Talon con­test: a drone didn’t stand a chance against the might of this mil­i­tary-trained golden ea­gle reaf­firm­ing his place as king of the skies

Rap­tors’ su­per­sonic vi­sion, ef­fort­less aerial ac­ro­bat­ics and ruthless hunt­ing in­stinct make them the undis­puted masters of the skies, but can you tell a mer­lin from a hobby or a goshawk from a spar­rowhawk? Si­mon Lester pro­vides the es­sen­tial guide to the

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

They stoop to con­quer. Un­til ‘rap­tor’ be­came com­mon par­lance for the spec­tac­u­lar birds that arouse such pas­sion in the coun­try­side, the word’s com­mon def­i­ni­tion was ‘ab­duc­tor’ (or rob­ber or plun­derer) from the Latin rap­ere, to seize. And, as spring ar­rives, all sorts of stoops, of­fer­ings, mews and chit­ter­ings will be seen or heard high above fields, wood­lands, moors and cities as these birds of prey take to the skies.

All 15 species of res­i­dent, di­ur­nal breed­ing rap­tor (we aren’t count­ing nocturnal owls in this ar­ti­cle) are armed with pow­er­ful talons to hold and kill prey and a hooked bill to tear flesh from their vic­tims’ bones. Pierc­ing binoc­u­lar vi­sion, many times stronger than our own, makes for an in­tim­i­dat­ing death stare and dev­as­tat­ingly ef­fec­tive hunt­ing tech­nique —it’s thought rap­tors can iden­tify the urine trails of small mam­mals from far over­head.

The ar­moury in­cludes bril­liantly grace­ful flying skills, thanks to pow­er­ful wings and a de­signer tail, and the abil­ity to use ther­mals, the wind, the lay of the land and stealth to sur­vive.

Rap­tors can be split into three ba­sic groups: ea­gles (the largest), hawks (the next largest, with broad wings) and fal­cons, which have curved wings and a tooth on their up­per mandible to de­liver the ul­ti­mate coup de grâce.

Al­though all rap­tors es­sen­tially eat flesh, each has evolved dif­fer­ently.

‘Rap­tor broods hatch in in­ter­vals, so it’s the el­dest largest chick that survives’

There are spe­cial­ists (limited to a cer­tain type of prey), such as the os­prey, which has a clas­si­fi­ca­tion of its own due to its taste for fish, and the honey buz­zard, which de­pends on bees and wasps. Oth­ers rely on live prey such as the vole, a crea­ture whose num­bers reg­u­larly peak and crash in a pop­u­la­tion roller­coaster that will cor­re­late di­rectly to the num­bers of those rap­tors that, un­like the un­fussy com­mon buz­zard, can’t switch diet. Larger rap­tors are also more likely to scav­enge.

The rap­tor’s ef­fi­cient di­ges­tive tract in­cludes a crop in which to store enough food to sus­tain them un­til the next feed and a bone-dis­solv­ing stom­ach. Even af­ter an avian car­cass has been plucked, some feath­ers, fluff and bone will be in­gested. More in­di­gestible ma­te­rial is pro­duced when de­vour­ing fur-bear­ing crea­tures, some­times in one gulp; this is sorted out in the giz­zard, then re­gur­gi­tated, or cast, as a pel­let.

Fe­males are al­ways big­ger than their mates and they def­i­nitely wear the trousers—the cock will feed her and the young un­til she starts hunt­ing, when her larger size en­ables her to catch big­ger prey. In con­trast to other birds, rap­tor broods hatch in in­ter­vals so that, if there’s a food short­age, it’s the el­dest, largest chick that survives, en­sur­ing some pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Af­ter the lows of the 1970s, most rap­tor pop­u­la­tions are now healthy; all have in­creased in num­bers and range, the buz­zard and red kite spec­tac­u­larly so. This is thanks to the ban­ning of pes­ti­cides such as DDT (which weak­ened eggshells to the ex­tent they couldn’t sup­port the en­closed chick) as well as to dif­fer­ent at­ti­tudes—per­se­cu­tion, al­though it does still oc­cur, is frowned upon, as is egg-col­lect­ing and fal­con­ers raid­ing nests—tighter leg­is­la­tion, suc­cess­ful rein­tro­duc­tions and vol­un­teer pas­sion.

