Speedy birding

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Feeling the need for speed, Wendy Johnson heads to the Yorkshire Dales in pursuit of the fastest creature on the planet

I’ve been told that I’m about to see the fastest creature on the planet, so I’ve steeled myself for catching only a glimpse at best; a snatched look as it speeds past me, if I’m lucky enough to see anything at all.

Peregrine falcons have been nesting here at Malham in North Yorkshire for many years and they are one of the most beautiful, agile birds of prey. But, it’s their turn of speed when hunting that sets them apart. In a ‘stoop’ – a kind of downward dive to catch their prey – peregrines can reach up to 200mph.

Prepared to see nothing more than a blur, it’s a real treat to find that the male half of this particular peregrine pair in Malham is in no hurry at all on this spring afternoon, and I’m able to watch him at leisure as he preens himself in a treetop. I’ve got a great view of him through the binoculars and it’s clear that peregrines really are handsome birds, particularly the males with their bright yellow beak, fearsome talons and black ‘moustache’ markings.

Wendy at Malham

The peregrines at Malham Cove have nested successfully for many years, fledging as many as four chicks at a time over recent years. It’s the perfect home for them, a beautiful North Yorkshire spot that I’ve been visiting since I was a girl. The 70metre high limestone cove is not only spectacular to look at, both from beneath and on top, but offers a private nest site. Plus, the surrounding countryside is bursting with hunting opportunities for the adult birds. Usually they’ll bring back other medium-sized birds like pigeons or ducks.

In fact, the nest is so private, tucked into a deep crag high on the cliff, that it’s difficult to spot from down here on the ground. Helpfully though, the RSPB and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is here every Saturday to Wednesday until the end of July with telescopes and binoculars to point out the nest and show visitors the birds as they fly overhead.

I’m told by the well-informed volunteers here that the pair have eggs already (it’s not known how many at the moment) and when they hatch later this month activity will really hot up. The male will be back and forwards often, bringing food for the hungry youngsters and eventually visitors will be treated to the first flights of the young birds and their first, sometimes bungling, hunting attempts; well, even the most skilled hunters have to start somewhere.

For now though, this dad-to-be seems to be making the most of his last weeks of freedom, and after a good twenty minutes or more perched in the sunshine he takes off. I hope to see him perform his signature move, a stoop, but it isn’t to be. Instead, he spirals up and over the cliffs and disappears from view, off to hunt further afield no doubt.

Malham steps


Inspired by his sudden burst of activity, I set off to climb the 400 steep steps to the top of the cliff. It’s tiring but worth it for the panoramic views from the top, and it’s surprisingly peaceful and calm up here, despite being so exposed. The National Park describes the top of the cove as a ‘lunar landscape’ and it really is. I hop carefully across the wide crevices between the rocks, picking between the puddles in the deep craters of the weather-worn limestone. With no sign of the male returning, and the female tucked comfortably on the nest out of view, I clamber back down to stream-level and meander slowly along Malham Beck, taking in the gorgeous scenery. Speed, I decide, is best left to the peregrines.

More about Malham
Malham is reached by winding country lanes, contained on either side by dry stone walls that are so typical of the Dales and evocative of a simpler time. You can easily spend the whole day here, picnicking alongside Malham Beck, walking to Malham Tarn – the highest lake in England – exploring the Cove or discovering the local wildlife (as well as the peregrines you’re likely to see green woodpeckers bobbing across the sky, or dippers, grey wagtails and even kingfishers on the Beck). The Yorkshire Dales National Park Centre is here to help you explore and there are stacks of friendly tearooms and pubs where muddy-booted walkers are warmly welcomed.

Peregrine picture courtesy of Ben Hall

How to get here

Make a holiday of it and travel by bike along the nearby Yorkshire Dales Cycleway or Way of the Roses route, find out more at www.sustrans.org.uk Malham is also on the Pennine Way, a classic and well-trodden walking route.

If you’re coming by train get off at nearby towns Skipton or Settle, then take a bus to Malham. Visit Dalesbus to see bus services. Or, if you’re travelling by car, Malham is just a short drive from the A65.

Find out more about the RSPB and and Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority viewing point at Malham Cove or contact the Yorkshire Dales National Park for more information about visiting the area www.yorkshiredales.org.uk (01729) 833200.


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