Animals at or near the top of a food chain fascinate and thrill. Raptors and owls mesmerise with their size, skills and spectacular aerial displays. Fanciful or not, you’ve got to respect a bird that when it looks your way, seems to express a contempt that almost says “you mean noth-ing to me.”
Insouciance personified; red kite at the top of the hill opposite the main lake.
For their size, their binocular eyes are huge with most hidden deep in their skull; if we had the same, our eyes would be as big as tennis balls. However, big eyes do not swivel easily, which is why they have to move their heads to fully use their vision. Some have asymmetrical ears to pinpoint rustling rodents and some use their ability to see UV light to follow the urine trails of constantly peeing male rodents. Owls, because they are mainly nocturnal, have less acute vision and see more in black and white but do have quieter feathers to get closer to their prey and exceptional hearing. Round-faced ones have a facial disc to trap sound like a Jodrell Bank dish captures radio waves from space.
A short-eared owl glides effortlessly across the grass scrub area on the hillside.
Raptor wing design varies according to main purpose: Broad with a fanning tail for soaring and hovering (buzzard, red kite, harrier); long, narrow and pointed for fast flight and hurtling towards the ground, called stooping (falcons); broad, short and rounded for hunting in dense vegetation (goshawk, sparrowhawk). Finally, impressive talons (claws) are used to kill and grip prey. Uniquely raptors use the tibia muscle (between the knee and foot) to exert the power in their claws and if the strike does not kill, the longer middle toe claw will. Owls can swivel their claws to hold prey with a 2+2 combo and 3+1 to perch.
On the ridge and furrow; a ‘headless’ male marsh harrier with broad wings and fanned tail.
Historically our attitudes have chopped and changed. Falconry was a very popular pastime/sport until the invention of more reliable guns in the mid seventeenth century. Kings, who kept 100s and huge numbers of staff to look after them, passed laws to generally protect them from harm. They were status symbols for the upper classes and the well-to-do; in Tudor times a goshawk cost up to a £1 (about £1,000 today). They were pampered, adorned with fancy kit, kept in bed chambers, paraded on the arm and if the recommendation was followed, bathed every third day. When the popularity of falconry waned and despite royal protection, the birds were now seen as competitors and commodities. By the Victorian era, the slaughter was indiscriminate and wholesale from shooting to protect other interests, egg collecting, and taxidermy. To be fair, the Victorians were inordinately good at exploiting, shooting and stuffing anything that moved and from that conservation movements emerged, such as what is now the RSPB. Plus, other factors also caused decline such as habitat loss.
“What you looking at?” A fierce looking little owl in the Oddball compound.
By the early 1900s osprey, goshawk, white-tailed eagle, marsh harrier and honey buzzard (which largely eat bees, wasps and their larvae) were extinct in the UK. Marsh harriers returned in the 1920s of their own accord and now outnumber Golden Eagle (just) with a population of over 400. During the world wars there was a reprieve as there were other priorities and bullets needed elsewhere. Except for the peregrine, which MI5 shot during world war two to protect carrier pigeons sent home from Europe. MI5 also used trained hawks to take down “enemy” pigeons carrying mis-information. Those caught were ours, as there was no way to tell them apart and it was concluded there were no actual enemy pigeons.
Killer in the quinoa; sparrowhawk zooming across the top of the crop in Goose fields.
After world war two, the deployment of pesticides and myxomatosis to protect crops had a devastating effect as poison and disease passed up through the food chain; DDT crashed the peregrine population again. From this, we became more aware and slowly but surely began banning harmful substances and by 1963 all species became subject to full legal protection, which has reduced if not completely eliminated the destruction. But there is more to do despite good work and support, especially in the lowlands, because most remain red or amber listed (at high or medium conservation concern).
At dusk, a barn owl crosses from the hillside to the ridge and furrow (and back again).
Birds of prey will always be uncommon, which is part of their attraction. It was long thought the natural balance of bio-diversity worked from the bottom up (plants and insects support higher food chains) but today it is also believed it works top down. All apex predators are indicator species; remove them and environments become unhealthy. Large projects are needed to prove the science and they are few and far between but do include: grazers (elk, deer) devastate grass and young trees if not kept in check by wolves (re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park); sea otters returned when protected to keep take sea urchins and permit kelp to flourish and protection of seals off the US coast increased their population and subsequently attracted large sharks. All of these also increased general bio-diversity.
A kestrel stoops towards one of the islands on the Main lake.
