There are not many places you can go kayaking around Devon and Cornwall without being watched.But not by that horde of people on that beach. They’re far too interested in their latest text message or engrossed in who said what to who and when.It’s far too boring to look out to sea.
But only one bird really scrutinises you, because being king of the skies it scrutinises everything in the minutest detail.The Peregrine Falcon. They know precisely what is going on the whole time and are in total control. Look at a cluster of birds around a cliff during a gale. Most will be being thrown about like a sock in a tumble drier, but the peregrine manages to hang in the sky without a feather being ruffled.
And boy what eyesight. I’ll never forget standing on the promenade deck of the Brittany ferry at Plymouth early one summer morning before it set off for France. A peregrine was sat atop a big grain tower next to the ship. I watched it set off across Plymouth sound flying with serious intent. Through binoculars I strained my eyes as it got smaller and smaller and nearly disappeared from view. Then as a tiny dot it plunged and struck a pigeon and then laboured all the way back to the tower with its kill. And then the feathers floated down to carpet the outside deck of the ship as it prepared its breakfast. Needless to say no-one else noticed.
A couple of autumns ago I was bobbing about at this rather pleasant location in north Devon attempting (and failing) to do a bit of kayak fishing, when I was practically bowled out of my seat by a pigeon that whipped past my right ear with only inches to spare going at a speed that would do justice to my Ford Galaxy in the outside lane of the M5.
I realised it was using me as a baffle to shake off a pursuer and I didn’t bother to turn round because I knew what was coming next. A split second later a peregrine scorched over the top of my head so close it would have parted my hair, if I had any. And it was going a lot faster than any Ford Galaxy has ever gone.
I willed the pigeon on as it sought the sanctuary of the cliff half a mile away. The peregrine was closing and gained a bit of height to add a bit of speed to its final stoop. It plunged and for a split second there was a ball of confusion as feathers flew. Then somehow the pigeon escaped and belted off as fast as its remaining feathers would carry it. Amazing.
I have come across the after effects of such a chase on a couple of occasions. Like this woodpigeon that had clearly been for an emergency swim and managed to climb out into a cave near Sidmouth the other day.
And this pigeon that was cowering in amongst the rocks of the shoreline nervously tilting its head sideways and looking out for another attack. It was so determined not to move I could have picked it up.
In my book peregrines have an intensity of gaze to match any top predator in the animal kingdom. You will find them on just about every precipitous cliff around the coast. Most of the time they are sitting, watching.
But occasionally they lose their cool. Paddle round the most exposed parts of the coast on a still day in August and you will hear the shrill squeal of a juvenile peregrine. It is a noise which is unbelievably far carrying and unbelievably annoying. Designed specifically to irritate parents and push them to the edge so they go and get them a meal to shut them up.
Adults can get so annoyed they will even kill their fellow falcons. In fact the only successful kill I have ever seen a peregrine make from the seat of a kayak is when one caught a kestrel and then dropped the carcase in mid air for its offspring to catch.
The kestrel would have every reason to feel a bit miffed because nine out of ten would consider themselves to be top of the food chain.