Swooping & soaring

Spot magnificent birds of prey locally with expert guidance from Wendy Carter of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

This summer make the most of the weather and head out into our beautiful countryside in search of birds of prey. Take a walk along the river Avon, anywhere where it meanders from Pershore to Evesham, on Bredon Hill or the Malverns and you might spot buzzards, hobbies, kestrels, sparrowhawks and even red kites in all their magnificence. Download routes from the Vale and Spa website; it’s a great resource for local walks.

Just visit www.valeandspa.co.uk/explore/walking/

 

Buzzard

When I was a child buzzards were rare. So rare, that on long car journeys I filled time by playing a game with my dad where if I spotted one, I’d shriek ‘buzzard!’ and feel proud to have done so. Today, buzzards are our most ubiquitous bird of prey. This is the bird, above any other, that you’ll see gliding high above the Worcestershire landscape. Look for a bird that holds its wings in a shallow ‘v’ and sports a broad, fanned tail. At this time of year, listen out too for the high-pitched ‘mewling’ sound of the youngsters asking their parents for food.

 

All buzzards are brown yet their individual colour varies from pale through to dark. They have squat necks and broad, fingered, wing-tips. Whilst they’re often spotted sitting on top of a telegraph pole, it’s not uncommon to see them apparently loafing around in fields. Look closely, though, and you’ll notice that they’re doing anything but being idle. They’re looking. Waiting. Watching for the tell-tale movement of soil that indicates the presence of the worms to which they are so partial, despite their large size.

 

As well as worm-hunting, buzzards can often be seen ripping apart roadkill. I used to think they were lazy but what I didn’t appreciate back then was that these birds, like many of us, will take easy pickings over hard work if they can get them! Their main prey is rabbit and it was the loss of Britain’s rabbits to Myxomatosis in the 1950s and 1960s, added to their persecution by farmers and gamekeepers, that was one of the main reasons for their decline during those years.

 

Next spring, visit Bredon Hill or Broadway Hill and keep your eyes to the sky and you may be able to spot a pair of buzzards displaying to each other. Watching them soar high on a thermal, rocket down to earth with wings held tight in to their body, then suddenly stretching out again to slow down their descent, is a spectacle you will never tire of.

 

Hobby

When spring brings the swallows and house martins back home from a winter spent in Africa, hobbies are never far behind. These elegant summer visitors have been gracing our skies in south Worcestershire for the last couple of months, hunting for food for themselves and their young.

 

The name ‘hobby’ derives from the French hober, ‘to jump around’, and this perfectly describes the acrobatic abilities of these impeccably-designed raptors. Slate-grey above and pale below, with black streaks on the belly and brick-red ‘trousers’, they have a white throat and cheeks, dark moustache and mask. With long, slender tail and pointed scimitarshaped wings, this bird can turn rapidly to catch prey mid-flight. Some hobbies specialise in catching dragonflies, eating them on the wing, whilst others are adept at taking swallows and even swifts.

 

Although hobbies can be found over land, they are mostly seen hunting over wetlands or rivers. I spotted my first hobby at Croome near Pershore. It was a couple of hours before sunset and I was taking in the view across the historic estate from the Park Seat to the Malverns. Over the river below me a bird was swooping backwards and forwards. Through binoculars I saw it suddenly change direction and, with talons out in a seemingly impossible manoeuvre, catch a dragonfly; it was a spectacular sight.

 

Kestrel

A few minutes spent watching a kestrel hovering at eye-level with its pointed wings held out can be awe-inspiring. Christened ‘The Windhover’ by Gerald Manley Hopkins in his poem of the same name, this widespread bird has the astonishing ability to keep its head perfectly still during flight whilst the wind hammers and batters its body. If viewed on a slowed-down video, its head, whilst appearing rigid, does actually move a millimetre or two as it locates its prey – usually a field vole or mouse - triangulating and locking down its position with pinpoint accuracy.

 

A kestrel will hover at up to 20 metres above ground before gently dropping its height, constantly scanning the ground, and eventually plummeting to earth to catch its prey. As well as eating lizards and even large insects, kestrels also make great pirates; there are numerous tales of them chasing barn owls and stealing their prey!