‘Some mis­take buz­zards for ea­gles, but, be­lieve me, when you see an ea­gle, you know it’s an ea­gle

Golden ea­gle (Aquila chrysae­tos) 500 UK breed­ing pairs, sta­tus green (be­low)

This iconic bird stands for a cen­turiesold im­age of power thanks to its bold features, phys­i­cal strength and 7ft wing­span fin­gers. Some mis­take buz­zards for ea­gles, but, be­lieve me, when you see an ea­gle (in the Scot­tish High­lands), you know it’s an ea­gle. They’re im­pres­sively ag­ile for a large bird, ca­pa­ble of stoop­ing at prey at up to 120mph, a turn of speed that as­sists with mat­ing ac­ro­bat­ics, when they take it in turns to drop and catch sticks and stones in mid-air. They’re long lived (up to 30 years) and mate for life once they reach sex­ual ma­tu­rity at about four years old

Sea ea­gle or white-tailed ea­gle (Hali­aee­tus al­bi­cilla) 106 pairs, con­ser­va­tion sta­tus red (UK), green (Europe and global)

The sea ea­gle—of­ten dubbed a flying barn door—is our largest bird of prey, with an 8ft wing­span, fin­ger-like feath­ers on the wing and dis­tinc­tive tail tips that are only white when adult. Mat­ing dis­plays, which start in March, in­volve lock­ing talons and cartwheel­ing through the air. Their rein­tro­duc­tion to Scot­land’s west coast, most no­tably Mull, in the 1970s af­ter an ab­sence of 70 years, is a con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story, even if sheep farm­ers are less en­thused, and has been a shot in the arm to the tourist in­dus­try

Spar­rowhawk (Ac­cip­iter nisus) 35,000 pairs, sta­tus green (UK), least con­cern (Europe, global)

The small­est hawk: the hen re­sem­bles the goshawk, but the blue-backed cock is tiny by com­par­i­son. Both have dis­tinct bar­ring on the chest, the cocks be­ing adorned with a rusty red. It fre­quents wood­land and ter­rorises gar­den birds, record­ing up to 120 species in its diet. The mat­ing rit­ual is rel­a­tively noisy, as are the calls of as many as six hun­gry nestlings

‘The spar­rowhawk fre­quents wood­land and ter­rorises gar­den birds

Pere­grine fal­con (Falco pere­gri­nus) 1,500 pairs, sta­tus green (UK), least con­cern (Europe, global)

The fastest an­i­mal on the planet, our largest fal­con is built for speed, with curved wings of more than 3ft and a stocky, slate­backed body. It can reach more than 200mph when stoop­ing, wings folded, from hun­dreds of feet above its un­sus­pect­ing prey, bat­ter­ing it from the sky.

It’s made a re­mark­able come­back from the 1960s when it fell vic­tim to chem­i­cal poi­son­ing, egg-col­lect­ing, fal­con­ers tak­ing young and per­se­cu­tion. This was par­tic­u­larly acute dur­ing the World Wars, when they were shot to stop them killing car­rier pi­geons. Now, they range through­out the UK from reg­u­lar up­land, craggy haunts to cities where their cliffs are build­ings and their food is feral pi­geon

‘The ar­moury in­cludes bril­liantly grace­ful flying skills’

Mer­lin (Falco colum­bar­ius) 1,500 pairs, sta­tus red (UK), least con­cern (Europe, global)

What our small­est rap­tor lacks in size, it makes up for with pluck—they will in­tim­i­date ravens, buz­zards and all-com­ers with an in­ces­sant, chit­ter­ing at­tack. Like other rap­tors, they fol­low their prey, track­ing the return to moor­land in spring of pip­its and larks (his­tor­i­cally, the mer­lin was women’s pre­ferred fal­con for larkhunt­ing ex­pe­di­tions) and they pluck their prey away from the nest—of­ten on nearby rocks and posts—but the build-up of de­tri­tus soon smells, mak­ing this groundnester par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to fox pre­da­tion

Hobby (Falco sub­bu­teo) 2,800 pairs, sta­tus green (UK), least con­cern (Europe and global)


Looks like a small pere­grine with red trousers and pos­sesses the same agility and grace when pluck­ing a drag­on­fly from the air or catch­ing a swal­low, as they hunt in­sects over wa­ter. Their range and num­bers are in­creas­ing, prob­a­bly due to cli­mate change. They will nest in an old crow’s nest in a pre­ferred conifer and, af­ter breed­ing, return to Africa

Kestrel (Falco tin­nun­cu­lus) 45,000 pairs, sta­tus am­ber (UK) and least con­cern (Europe and global)

Once our most com­mon rap­tor, it’s in de­cline, par­tic­u­larly in Scot­land, where there are fears of usurpa­tion by buz­zards. The chest­nut-bod­ied fal­con is also known as a ‘wind hover’ be­cause of how it hangs in the air, the cock’s grey head mo­tion­less as the wings and tail work in uni­son to give it a lofty van­tage point, poised to drop like a stone onto a scut­tling vole. They love to re­fur­bish old crow’s nests and make use of holes in trees and man­made struc­tures to rear their young