Additionally, the top predators are self-regulating; they live longer, breed less (an eagle does not breed until four or five years old), have fewer young with higher infant/immature mortality, need larger territories for nest sites and food, which is more commonly smaller mammals, younger birds, insects, amphibians, earthworms and carrion. Abundance or scarcity of their main foods also limits them because they are subject to boom and bust years. In Shakespeare’s London, red kite were numerous and played an important role scavenging the constant detritus left in the streets. The plays have numerous references to birds of prey: In ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is the line “When the kite builds, look to lesser linen” (i.e. in spring keep your Sunday best out of sight because kites like to steal hung out washing for their nests).
Eating on the wing; a summer hobby devouring a dragonfly over the reedbeds.
As an aside: In the 1970s, biologist Thomas Reimchen noticed the animal predators of sticklebacks in a Canadian lake largely took young or sub-adult fish and went on discover the same applied to other animal predators who target younger, weakened or diseased prey. This strategy does not impair reproductive capability or populations. Humans however, take adults and spare the young for conservation, which does impair reproductive capability. We still have much (but possibly little time) to understand the complexity that surrounds us and how to live and let live: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet).
P.S. Another major limiting factor for birds of prey is disturbance; this is a plea for visitors, enthusiasts and photographers to respect their space and keep to the paths/rights of way as they easily abandon sites if they feel insecure or threatened.
Recent Sightings Round-Up:
Autumn migration is in full swing and the sightings include birds passing and/or pausing. And, St Aidan’s currently has a good variety of avians at the apex.
They don’t make it easy; upside down lesser redpoll with another blurry one half covering it.
Around the visitor centre/compound/car park: little owl, green & great spotted woodpecker, redwing, fieldfare, redpoll, siskin, yellowhammer, goldfinch, chaffinch, greenfinch, dunnock, song thrush, tree sparrow, linnet, reed bunting, wren, starling, blue/great/long-tailed tit, the compound’s resident robin who is singing for Britain to defend the territory and blackbirds are tucking into the apples.
A herd of curlew. A herd? Surely, more a ‘haun-ting mello-dee.’
Along the hillside/pastures and opposite ditch: not every early morning and before dusk, but fairly frequent short-eared and barn owl. Also roe deer, buzzard, kestrel, peregrine, sparrowhawk, curlew (up to 20), woodcock, meadow pipit, reed buntings and stonechats, which are all over the site but appear return to roost in this area.
A male stonechat braves sitting on gorse between the reedbeds.
On the ridge and furrow and the adjacent Main and Lemonroyd lakes: curlew who are very vocal at dusk, great white & little egret, great-crested grebe, grey partridge, redshank, snipe, dunlin, greenshank, lapwing, oystercatcher, tufted duck, goosander (up to 11), pintail (up to 10), pochard, teal, egyptian goose, up to two marsh harriers - a male and a cream crown - and hare. The wigeon are increasing as are the male’s calls of ‘weee-ooo.’ A jack snipe has been seen briefly. At the main lake sluice gate are regular sightings of kingfisher and grey wagtail.
At the Main lake sluice; top, a kingfisher, below, grey wagtail - twerking?
Around the reedbeds: bearded tit flocks with the largest seen 14, water rail calling a lot and seen occasionally, ruff, snipe, green sandpiper, little grebe, shoveler, bittern, wintering water pipit and more heard than seen, cetti’s warbler (2-3). But, it will get harder to hide as winter draws on
A snipe darting, and looking like a dart, flies from the ridge and furrow.
Astley lake and the adjacent reservoir: gadwall, pochard, wigeon, shoveler, jay, little grebe, great white egret, lapwing (loads who are up and down like yoyos) and peregrine.
Flocks of long-tailed tits are roaming the site, relentlessly preying on flies and spiders; more vicious than they look, eh?
Around Lowther lake, goose fields and the tree lines: tree sparrow, brambling, yellowhammer, linnet, siskin, greenfinch, skylark, reed bunting, jay, goldfinch, goldcrest (up to 4), blue/great/long-tailed tit, chaffinch, and chiffchaff. Plus sparrowhawk, merlin and kestrel are hunting over the goose fields’ sacrificial crop (mostly quinoa and millet planted to provide seed for the birds in winter).
A female reed bunting feeding on seeds but also ever vigilant.
Around Bowers lake: great-crested grebe, grey heron, kingfisher, wigeon and more recently a rock pipit.
Snoozing great-crested grebe.
Around the site: Putting in appearances are ring-necked parakeet, golden plover, pink-footed geese, whooper swan, flocks of feeding starlings and recently, a ringtail hen harrier flew high and over.
Atop Oddball, starlings take time out to chill (in reality, pausing between preening).
On warmer, sunnier days there are still a few dragonflies (migrant hawker, red darters) and some butterflies (specked wood, red admiral).
The inspiration for Cruella de Ville?
A crow with either a bread cake or a really big slice of Victoria sponge cake.
Yours, K Sp-8 (18/10-11)
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