My wife, daughter and I took the dogs to the beach the other day, and while that particular beach is always very special to us, I had no idea just how special this visit was going to be.
The stones had all largely been washed down to the shore line, leaving a vast sandy arena for the dogs to race along, chasing each other in and out of the low tide surf like mad things. I wasn’t going to take my camera – sure, it was a gloriously sunny day, and the beach is very photogenic, but as the schools were on half term I knew there would be a lot of people there, so not much chance of the usual empty sunlit beach shots. Probably not too many birds, either. You do occasionally see unusual ones there – Stonechats often inhabit the rocks, as do Rock Pipits (strange that!), and the occasional Oystercatcher or Turnstone can sometimes be seen sifting hopefully through the rock pools. But not when the beach is busy. But, I took it anyway, and the ready-for-anything 18-400 ‘walkabout’ zoom that’s permanently attached at the moment, but more as a psychological insurance policy than anything else.
There was nothing around, of course, but it didn’t matter, the walk was lovely anyway. After a few minutes my wife noticed a Buzzard flying up along the cliff tops, so I looked up and pointed the camera – the cliffs were beautifully lit by the afternoon sun, making them even more picturesque than usual, and even a Buzzard against them would make a nice picture. Funny that we’re so blasé about Buzzards these days – it wasn’t so long ago they were in serious decline, and a rare sighting would be something to get very excited about. But now they’re doing well, we see them all the time, and think nothing of them. They are still magnificent birds though – but I digress, because when I looked, I realised very quickly that the bird my wife had seen wasn’t a Buzzard.
It was a Peregrine Falcon. My heart almost leapt into my mouth as I pressed the shutter.
I’ve only ever seen a few of these magnificent raptors in my life, and always briefly, and at a distance, but this one was close enough to get a semi-decent shot. Very, very exciting. As expected though, it quickly flew away to a distant tree.
I was happy though – I’d seen a Peregrine fairly close up, and got a photo. My wife and daughter were a little way along the beach now, and for a moment I was torn – I should be walking with them, but, but… it’s a Peregrine. I texted my daughter, ‘not buzzard – peregrine!’ But they didn’t instantly come running. I didn’t expect them too – they would know how exciting it would be for me, but it wouldn’t be exciting enough for them to interrupt the walk we came here to have. I should go now… But then it came back, and started flying across the cliff face, landing occasionally, almost perfectly illuminated by the afternoon sun behind me. I wasn’t going anywhere. They’d understand…
Eventually it landed on the top of the cliff.
I was more than excited now – but this was nothing compared to what was to come. As I focussed on the bird on its clifftop perch, I realised that it had landed next to another, smaller Peregrine – this was a pair!
To see one Peregrine? Amazing. But two? That just doesn’t happen. But it was happening.
The birds now took it in turn to fly down and across the cliffs (see gallery below), the smaller male (as I subsequently discovered it was) occasionally grabbing bits of stick as an offering for the larger female – holy cow, they might actually be preparing to nest! I was beginning to forget to breathe at this point, as both birds flew back and forth in front of me, coming so close at times that I knew some of the photos wouldn’t even need cropping and enlarging. I looked along the beach, to see my wife and daughter way off in the distance. I quickly texted my daughter, ‘there are two of them!’. In other words, sorry I’m not walking with you, but it’s Peregrines, plural…! But I knew they’d know how much this would mean to me, and not mind.
The two birds soared and swooped across the sunlit cliff faces for almost an hour in the end, and for that hour I was just completely in the moment, breathing an irrelevance, knowing that I was witnessing something that I may never, ever see again, and that aside from a few briefly curious passers-by, the moment was solely mine, the birds giving the performance of a lifetime for an audience of one.
Eventually though, they soared high up into the sky, beyond the reach of the camera and telephoto lens I almost didn’t bring.
I just stood there for a while, numb, before sitting down on a rock, staring out over the sea in almost complete disbelief. The show was over, but what a show. Had I really just seen that? I went through some of the photos on the camera, and yes, there was the digital proof, for myself as much as anything else, because you just don’t see things like that, ever, and certainly not when you go to the beach on a whim. At that moment my wife and daughter returned, and I showed them some of the photos. They were happy for me. It would have been nice if I’d walked with them, but they had understood. None of this was said though, except with an understanding smile.
And, breathe. Reality kicks in, a little. Nine hundred photos reduced to a hundred or so good ones, and twenty eight very special ones, reliving the moment through Photoshop, an enjoyment in itself. The photos are barely modified though, other than being cropped and re-enlarged. What you see is pretty much what I got, it’s just that I shoot in RAW, and any photo I take has to be processed if I want to share it in a Jpeg world.
I wanted to share them immediately, of course, but there was a problem. What if they were nesting? I couldn’t risk exposing a nesting site to any potential threat. So I took some advice, and on balance it was decided that it was OK to post the photos, but not mention which beach it was, just in case. So, if you happen to comment on this post, please don’t try to guess the location, and if you know it, keep it to yourself – doesn’t do to draw too much attention to these beautiful creatures.