Falco peregrinus, sonic virtuoso, angel of death.

08/09/2011

Falco peregrinus: undisputed virtuoso of sonic diffusion, angel of death.

John Alec Baker’s book The Peregrine is, at one level, a detailed document of the author’s investigations into the behaviour of two pairs of peregrines between autumn and spring along a stretch of coastal Essex. Long considered to be a classic or even a masterpiece of the nature writing genre, the book is certainly worth its reputation, certainly as a work of stylistic excellence. In his introduction to the edition I refer to (NYRB Classics, 15 Feb 2005 ) Robert MacFarlane sums up the author’s style very well:

a style so intense and incantatory that the act of bird-watching becomes one of sacred ritual. (p viii)

In writing this essay as someone who works with sound, my interest in Baker is twofold. I’m interested to a certain extent in the way that Baker’s awareness of sound helps to drive his narrative. More importantly, I cannot avoid referring to Baker’s work by way of introduction to my own story of a sonically charged experience with falco peregrinus, my lifelong favourite creature.

Baker’s world is predominantly one of intense, almost obsessive attention to visual detail, which is understandable given the observational basis of his field work. Furthermore he succeeds very well in representing his engagement with a sombre landscape whose muted tones overshadow every outing. His awareness of sound is not exceptional, in comparison say, with that of Thoreau, Susan Fenimore Cooper or Aldo Leopold. This is not a weakness – Baker has other specific concerns in his work. In drawing the reader’s awareness to matters of sonic interest he simply wishes to add interest to the documentary agenda.

Nonetheless I should mention his very effective similes, for example this one on short-eared owls:-

One bird called; a sharp barking sound, muffled, like a heron calling in its sleep. (p64)

Here one bird sounds the same as another bird, like a circular dictionary definition for the non-twitcher.

I also found the occasional touch of exquisite attention to detail:-

I heard a dead leaf loosen and drift down to touch the shining surface of the lane with a light, hard sound. (p65)

Light and hard at the same time? How does he remember these details? Does he note them down at the time or do they just come to him afterwards? Perhaps they are even fabrications, made up as he writes in order to enhance the narrative. In his favour I would say that I’ve heard a similar sound myself waiting in a forest whilst recording high winds. Both light and hard at the same time.

As you’d expect we have flurries of onomatopoeia:-

…a sharp hissing and thrumming of wings… (p65)

Sparrows shrilling in tall elm hedges near the river. (p74)

along with rhetorical devices such as this where he evokes the presence of absence, the ominous presence of silence:-

The flat land was a booming void where nothing lived. (p67)

Overall I found the book to be a dour read with its spirit of relentless obstinacy around the whole enterprise which to me, as an environmental field recordist, was too close to home. Yet the darkness of the seasons, the cold and wet weather, the days spent slogging it out in order to cover the falcon’s extensive domain have contributed to the enduring appeal of Baker’s work. A morbid love of disgusting British weather is a perennial feature of homegrown nature writing.

My meeting with falco peregrinus was a less punishing affair. The Highland setting was to my mind more typical of an encounter with, I am told, the fastest creature on the planet.

Lochnagar in the Cairngorms of North East Scotland is an excellent walking and climbing mountain, especially in winter when snow and ice conditions become alpine and occasionally arctic, though less so recently with the milder winters. The summit Cac Carn Beag is only 3789 feet above sea level. The pressure of too many visitors nowadays means that every winter more and more climbers fall off the cliff, a unique way to spend a holiday. Added to that inconvenience is the slow but sure erosion of the paths and gullies. For my part, as a teenager with the mountains close by I was fortunate to have this wilderness as a personal playground for long months every year.

The mountain’s corrie (cirque, cwm – there’s not really an English word for it) is like a deep funnel of rock with a heather and boulder-strewn base. Three sides of rock buttress, gully and wall enclose the climber. The fourth is the very narrow hidden entrance to the corrie, where two folds of ridges rise and overlap, deepening the impression of being closed in. Dramatic, serious, it is a place where even insensitive humans will become alerted to signs in the environment, especially of a sonic nature.

