Peregrine Falcons at Scrabo Tower
'It was an amazing feeling - the bird has such speed and strength.'
Perched on the cliff face of Scrabo Country Park quarry in Newtownards, County Down, is one of Northern Ireland’s most elegant birds of prey, the peregrine falcon - this sighting marks the steady revival of a bird that was all but extinct in the province fifty years ago.
The quarry at Scrabo Country Park is home to two of the most successful breeding pairs of peregrine falcons in Northern Ireland. The resurgence of the species is a monumental triumph, as the population was nearly extinct in the 1950s and 1960s, due to pesticide poisoning.
The birds have been nesting at the Ards quarry for over 20 years and avid bird watcher, Down District councillor, Jim Wells says the people of Newtownards should feel very lucky to have the birds at Scrabo: ‘I think it is remarkable that Newtownards now has these magnificent birds nesting here. 100 years ago it would have been absolutely unimaginable.’
Peregrine falcons are among some of the largest birds of prey in Northern Ireland and one of fastest predators on the planet, reaching speeds of up to 200 miles an hour on the wing.
Queens University PHD student and Newtownards native Marc Ruddock has been studying the birds for over a year. Marc tagged some of the young from the Ards nest and hopes this will enable easy monitoring of the birds in the future.
The bird itself has had a very murky past. During the Second World War peregrines were used to target carrier pigeons belonging to Nazi sympathisers, a legacy which has befouled the beautiful bird.
Falcons are now a protected species; nevertheless they have been continuously targeted by racing pigeon owners who protest the peregrines hunt their birds. PHD student Marc Ruddock has made a focus of his research to examine the feeding patterns of the birds and admits they do eat some racing pigeons: ‘It is my opinion that they probably do eat pigeons of all types. However the percentage and numbers I feel will be very low. Through my research I hope to ascertain how much pigeon meat is a food source factor in the peregrines diet.’
The Ards Pennisula and the Quarry are ideal habitats for the birds. Marc explains that the peregrins have an abundance of wading birds to feed upon on the Lough shores. The Quarry also has excellent vantage points and shelter for the birds to nest:
‘Breeding has been very successful here with only two years of no offspring, since the 1980’s. Subsequently the quarry is an ideal focal point for bird watchers who come in large numbers from across Northern Ireland to watch the peregrines.’
Councillor Jim Wells is passionate about the nesting at Ards Scrabo Quarry and has been watching the birds for over twenty years: ‘They are extremely attractive birds. They fly to vast heights and drop plummeting to attack their prey. I can remember once standing beside a nest when all of a sudden I felt what seemed like a train flying past me. It was an amazing feeling - the bird has such speed and strength.’
The peregrines are in a safe and suitable habitat at the Ards site and they have a band of trusty devotees who will continue to keep a watchful eye over them.
Councillor Wells and Marc Ruddock are hopeful for the future of the population and believe it can only grow. The bird’s only threat is perhaps the ever-changeable, unpredictable Northern Irish weather.
By Catherine Lynagh