NATURE RED IN BEAK AND CLAW

One of the best things about being a Welcome Desk volunteer at RSPB Old Moor is seeing people enjoying themselves. I always make a point of asking if people have had a good time when they leave and almost invariably the answer is a resounding 'Yes'. It's that kind of place. If you want to have a good day out at our reserve, then you probably will.

My personal favourite is the enthusiasm of young birdwatchers visiting Old Moor, perhaps for the first time. They come with their parents or grandparents, armed with checklists, binoculars and a big dose of hope. And being kids, many of them hope to see the same things. The pointy birds. The ones with the built-in butchery equipment. The creatures that are the closest living things to flying velociraptors. Aren't all youngsters fascinated by dinosaurs? Sure, we have plenty of waterfowl, songbirds and the like, but they're just 'lunch' to the serious hunters, and many kids delight in learning about their grisly lifestyles. We're fortunate in that we see quite a few of these predators on our reserve. By British terms they are the lions and tigers of our food chain. Little birds should be very, very afraid.

So when the young naturalists of tomorrow ask me what avian carnivores they might see on their visit I usually widen my eyes, put on my scariest voice, and say...

PEREGRINE FALCONS? Keep an eye on the electricity pylons that run along the edge of the reserve. They love to sit up there and rain plummety death on some poor unsuspecting pigeon. Fastest bird in the world, dropping like a stone. Boom! Snap! Crunch! Yummy...

SPARROWHAWK? These wonderfully agile hunters are grey on the back, brown underneath. Sit patiently in the bird garden hide by the playground for a chance of seeing one hunting. The 'sprawks' are very fond of the little colourful birds in there. Love 'em to death, they do.

At the smaller end of the scale you might see a KESTREL hunting around the edges of the reserve or up the nearby Trans-Pennine Trail. These are unmistakable when they hover, keeping their heads perfectly still whatever the wind conditions.

We're very proud of the Bitterns that have set up nest in our reed beds, but there you've probably got more chance of seeing the MARSH HARRIERS that are currently nesting in that same area. They certainly aren't shy about flying over the rear of the reserve, along the River Dearne. They can be seen in that area most days. They're one of those species that display very obvious sexual dimorphism. Sounds gross, doesn't it, but all it means is that their ladies and gentlemen look different. The thing to look for is the distinct cream-coloured head of the female.

And did you know that Marsh Harriers used to be called Marsh Buzzards long ago? You might get a chance to compare the two species as we have several regular BUZZARDS who fly over the back of the reserve as well, coming in from the Bolton Ings area. These once-rare birds can be found everywhere now, but they're always good to see. They vary quite a bit from one bird to the next but the pale sections underneath their outstretched wings are a good identification indicator.

We've also had some more unusual (for us) meat-eating birds visiting in recent weeks. RED KITES don't usually come to the Dearne Valley all that much but there have been many more than usual. They've been seen most days over the last month. They're easy to spot as their tails are deeply forked like a massive V-sign stuck on their bum. Perhaps these particular ones are young birds looking for a home of their own? If so then I hope they find it around here. And an OSPREY flew over the reserve last week. Presumably it was on a migration flight and we were a handy reference point for it. I can imagine it doing its navigation checks... “That's Old Moor there with Wombwell Ings a bit further on. Yep, I'm still on the right track.” Still, it was a nice sighting for some lucky birders.

Soon it will be time for the Hobbies to return too. If you're not sure if the small falcon you've seen is a Hobby or not, check out its legs. Daft as it might sound, the males look as if they're wearing rusty trousers. On some it would be a fashion disaster but these stylish little predators manage to pull it off. In the summer they'll be around green lane, hunting down the many, many dragon flies that call Old Moor 'home'.

So that's all the birds of prey that birdwatchers, young or old, might see on or above our reserve. They really are the equivalent of big cats, predators that rip their victims to shreds and gorge on it while still warm. Terrifying but fascinating at the same time, and they're all here at RSPB Old Moor. Come and face your fears. Well, okay then, maybe they're not your worst fears but imagine if you were a Blue Tit.


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