On some summer days when the wind drops, the skies clear to light blue and you can climb on the warm granite with a single layer of clothing. On one such day I found myself ‘gardening’ a rock climbing route along with fellow obsessive compulsive Doogie Dinwoodie, a legendary climber of his generation. Gardening means that you climb a route in summer, taking as much time as you need to check out every feature: handhold, ledge, crack and slab. As you go you clean up the route using all sorts of brushes and scrapers, removing as much vegetation from the line as possible. Then, having mapped a template of the route into your mind/body complex by means of feeling, caressing and penetrating your way over and into every inch of it, you return in winter and grab a first ascent, thereby promoting your alpha male attributes throughout the group.

The route, appropriately named Nymph, was (and still is unless it’s become hopelessly eroded) a highly enjoyable and fairly straightforward steep ascent with good exposure and a perfect panoramic view of the corrie. For much of the time gardening involves long periods of inactivity as you wait for your mate to clean up his pitch – climbing is a secondary concern. Thus, high on the upper reaches of the face, a good few hundred feet above the corrie floor, I balanced on a ledge belaying my climbing partner above, lazily teasing out rope every few minutes, enjoying the smell and touch of warm rock, listening to the breeze, looking for new unclimbed lines, scanning the corrie walls for signs of recent rockfalls.

Looking up I saw that Dinwoodie had stopped gardening to pay attention to a commotion in the corrie. I had noticed it some time after it started, having taken it for granted for about quarter of an hour. Baker describes a similar experience as follows:-

A monotonous ‘keerk, keerk, keerk’, sound began, somewhere to the west. It went on for a long time before I recognised it. At first I thought it was the squeak and puff of a mechanical water-pump, but when the sound came nearer I realised that it was a peregrine screeching.(p55)

It was the sound that pulled me in. A peregrine (I’ll opt for the female, larger and more powerful than the tiercel or male), flying two hundred feet or so below me, was letting out its hunting call, more like a war cry than a birdcall, hurling itself round the corrie at unbelievable speed in ever decreasing spirals. At first I thought she was upset because we were closing in on the nest, but it became clear that this hawk wasn’t interested in us in the slightest. It also crossed my mind that perhaps she was under threat from a predator, but what on earth would have the skill and speed to threaten a peregrine up here? Besides, falco peregrinus is a bold one – I saw a fine adult perched on a fence post once as I drove past in the car. I stopped the car, got out and walked to within five feet. She looked at me lazily, turned away and carried on scanning the moor. And of course the peregrine doesn’t have too many predators, outside of psycho redneck farmers who shoot or poison anything that isn’t a sheep or a cow. The only other real threats are patterns of unnatural predation in territory caused by human intrusions into the mountains (crows and seagulls raiding bins and extending their range), erosion, humans eliminating the peregrine’s prey.

Eventually something intuitive kicked in and I pieced it all together as if I had known all along: hawk, raptor, hungry, prey, angel of death.

To this day the peregrine’s performance has been one of the most transfixing sonic experiences I’ve ever had. At the time it’s simply exhilarating – that privileged feeling of being in nature at a unique point in time witnessing the event from the upper balcony, the best seats in the theatre. No amount of film or recording gear could have captured the drama. Although I classify this as a fugitive sound, one I missed out on as a recordist, the only way I could have come anywhere near to capturing the scale and drama of this performance would have been to place a hundred or so microphones around and across the corrie. Then I’d have to install a hundred speaker installation in a massive listening space. Ridiculous and impossible.

It’s taken me until now to unpack what was going on in terms of the sonic processes. Here’s what I think, with the caveat that, not being a professional twitcher, zoologist, ethnologist or ecologist I can’t prove anything scientifically. I would say in my favour though that sometimes common sense explanations simply work.

The corrie is a funnel – the peregrine takes an ascending trajectory to the top of the funnel to map out the lie of the land. Then she begins her spiral descent, wide at first – the top of the funnel is a kilometre in diameter – narrowing as she descends. She begins her battle cry. This will have an immediate effect on every living creature within earshot. Humans like me will interpret the sign at different rates by responding either with admiration and excitement or perhaps hearing the call of a feathered pest and nuisance. The effect on the the fauna of the environment is at once immediate and critical – every bird and small mammal will either bolt for cover or (this would be my reaction if I were such a creature) stand rigid and shite itself – quietly. A pun and variation of flight or fight.

