| A peregrine stands on one foot and imperiously looks out from her ledge|
|The morning snow gradually gave way to sleet, and now the sleet has turned to rain. Dark cloud hangs low over the Downs and patches of ground are still dirty white where the snow settled. Greyness permeates the landscape.|
I look up at the cliff. Perched on a ledge near the top is the large form of a female peregrine. She is preening. Delicately, she cleans the creamy feathers on her breast, fluffing them out one by one. She follows that with a manicure. She lifts one foot to her bill and cleans each claw meticulously. As she lowers her foot she spreads her bright yellow talons and inspects them, as if admiring her work, before closing them and tucking the foot up into her feathers to warm it. She stands on one foot and imperiously looks out from her ledge. Gangs of jackdaws call loudly as they swoop past the cliff face in front of her. She watches them pass with an air of mild interest.
A smaller peregrine is perched on a narrow ledge about 20 feet below her, his slate-grey back facing away from the cliff. He is also preening. It's her mate, the male or tercel. The difference in size between the two sexes allows the pair to share the territory without competing. In spite of his body facing the wrong way, the tercel's head turns through nearly 180 degrees – like an owl's – to watch me. Although spring seems far away this cold, grey afternoon, the two peregrines may have mated already.
Persecution and pesticides caused peregrine numbers to crash in Sussex to just one pair in 1956, and none until 1990. Since then numbers have revived to such an extent that nest sites are at a premium. Competition is so fierce that when a coastal nest succumbed to a rockfall a new pair of peregrines took over the site the very next day.
The female has closed her eyes, settling down for the afternoon. Below her, the tercel remains alert, wary.