A-Z of Na­ture:

...and their kin. Dr Ben Ald­iss guides us through the world of Nor­folk’s rap­tors

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - Dr Ben Ald­iss wildlife jour­nal­ist and broad­caster, deputy manag­ing ed­i­tor of World Agri­cul­ture Getty Dr Ben Ald­iss is a wildlife jour­nal­ist and broad­caster, deputy manag­ing ed­i­tor of World Agri­cul­ture and an ad­viser in bio­di­ver­sity and ed­u­ca­tion on farms

This month we’re at the let­ter K for kites and kestrels

One of the fun things about writ­ing an A to Z of na­ture is the ran­dom­ness it in­tro­duces, the only pre­dictabil­ity be­ing the se­quence of let­ters. If there is a link be­tween April’s sub­ject and May’s, it’s a rather ten­u­ous one: both jump­ing spi­ders and birds of prey are preda­tors! Oth­er­wise they’re as dif­fer­ent as chalk and cheese.

I’m lucky to live close to the coast with a big gar­den, but it

still sur­prises me how var­ied the wildlife is in such an in­ten­sively arable landscape. The kestrel, kite and other rap­tors are at the top of the food chain and de­pend on a rich and var­ied food-web for their sur­vival, so per­haps it is this patch­work quilt of op­por­tu­ni­ties that make north Nor­folk so rich in birds of prey.

We have a mag­nif­i­cent weep­ing ash tree on our lawn, its top­most branches clearly vis­i­ble just ten metres from my of­fice win­dow at ABOVE:

Soar­ing in the sky, a red kite with some nest­ing ma­te­rial the top of the house. At around 200 years old, this tree has de­vel­oped a se­ries of holes and shelves over the decades – just right for big­ger birds to nest in. Two years ago, a pair of kestrels took pos­ses­sion of the big­gest plat­form and this spring they’re back again. See­ing the hand­some male swoop across the lawn and land with such pre­ci­sion in the still-leaf­less branches be­fore pre­sent­ing his mate with a new­ly­caught vole is quite a spec­ta­cle,

though their high-pitched greet­ing calls are less wel­come out­side our bed­room win­dow at the crack of dawn. Be­ing fal­cons, kestrels have the pointed scythe­shaped wings so char­ac­ter­is­tic of the fam­ily, but un­like the oth­ers, they are adapted for hunt­ing by hov­er­ing and as such are prob­a­bly our most fa­mil­iar birds of prey – of­ten seen above road­side verges.

We have other fal­cons in Nor­folk. As I was walk­ing on the coastal path from Morston to Stiffkey yes­ter­day with my wife and son, we saw a pere­grine fal­con fly­ing pur­pose­fully over the marshes. One of the world’s fastest birds, it’s a thrilling sight to see a pere­grine close its wings to stoop on its prey, rock­et­ing through the sky at up to 200 miles per hour. Those same salt­marshes are the win­ter refuge of Nor­folk’s small­est fal­con, the mer­lin, but by the time you read this ar­ti­cle it will be back in the moor­lands of the north and west where – uniquely in the UK – it builds its nest on the ground. Fi­nally, there’s the hobby – a fast-fly­ing fal­con that spe­cialises in catch­ing swifts, swal­lows and house-martins, as well as drag­on­flies. I spot­ted one fly­ing through our gar­den last Au­gust.

Among our big­ger birds of prey is per­haps the most strik­ing of all our county’s species – the red kite. With its long gan­gly wings and forked tail, it is un­mis­tak­able as it soars and swoops over the fields and woods of the north Nor­folk coast. From be­ing a cos­mopoli­tan scav­enger, com­mon in the streets of Lon­don dur­ing Shake­speare’s time, the kite be­came an ex­treme rar­ity, found only in Wales, un­til a de­ter­mined ef­fort to rein­tro­duce it to parts of Eng­land proved to be suc­cess­ful in re­cent years. There are at least six res­i­dent in our part of Nor­folk this spring and I was lucky enough to see one perch in our weep­ing ash tree one morn­ing last sum­mer.

The buz­zard is an­other big and ob­vi­ous bird of prey in Nor­folk. Like the kite, it was al­most un­heard of here un­til it spread east­wards a decade or so ago. Now its cir­cling flight as it soars on the ther­mals and its haunt­ing call are fa­mil­iar fea­tures of balmy sum­mer days.

Nor­folk is also the home of three re­lated species, one of which is an ex­treme rar­ity – only five nests be­ing recorded in the whole of the UK in the sum­mer of 2017. I’m talk­ing about our three har­ri­ers. The hen har­rier is a win­ter vis­i­tor from its breed­ing grounds fur­ther north, but the other two nest in Nor­folk and are two of our flag­ship species. With its tri-coloured liv­ery of brown, pale grey and black, the male marsh har­rier is un­mis­take­able as it quar­ters the marshes and ce­real fields with wings up­turned in a slight V shape. It was only last year, though, that I be­came aware of the male’s im­pres­sive ‘sky dance’. Un­like its usual low-level hunt­ing, this breed­ing dis­play takes place high in the sky and in­volves some im­pres­sive aer­o­bat­ics, ac­com­pa­nied by a se­ries of al­most con­ver­sa­tional chat­ter­ing calls.

Then there’s the enig­matic Mon­tagu’s har­rier. This very rare vis­i­tor from Africa nests in arable fields and I’m al­ways aware of its pres­ence, not be­cause it’s espe­cially flam­boy­ant, but be­cause it draws so many bird­watch­ers from ev­ery cor­ner of the land.

To com­plete my look at Nor­folk’s birds of prey, I should men­tion a num­ber of species that de­pend more on our wooded ar­eas for their liveli­hood, but space will not al­low, so the spar­rowhawk, honey buz­zard and tawny owl will have to wait for an­other day.

Mon­tagu’s har­rier (left) is a rare sight in the county; the pere­grine fal­con (right) is a more fre­quent – and thrilling – sight

A hand­some kestrel

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