Now, as my American cousins would have it, you do the math. This is at the same time the aesthetic part and a revelation of the marvels of evolutionary genius. Even Richard Dawkins might be moved to feel the presence of something greater than himself at work. Flying with a maximum air speed of around 60mph and a gravity assisted descent worth several more tens of mph, she begins her loud and terrifying call at point A, repeating the call about twice every second. The sound travels (at the speed of sound no less) across and around the corrie, working its way into the thousands of nooks and crannies of the rock faces, bouncing and echoing across every feature across multiple dimensions. By the time she reaches point B at the other side of the corrie, the sonic ‘image’ or complex will be the aural equivalent of Heathrow’s air traffic control centre on a bad day. Echoes from the earlier calls will be dying out as new calls are uttered. To further confuse the prey, because there is a purpose to all of this, our peregrine is looking downwards, shoulders hunched, head moving rapidly to the left and right, throwing quantum packets of sonic energy into the various features of the rock walls and the corrie floor. Weapons designers have copied this behaviour in refining the eye detection technology of attack helicopter pilots who simply look at a target to guide the weaponry. Nature hasn’t so far allowed any other creature to develop such ruthless killing tactics – our peregrine still has to work some more to achieve her objectives.

Any prey that hasn’t bolted to safety will have the impression of being under attack from a squadron of peregrines, unable to work out the location or dimensions of the danger. How many are there, where is she/they, from which direction is she coming, where’s she heading? Flight is no longer an option, so you stay rooted, petrified with fear. It all makes sense – the visitation of the angel of death, a thing of such power and beauty, would stun you – you’d likely let it all happen. Then she strikes at high speed, from behind, her large thumb talon eviscerating, filletting, decapitating the chosen specimen. This is followed by another rise to the top of the corrie and a second mission. She has young to feed. She’ll make a few kills, feed herself, then take something back to the nest. A good day on the mountain for us and the hawk.

Some questions of a scientific nature come to mind – would Baker’s peregrines have been able to carry out this sort of sonic sorcery if they were transplanted from the coastal to the mountain environment? In other words,is this skill hard wired into the bird as a species, used when appropriate, but always passed on in the genes as a matter of course. Or does the mountain bird learn these ‘site specific’ skills on the job, discovering or learning them by simply having a go? My naïve analysis would be that natural selection should dictate variations in hunting abilities and habits depending on environments, but something tells me that any peregrine will be able to carry out this sonic attack quite easily, because they’re much cleverer than we think.

So when I hear of sonic mastery and wizardry by humans, let me counter this by pointing out that sound isn’t even the peregrine’s core practice. She’s more of a performance artist or illusionist, spending much of her time tricking and fooling birds into lifting themselves from valley floors in large flocks simply by flying in amongst them, relying on the odds and percentages of chance.

Finally, a reflection on sound as a catalyst in pulling together elements which define the character of an environment. By this I mean to ask what is it that makes certain environments so typical of themselves, if that makes sense? For me it’s the sound. Of course this is impressionistic, emotional, not-very-rational, subjective, non-scientific and therefore interesting.

I once heard, then much later saw, a massive stag silhouetted against the early morning sunrise high up on a mountain ridge above Glen Doll, not too far as it happens from Lochnagar as the crow flies. I was eleven years old. The sound, above and beyond the sight, immediately and involuntarily brought the character of the whole environment together in my mind/body complex – glen, stag, heather, hills, all embedded in a unique environment with its own characteristics. The same happened with the peregrine, the same with the grunting and braying of reindeer outside a mountain cave shelter one winter, again in the Cairngorms.

Where biophonies act as environmental signatures we are perhaps coming closer to the roots of totemic approaches to understanding or interpreting the mysteries of aspects of the natural world, closer to the highly developed sensibilities of ‘other’ cultures.

2 Responses to “Falco peregrinus, sonic virtuoso, angel of death.”


  1. I wonder if you have heard Lawrence English’s sonic interpretation of the book. It might be of interest to you: http://label.experimedia.net/020/

    • James Wyness Says:

      Thanks for getting in touch Jay-Dea. Yes, I had a brief email exchange with Lawrence as he was promoting his very fine work the same time as I wrote the article.


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