A group of dedicated photographers can be seen regularly on a Cambridge street, their camera lenses aimed at the high school rooftops around them. Their focus is a young family of peregrine falcons.
It’s flying season in the world of peregrine falcons.
For the first time in years, four chicks have hatched on the rooftops of Cambridge to two devoted parents.
They are oblivious to the enthusiasts below, who watch every special moment of their domestic life, from housework and preening to meal times and bath times.
So why are they doing it?
Last month, Jamie Clarkson showed up at a prime viewing spot on Trumpington Street at 05:00 BST, armed with a Canon DSLR and a very, very long lens.
The 24-year-old from Edinburgh divides his time between wildlife photography and his PHD studies in structural engineering at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
In winter he photographs barn owls. In spring and summer everything revolves around the peregrine falcons.
“The mornings are the best time because that’s when they’re most active. It’s nice and quiet so you can concentrate on the photography – and the light is nice and soft,” he says.
“Part of it is the challenge of getting the picture in frame as they move, because they’re so fast — it’s addictive.”
“I started with a bridge camera, but I wanted to get to a higher level of image quality and shoot in flight with something that can handle a higher shutter speed and focus a little faster.
“It’s about seeing the behavior as it changes through the seasons. We were here in January and February when they started spending a little more time at the nest site and mating.
“Then they lay eggs because you can see the parents switch breeding duties, and then they start bringing food into the nest.”
‘Your heart beats’
Darren Benson admits that observing the peregrine falcons is a far cry from his former life as a tabloid photographer.
The 54-year-old, who moved to Cambridge from east London 30 years ago, said he was “hooked” after first snapping the birds in 2015.
“I was taking pictures of The Backs [where colleges back onto The River Cam] to a magazine and a friend who owned a camera shop said there was a falcon on top of the church,” he says.
“That’s it. I have PTSD. I’ve covered national events, including the Tottenham riots, but when I come and take the pictures of the falcons it drives me crazy.
“When you see a falcon holding a bird and flying into the nest to feed their young, your heart races.
“I want a story – I want to see what the bird’s emotion is. You don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day.”
Mr Benson, who also devotes his time to mental health workshops, uses a Canon D90 with a long 500 lens.
“You can see scales on the foot of the bird, the battles she’s endured over the years, the age through the lines on her face, the detail on the beak,” he says.
‘It’s about their well-being’
“Some cities have nesting boxes, but the peregrines here chose this nesting site themselves,” says Saimon Clark, who updates a Twitter page with the progress of the family.
He walks from work at the University of Cambridge Language Center several times a day to keep an eye on them.
“The reason I do it is to document what they do and
I’m interested in their behavior and what they do throughout the year,” he says.
“I grab feathers and try to make a list of everything they ate. At this time of year it’s starlings, pigeons, the occasional jackdaw or blackbirds.’
He says he has identified a list of more than 20 different birds that eat them.
“Because Cambridge is so small I can walk between the different sites, see where they are and just take notes on them,” he adds.
“The adults are here all year round, they settle on the URC [United Reformed Church]the spiers of King’s College, St. John’s Chapel, the University Library, and St. Botolph’s—the high points in the sky.”
He says four is the most chicks they’ve had since they started monitoring the falcons in 2015.
“Peregrine falcons have increased in numbers in recent decades, but they are still relatively rare,” he says.
“It’s about their well-being, making sure someone is there to take care of them.”
‘This couple are great parents’
Retired attorney Andrew Bryce has made the short walk from home to this place for the past four years.
“When I was younger you didn’t see a peregrine falcon because their numbers were small due to the post-war pesticide use, so if you saw one it was a real event,” says the 75-year-old.
“Now they are in all the cathedral cities.
“As a birdwatcher I like to see the behavior – it’s unpredictable. But it’s all about the birds, which increases the chance of survival.
“We try to be here most of the time during breeding season, so we communicate to make sure someone is there to watch them.
“A lot of people come over and it’s fun to teach people as we do it.
“It’s a very dangerous area, with the traffic and people. We had a fall on the road here on a public holiday, it just literally fell in the middle of the road.
“We had to stop the traffic – it’s a real carnival when that happens.”
“They are very charismatic birds, very efficient killers – and this pair are great parents.
“There’s a great aesthetic involved with peregrine falcons. To see them flying at height and speed is quite impressive. It’s actually a bit of a thrill.”
‘Speed, looks… and glamour’
“I’ve been obsessed with these birds for 30 or 40 years, it’s a very symbiotic thing,” says falconer Paul Halliwell.
“The birds give so many people so much pleasure. People benefit and the birds benefit and the whole city benefits.”
Mr Halliwell uses his camera like binoculars to keep an eye on the new chicks as they find their wings around Cambridge’s tall buildings.
“I’m here to make sure the birds are okay, but I also get a lot out of it,” he says.
“When I was a kid these were really rare birds. I’d have to travel to Cornwall or Scotland to see them.
“It’s speed, looks, glamour, they’re very enigmatic. They’re wild animals, so they have an aloofness and detachment that I don’t think you get in any other animal.
“With the internet generation there’s so much more awareness – but there’s a disconnect and it’s very good to watch something on TV or in a classroom or on a cell phone, but to be on the street and something 25 feet away to see it happen in front of you – this is a human experience.”
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