A-Z of Nature:
...and their kin. Dr Ben Aldiss guides us through the world of Norfolk’s raptors
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