An­drew Fallan shares his ex­per­tise in Es­sex wildlife as well as his views on the con­ser­va­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues that we face

Essex Life - - CONTENTS -

Kestrels are in­cred­i­bly hand­some birds, es­pe­cially the males. But per­haps the most amaz­ing thing about kestrels is that they are in pos­ses­sion of what can only be de­scribed as a su­per­sense.

In last month’s Es­sex Life, I dis­cussed one of our most fa­mil­iar birds of prey, the spar­rowhawk, whose tar­get­ing of gar­den birds has earned it the wrath of many a house­holder. For oth­ers, this mes­meris­ing hunter pro­vides a rare mo­ment of sub­ur­ban drama and ex­cite­ment. With its in­can­des­cent scowl, jet-fighter dar­ing and light­ningquick am­bush at­tack, the spar­rowhawk is un­doubt­edly one of our most awe­some preda­tors, pack­ing a punch that be­lies its rather mod­est size, with males only be­ing about the size of a col­lared dove.

How­ever, there is an equally diminu­tive rap­tor that, while lack­ing the jaw-drop­ping wow­fac­tor of the spar­rowhawk, is just as ef­fi­cient a preda­tor and ev­ery bit as charis­matic, ex­hibit­ing a won­der­fully com­pelling charm and a cap­ti­vat­ing, al­most hyp­notic beauty. What’s more, this spell­bind­ing bird can be seen quite read­ily in the Es­sex coun­try­side, over whose mead­ows, marshes and rough grass­land it will of­ten pause to hover, head into the wind with the pin­point pre­ci­sion of a he­li­copter and the poise and grace of a hum­ming­bird.

Yet de­spite these im­pres­sive cre­den­tials, it’s fair to say that this unas­sum­ing mem­ber of the fal­con fam­ily is some­what un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated, if not woe­fully over­looked.

To­gether with buz­zards, whose once-de­pleted pop­u­la­tion has re­cov­ered sig­nif­i­cantly in re­cent decades, kestrels are un­doubt­edly our most fa­mil­iar bird of prey, es­pe­cially as they have long fre­quented the road­side verges of our mo­tor­ways and ma­jor high­ways, ex­pertly hov­er­ing over these grassy havens with a supreme aerial mas­tery that is sec­ond to none. Sus­pended in mid-air by a deft flut­ter­ing of their long, pointed wings, with a skil­ful el­e­gance that al­most seems to defy grav­ity, kestrels are able to keep their heads still and their gazes fixed, even in strong head­winds, while their keen eyes search for signs of small mam­mals far be­low. It is this iconic hunt­ing strat­egy, whose aero­nau­tic per­fec­tion is matched only by its ex­quis­ite, bal­letic beauty, that served as the in­spi­ra­tion for Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins’ cel­e­brated and aptly-ti­tled poem, The Wind­hover. Kestrels are also

‘Kestrels are prob­a­bly re­spon­si­ble for in­spir­ing an in­ter­est in and pas­sion for wildlife among many thou­sands of bird­watch­ers’

in­cred­i­bly hand­some birds, es­pe­cially the males, whose rich ru­fous up­per­parts, con­trast­ing with inky-black wingtips, are glo­ri­ously off­set by the soft, sump­tu­ous sil­ver ador­ing their heads and am­ple, fan-like tails.

How­ever, per­haps the most amaz­ing thing about kestrels is that they are in pos­ses­sion of what can only be de­scribed as a su­per­sense. As well as boast­ing ra­zor-sharp eye­sight, they are also able to per­ceive ul­tra­vi­o­let light, which lies beyond the vis­i­ble spec­trum of colours that

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