Peregrines – India; Ramsey Island

At the time I joined the Birdwatchers Society of Andhra Pradesh it was the custom to undertake a fortnightly Sunday-morning field trip. On one of those field trips there was particular excitement at the aerial acrobatics of a pair of peregrines.

This was -probably – Falco peregrinus peregrinator, otherwise known as the Indian Peregrine Falcon.  Or the Black Shaheen, the Indian Shaheen or the Shaheen Falcon. And you can also spell it ‘shahin’ if you prefer.

It is ‘black’ because it is darker on the back and wings than the European peregrine. It is ‘Shaheen’ because Shah means King and the suffix in means royal in Persian, and the bird was anciently used for the sport of falconry – by royals presumably. The Latin name is a bit of mystery though. Falco means falcon. Fine. Peregrinus means ‘wandering’ and alludes to the fact that in medieval times young birds were taken while on the move rather than directly from the nest, as their nests are often too difficult to get at. Also fine. Peregrinator, meanwhile, means ‘the wanderer’. The bird is, therefore, a ‘wandering wanderer falcon’.  This is doubly peculiar as it is in most of India an all-the-year-round resident.

The landscape around the city of Hyderabad, and even within it, is often piled, strewn or dotted with spectacular formations of yellow-grey granite, including more or less isolated boulders as big as hills. We were circumnavigating one such mega-boulder when a pair of peregrines appeared. One of the pair was flying straight and level, the other was on a dive-bombing mission, aimed at its mate. From a height almost vertically above, it folded its wings and plummeted. The moment before it contacted, the bird below flipped on to its back, yellow talons extended. The attacker broke away.  The other continued on its course.  All in an instant.

The first bird climbed as fast as it had fallen – and then did it all over again.

We were transfixed by this peregrine play – until they disappeared around the corner of the enormous rock.
We hurried through the intervening thorny scrub to follow the birds round. They were sitting together on a ledge, resting from their games. We watched them at our leisure – moustachioed, finely barred of breast, hook-billed, and altogether royal.

Ramsey Island.
Ramsey Island is located just off the western-most tip of the county of Pembrokeshire in the country of Wales. It is an RSPB[1] reserve in its entirety – not quite two miles long, a quarter of a mile wide and 446 feet high at its most. On the whole it is pretty bleak, so much so that it is closed to visitors in the winter months. But it is the home of a substantial colony of grey seals, as well as of choughs and of peregrines.

We were holidaying on the mainland of the St David’s peninsular not far away. The whole area is reminiscent of the far south-west of Cornwall, but even bleaker. The soil is thin, so the local badgers make their sets under the dry-stone walls, and dislodge the stones, much to the annoyance of the local farmers. Curiously though, when we were half way down a great outcrop of a rock hill, covered in heather and fern and tussock grass, we suddenly came upon a broad ledge of bluebells. In most of Britain bluebells are a woodland species, sheltering under the canopy of hazel, beech, oak and ash, but here they were exposed and open to the elements. It seems this is how they often grow in the wild West.

We took the ferry-boat from St Justinian’s over to Ramsey Island and we were then free to wander. We picnicked on the cliff top and watched the aerobatics of the choughs (‘chuffs’) – most peculiar members of the crow family with glossy black feathers, but red legs, and thin, red, down-curved bills.  Pyrrhocorax, the fire-crow. They are rare in Britain, confined to the Celtic fringe – Cornwall, West Wales, the Causeway coast of Northern Ireland and the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

As we picnicked a peregrine drifted by a few yards above us so that we could see every detail of its patterned feathers.  It somehow managed to pause on the wing for a while to look at us, curious.  It then drifted on, and then came back again – as if to check out our pork-pies and sandwiches just one more time.



[1] Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

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