The distinctive silhouette of Ely Cathedral dominates the horizon as you approach the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire. On our family shopping trips to Ely, I always admire the magnificent West Tower of the Cathedral, 66 metres in height, part 12th century and part late 14th century in construction. However, as a birder the obvious question is: where are the Peregrines? A reasonable question, when they breed in nearby Cambridge and on apparently every other English Cathedral. Norwich Cathedral has boasted breeding Peregrines since 2012. To my knowledge, Peregrines have never bred on Ely Cathedral, although the occasional individual has been recorded.
My question was answered on 18th March 2020 when we were shopping again in Ely, and despite the drizzle, I had my customary look at the Cathedral before we left. Incredibly, there was a pair of Peregrines diving around the West Tower – at last. I learned later that they had been present since February. Their enthusiastic display suggested that they were a new pair.
Peregrines mating, Ely Cathedral. Photo credit: Simon Stirrup
Over the next few weeks, I made several visits to watch the Peregrines. These iconic falcons with their fast and acrobatic flight are addictive. I was able to confirm that they were visiting a section of the West Tower called the Norman Gutters: the top of the Tower before it was extended in the 1300s. Apparently, the Peregrines were investigating a nest box that had been installed there in February 2016. On each visit there was plenty of activity from both birds. Significantly, on 22nd March, the female became highly agitated when an immature male Peregrine circled high over the Cathedral. It was encouraging to see her strong objection to the intruder in her territory, although Kestrels and Sparrowhawks were ignored. Frustratingly, visits were then curtailed when the first COVID lockdown was announced.
With the end of lockdown, I was able to resume visits on 15th May and everything continued to look positive for the Peregrines. The female was usually perched on a prominent pinnacle on the Cathedral as she waited for the male to bring in prey. When the male arrived, the female took the food from him in an impressive aerial food pass and then took it to the nest. Prey items included feral pigeon, Collared Dove, Starling and a Barn Owl.
Adult Peregrine carrying Snipe, Ely, Cambs. Photo credit: Simon Stirrup
I thought that I could hear chicks calling on 5th June and I was able to confirm this the following day. And then finally, on 9th June, there were two buffy-faced chicks, still with a little white down on their crowns, sitting out on the parapet, enjoying the evening sunshine, apparently indifferent to the huge drop before them. When a Woodpigeon landed nearby, they were transfixed. Later the male repeatedly stooped at Woodpigeons around the Tower. He struck one pigeon which was fortunate to escape; there was an explosion of feathers that floated down like snow.
Photo credit: Simon Stirrup
Within days the chicks had fledged and when I visited on 14th June, they had taken up residence on the Lantern Tower in the centre of the Cathedral. News of the successful breeding featured significantly on local media and for the rest of the summer the lawns around the Cathedral were filled with Peregrine watchers, all socially distanced of course. It was encouraging to see so many enthusiastic people, and not just birders, enjoying the sight of the Peregrine family. People seemed proud to have these magnificent birds in their city. During June, there was plenty of action in the sky with the vociferous, short-winged juveniles following the adults whenever they brought in food. The identification skills of visitors did not always match their enthusiasm and on several occasions a gargoyle was pointed out as a Peregrine.
My last visit of the year was on 31st July and by then the juveniles looked and flew like proper Peregrines. Their wing feathers were fully-grown, and they chased one another and stooped at pigeons like adults They were no longer playing; I was shown a picture of one of the juveniles carrying a Black-headed Gull. It was obvious from the difference in size of the juveniles that one was a male and the other a female. Apparently, the juveniles were seen into the autumn and the adults were noted irregularly on the Cathedral throughout the winter.
Juvenile Peregrine in flight, Ely, Cambs. Photo credit: Simon Stirrup
As I write this in early March 2021, I am pleased to say that the Peregrines, presumably the same pair as last year, are active around the West Tower and have been seen mating. Hopefully, this marks the start of another successful breeding season.
2020 will go down in history as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic with all its dreadful consequences. I, and hopefully others, will also remember 2020 as the year when Peregrines first bred on Ely Cathedral. For many people, the Peregrine family provided a connection to the natural world and a sense of wonder at a time when positive news was in short supply. The event demonstrates that a small proactive act can have a positive impact on wildlife and people’s engagement with it. Few people can build a cathedral but many of us can put up a nest box.
Simon Stirrup is a life-long birder, wildlife enthusiast and photographer. Simon lives near Ely with his wife and son. More of his images can be seen at www.simonstirrup.co.uk.