrections to the text surrounding the webcam images which is not a little out of date in places.

(New blog entry to follow shortly, with even more unusual news and video clips.)

MEL said...

In view of the comments of a lot of viewers to the web-cam, and the unknown carcass being eaten on the 23 Jan, is it possible for someone to look back on the video cam and say for sure what the bird was. It seemed much larger than a pigeon and was snowy white. Phoebe's pictures which she posted show. Thanks.

Pax Canada said...

One on the nest ledge

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

@Mel et al.
I did look back at the video a few days ago (we only have 4 days before recordings get overwritten).
Unfortunately the white bird was carried in to the tower already headless, and was very quickly and almost compleely consumed in one go. The pictures posted on Flickr did make show a very large wing in one frame, but on the video it was impossible for me to be sure whether it was a species of gull, or a white dove. Sorry.

Pax Canada said...

One on the nest ledge

Pax Canada said...

lovely shot on the tower cam

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

Male in the nest scrape!

Nick Brown (wildlife trust) said...

The juvenile, now 'first winter' bird that was on the tower this morning had no colour ring on its left leg suggesting strongly that it is the male 008, whose ring was found last summer under the tower.
The adult male was on the south side, no sign of the female.
Nick B (DWT)

AnnieF. said...

One on the nestbox ledge - sorry, I can't distinguish falcon from tiercel!

Pax Canada said...

One up close on the tower cam, one on the nest ledge

Phoebe said...

Just spied both adults on the webcams, one on the tower the other on the nest ledge.

Hope it was 008 Nick!

Karen Anne said...

Nick, how can the rings come off? I am surprised they could slip over those big feet :-)

Pax Canada said...

One on the tower cam

J-La said...

wow one of them (tiercel/female, how do you tell the difference) came in at the tower cam with a gull?

AnnieF. said...

One on the ledge (tower cam).

Anonymous said...

One on the tower cam.
One recent image we catched are at
http://www.birdcam.it/forum/viewtopic.php?p=70623#70623

AnnieF. said...

There seems to be a better view from the tower cam now. Has something been altered, or is it just that I've cleaned my specs.?

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

@AnnieF. It's not your specs - I spent this lunchtime grovelling on the roof of the cathedral to remove the towercam mount and to check and clean the camera lens. It was a mucky job, involving the removal of various bits of decayed prey. I've taken off the anti-perching spikes next to the dome camera onto which some of the old food remains had got stuck. Not sure whether this will encourage or discourage the peregrines to hang around the camera from now on!

@J-La It can be very tricky to tell the two adult birds from one another. (I get it wrong all the time) - but the female is a lot larger and bulkier than the male. His head is slightly darker and more "delicate-looking" than hers. You may find it worth saving a few screen-schots of the webcam of each bird to compare one against another. Or visit our Flickr group where over 1000 webcam photos have now been posted by webcam-watchers.

Phoebe said...

Project Team, thanks for that info I thought my pc had loaded an upgrade the picture is so clear it's great! Do you clean the scrape between seasons or leave it for a few years?

I saw a good shot of the Falcon on the tower cam not long ago albeit the back but she did keep turning her head towards the camera.

Phoebe

AnnieF. said...

@ Project Member (Derby Museum): Thanks for that! It certainly looks much clearer now. Will you or your colleagues be cleaning out the nestbox as well? I don't envy you that task either!

Pax Canada said...

One on the nest ledge

Project Member (Derby Museum) said...

@everyone. So glad the picture is improved - I couldn't believe it myself.
We do try and abseil down sometime during February, both to clean and possibly adjust the camera lenses, but mainly to confirm the condition of the platform itself.
Last year we removed a lot of filthy pea-gravel from the nest and replaced it with fresh, so I don't think that job will need doing this year, so it should be quite a quick task. Last year as we had to fix a "grip-strip" to the front of the platform we were dangling on ropes for two or three hours in total, which tends to cut the circulation off from one's legs. Other irritations pale into insignificance at those times!

Nick M.

Ted said...

I havent seen Peregrines for over a day now.

Anonymous said...

Can you tell me the web cam images.. they change every 4 - 5 seconds is this as quick as you can recieve them or am i doing something wrong.. it would so much better to watch in reraltime

Rgds

Alan "birmingham"

billbe31 said...

The clip proving that falcons hunt and feed at night is fascinating. However, I find the excited description of what we were looking at rather sinister. Nature in the raw, and a first, certainly, but is it really necessary to gloat, almost verging on the hysterical, about it?

Bill T

Mark said...

What a wonderful video capture. I keep an eye on a number of peregrine web cams here in the U.S. but find the Derby cam to be my favorite. Keep up the good work.

dp said...

I'm still watching every day, but the camera has been frozen on a night time shot for a few days now.