FIVE MORE BRITISH RAPTORS
Kestrels deserve their old name of ‘windhover’. I once filmed one hanging in the air, then rewound the recording at high speed. The kestrel’s body writhed madly but its eye never budged in the frame. Having such a high, steady viewpoint makes it easy to spot movement below and allows kestrels to drop like bolts from the blue onto mice, voles and even lizards. Their ultraviolet vision helps them spot trails of rodent urine, which is visible at that wavelength. Rough grassland on motorway verges makes an ideal home for voles, which is why hovering kestrels are a familiar sight during car journeys. They hunt in many other open areas throughout the country.
Hobbies are beautiful falcons, like slim, balletic peregrines, which specialise in high-speed aerial pursuit in the open sky. Shaped almost like giant swifts, they migrate to and from Africa, hunting swallows and martins in flight and at roosts, often stooping on them, then sweeping up from behind and below.
I have filmed hobbies in Dorset in summer, snatching dragonflies above heathland pools, swinging their long legs forward for the catch. They ate the insects in flight but, astonishingly, some dragonflies evaded the birds by throwing themselves into the water. Hobbies may gather to feed on swarms of flying ants and even occasionally
hunt bats at dusk.
Hen harriers quarter their moorland nesting areas (and coastal marshes in winter), gliding low into the wind to save energy, with their long-wings angled upwards. If a pipit flushes from the heather below, the harrier will flare its wings and tail, exploding into energetic pursuit. When male harriers return to their nests with food they drop it to their mates in spectacular aerial food passes.
They are illegally killed on some shooting estates because they sometimes take grouse chicks: as a result hen harriers are almost extinct as breeding birds in England.
Buzzards are generalist hunters, now recovering from persecution in parts of the UK. They often hunt by swooping on to prey after soaring reconnaissance flights, sometimes hovering in strong winds, or watching patiently from posts where they stand hunched, giving the false impression that they are paying no attention.
They take a wide range of small mammals (especially voles and young rabbits) as well as birds, reptiles and even amphibians. Finding spawn on top of a fencepost in the spring is a sure sign that a buzzard has been hunting frogs. After rain you might see them pottering about in fields, picking up worms.
Red kites’ long wings and their highly mobile tails enable them to stay aloft in light winds with minimal effort. It’s a great strategy for searching large areas where food is scarce. Red kites have recovered well following reintroduction projects, except where they are still shot or poisoned.
They have a very wide diet, often eating carrion, including roadkill and dead sheep. Kites easily swoop to grab insects and other small animals from the ground without stopping. They are opportunistic; sometimes following ploughs to catch voles and even worms as they are uncovered. I once filmed one stealing a freshly caught fish from an osprey.