Buz­zard (Bu­teo bu­teo) 79,000 pairs, sta­tus green


Buz­zards have en­joyed a re­mark­able come­back and now soar on ther­mals in ev­ery county, of­ten with a cat-like mew­ing. This medium-sized hawk has a wing­span of up to 4ft 6in and varies in colour from al­most white to dark brown. Part of its suc­cess is be­ing a gen­er­al­ist: it scav­enges and preys on any­thing from rab­bits to worms. Once paired, buz­zards are highly ter­ri­to­rial—woe be­tide any in­ter­loper. Un­fairly la­belled lazy—due to their habit of sit­ting in wait on a perch, ready to flop down on their prey—they’re quick movers, adept at hov­er­ing and flying fast and low to sur­prise prey, as well as the roller­coaster an­tics de­signed to im­press the ladies Marsh har­rier (Cir­cus aerug­i­nosus) 400 pairs, sta­tus am­ber (UK), least con­cern (Europe, global) (be­low)

The cock and hen look quite dif­fer­ent—the larger hen is dark brown with a gold crown and the cock is quite the dandy of the rap­tor world. They were once thought to fre­quent only marsh­land and reed beds, but are just as likely to be seen hunt­ing and nest­ing in arable crops. All har­ri­ers roost com­mu­nally and eat other birds’ eggs Hen har­rier (Cir­cus cya­neus) 646 pairs, sta­tus red (UK), near threat­ened (Europe), least con­cern (global)

Some­times de­scribed as ‘the ghost’, the pale-grey male drifts over moor­land with slow flaps of his long black­tipped wings, which form a recog­nis­able V shape. The dark-brown fe­male hugs the ground, the long tail steer­ing her over ev­ery con­tour, only the flash of her white rump giv­ing her away. Con­tro­versy sur­rounds its pen­chant for grouse—hours of po­lit­i­cal de­bate and mil­lions of pounds have been spent on it—but it’s also one of the most spec­tac­u­lar danc­ing dis­plays and food passes dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son. Like all ground-nest­ing birds, it’s vul­ner­a­ble to fox pre­da­tion Honey buz­zard (Per­nis apivorus) 70 pairs, sta­tus am­ber (UK) and green (Europe, global)

Bee hawk would per­haps be a bet­ter name for this highly spe­cialised rap­tor, as it doesn’t ac­tu­ally eat honey, but will fol­low a wasp or bee back to its nest, dig out the comb and feast on the grubs. It’s easy to miss this rare, se­cre­tive sum­mer vis­i­tor, of a sim­i­lar size to the com­mon buz­zard, as it floats over its haunt of ex­ten­sive mixed wood­land. At a dis­tance, the small pi­geon-like head is the best iden­ti­fi­ca­tion clue. The male is very at­ten­tive, shar­ing nest build­ing and in­cu­ba­tion, the whole process com­pressed to make good use of the time in which their food source is avail­able

Mon­tagu’s har­rier (Cir­cus py­gar­gus) 15 pairs, sta­tus am­ber (UK), least con­cern (Europe, global)

The small­est and rarest har­rier, named af­ter the nat­u­ral­ist Ge­orge Mon­tagu, it’s con­fined to the south of Eng­land when it re­turns from Africa to breed, of­ten in arable crops. Sim­i­lar in colour­ing to the hen har­rier, the Mon­tagu’s is slim­mer in frame and the cock has a black wing bar. It hunts much the same prey as other har­ri­ers, am­bush­ing mam­mals and birds on, or near, the ground with lightning speed and agility

‘The bat­tle­ship­grey goshawk is the hard man of the rap­tor dy­nasty’

Goshawk (Ac­cip­iter gen­tilis) 400 pairs, sta­tus green (UK), least con­cern (Europe, global) (be­low)

The bat­tle­ship-grey goshawk, with its in­tim­i­dat­ing stare, pow­er­ful short wings and strong yel­low legs and feet, is the hard man of the rap­tor dy­nasty. Noth­ing— from a blue tit to a full-grown hare—is sa­cred. It’s favoured by fal­con­ers, who were the driv­ing fac­tor for their return as a breed­ing bird in the UK. A wood­land spe­cial­ist, the goshawk builds large nests high in trees, around which pluck­ing posts re­veal the iden­tity of vic­tims. Their flight is a dis­tinc­tive se­ries of quick flaps fol­lowed by a short glide

Os­prey (Pan­dion hali­ae­tus) 200–250 pairs, sta­tus am­ber (UK), green (Europe and global)

This is one of Na­ture’s most im­pres­sive sights when it flies high above wa­ter, its bright, white body sus­pended be­tween dap­pled wings that stretch to nearly 6ft. The stoop is even more spec­tac­u­lar, as it crashes into the wa­ter talon first and re-emerges with a feather-dry­ing shake and a wrig­gling fish skew­ered and sus­pended head first from its spe­cial­ist feet. It’s now pos­si­ble to see these sum­mer vis­i­tors in Eng­land and Wales, but their strong­hold is in Scot­land, where they re­turned as a breed­ing bird in the mid 1950s. Less wary of hu­mans than many other species, os­preys pair for life, re­turn­ing to the same siz­able eyrie each year

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