Let me tell you of a place so different to our own gentle countryside that it’s hard to imagine; a landscape which floods each year when the mighty Mekong river, swollen with monsoon rain, backs up into the heart of Cambodia to make a vast seasonal lake that inundates the surrounding forest. Here people live in stilted villages or on huge house boats that rise and fall with the changing water level. Here too, vast flocks of storks build their nests on the tops of half submerged trees in such numbers, that from a distance, they look like giant ice cream cones.
We were lucky enough to take a small boat into this wilderness last year to see the fabulous bird life that abounds there. It was still dark when we launched and the edge of the lake was studded with neon lighting tubes shining brightly against suspended sheets. Our guide said they were to attract crickets; insects are a great delicacy for the Khmers. As the sun dawned and our little craft wound through the sunken branches, egrets and herons flushed from nearby trees and splashed down noisily but unseen into the surrounding flooded undergrowth. After an hour or so we noticed we were being followed. A female peregrine falcon was ‘waiting on’, as falconers call it, about fifty feet above and a little behind us and we realized she was hoping we might flush prey for her. Once she dived at an Indian Heron but it saw her and hurled itself into the water and escaped. After about ten minutes she sheered away and headed for a flock of Open-billed Cranes soaring on a distant thermal. Our guide said peregrines are rare winter visitors to the lake and we had been lucky to see her and he had never seen one following a boat before.
Peregrines are a truly global species found everywhere apart from jungles and ,oddly, New Zealand. This bird had probably come from the Himalayas or it could even have been a migrant from the frozen tundra of Siberia.
A peregrine is one of the most exciting birds to see and always give an impression of limitless power and immense aerial agility. You don’t have to travel as far as Cambodia to see them either. In Britain, the Peregrine’s recovery from pesticide-induced near extinction is a well known story and they are now even nesting commonly on buildings in our cities. Last May, while sitting on a train at Reading station, I watched a pair displaying with their usual aerobatic elan, charging around nearby buildings at staggering speed .
In winter, river valleys and other wet open places where ducks and waders abound, are great places to see peregrines and our own Cherwell valley usually holds one or two. You may just see one loafing in an isolated tree and, if it’s hungry and you’re lucky, you might even witness this spectacular hunter in action.
P.S If you are thinking of visiting Cambodia, do contact the Sam Veasna Centre, a charity dedicated to preserving the country’s endangered wildlife. It also arranges wildlife expeditions. www.samveasna.org