 

Both male and females are a beautiful chestnut colour. Adult females have a brown head and dark crossbars on their wings whereas males have contrasting slate grey heads and a creamy underside which is speckled with black.

 

As with almost all birds of prey, the females are bigger than males, in this case just smaller than a feral pigeon. We’re not sure why but perhaps the most convincing reason given is that since the female spends more time on the nest she needs greater energy, mass and strength to defend her young. The male, being smaller, hunts smaller items of prey, but is often more prolific in doing so.

 

Sparrowhawk

The sparrowhawk is the bird of prey that most of us are likely to encounter at close quarters, as they hunt in the garden or flash by the car on a country lane. Like many people who nurture ‘their’ garden birds, I confess to a love-hate relationship with this species. One of our smaller birds of prey, about the size of a kestrel it will often visit gardens looking for food. The logical part of me understands the workings of the food chain and that a sparrowhawk is a sign that the natural world is thriving. The emotional side of me, however, is rooting for the underdog, willing ‘my’ birds to fly away. It’s unfair of me as the sparrowhawk needs birds to feed its young just as much as the robin needs worms and caterpillars.

 

Sparrowhawks are excellent hunters, sometimes ambushing their prey from a perch, other times flying low and suddenly changing direction to fool it. Adult females and males can be distinguished by size and by colour. Females are much bigger, with browner plumage, and will tackle anything from finches, tits and sparrows to larger birds such as collared doves and wood pigeons. Older males have chests of deep rust, a white belly and wings of slate blue/grey.

 

As with buzzards, sparrowhawk numbers plummeted with the use of pesticides half a century ago. Highly toxic agrochemicals both poisoned them directly and caused them to lay eggs with shells that were far too thin to survive. In the 1960s Midlands, they were only found in northern Staffordshire. Thankfully, following the banning of organochlorides and increased legal protection, sparrowhawks, like otters and other wildlife, have begun to bounce back. Today, whether we live in a town or a village of south Worcestershire, many of us will have the mixed blessing of seeing one hunt in our garden.

 

Red kite

Increasing numbers of red kites are now being seen locally. These large birds are more graceful than buzzards, as though they are utterly in their element floating in the sky. Distinguished by angled red wings with flashes of white feathers midway along, it has a distinct fork-tail with black wingtips that looks as if it has been dipped in black ink. Their beautiful red-orange chest and underbelly contrasts with their greywhite head. Look closely and you may see them hang in the air, only using that forked tail to maintain their position.

 

Widespread in the early nineteenth century, red kites were once considered common scavengers in the city of London. Back then, they were seen as both priceless devourers of human rubbish and annoying thieves of valuable supplies (there are even stories of them taking food out of hands). Being relatively inured to humans, they suffered terribly from deliberate persecution and fell foul of Victorian efforts to clean up our cities. However, after more than 100 years of concerted conservation work, including several reintroduction programmes, this beautiful bird has been brought back from the edge of extinction for us all to wonder at once more.

 

 

What’s On

Wed 3rd July – Butterfly Walk, Old Hills. 10:30am, £5, booking essential

 

Sat 13th July – Butterflies Wildlife Discovery Course, Old Hills. 10am, £30, booking essential

 

Wed 17th July – Wildflowers, Bees and Trees, Lower Smite Farm. 6pm, £2 per child

 

Sat 17th August – Getting to Grips with Dragonflies Wildlife Discovery Course, Lower Smite Farm. 10am, £30, booking essential

 

Wild on Wednesdays – Family fun every Wednesday throughout the summer holidays. Times and locations vary, visit our website for more information.

 

More info www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/whats-on

 

 

Get involved

 

Pledge a Patch for wildlife

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/pledgeapatch

 

Nominate your Worcestershire Wildlife Hero

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/wildlife-heroes

 

 

For daily updates about wildlife around the county please follow us on twitter @WorcsWT

 

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk

Tel: 01905 754919

 

 

 

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