Birds of Prey - Call of the Wild

Birds of Prey - Call of the Wild

(c) Russell Savory

A large grey bird flies over my neighbour’s house. “It’s just a pigeon” I think to myself and turn away before something clicks, and I snap my head back. It’s not a pigeon, but a pigeon killer. A sparrowhawk, in fact! I glimpse its reddish belly and long tail just as it disappears over the roof tops. Always double-check a pigeon!

There is something special about seeing a bird of prey, about being in the presence of an apex predator, a killer at top of the food chain, that makes me excited. They provide one of the few opportunities for us to witness a hunt in our local green spaces or gardens. I remember being enthralled as I watched a sparrowhawk plucking the feathers off a wood pigeon in my parents back garden where I grew up. Luckily, it’s one of those spectacles that is open to many of us, even if we live in the city. It can happen at any time – you may find yourself sitting in a motorway jam, watching a kestrel ride the winds, you could be walking in the Avon Gorge and catch a glimpse of a peregrine high above you, or you might look out of your kitchen window to see a sparrowhawk feasting on a kill in your own garden. However it happens, it’s always exciting.

In mid-June, Ed Drewitt , author , broadcaster and top birder, led one of Avon Wildlife Trust’s Lifelong Learning courses at Folly Farm, focusing on identifying birds of prey. We spent the morning learning to differentiate between our most common species. Some of the key things to consider when trying to identify a bird of prey is to look at the size, wing shape, tail shape, flight pattern and behaviour. Just knowing a few bits of information, I felt much more confident that I would be able to spot that pigeon-disguised sparrowhawk next time!

After an educational morning in the classroom, we went out to explore the wonderful reserve at Folly Farm. We climbed up to a hill with magnificent views stretching all out over the Chew Valley and over to the Mendips. With binoculars pressed to our faces we eagerly scanned around us, hoping to put our new birds of prey knowledge to the test. Before long we saw a few buzzards soaring over towards Chew Valley Lake. We even saw one hovering like a kestrel! There were also a couple of very distant kestrels and plenty of swifts screaming past us.

After lunch outside in the sunshine, we returned to the classroom to learn about some rarer birds of prey to look out for over the summer. These included the beautiful heart-faced barn owl, the slow-flying marsh harrier and the agile, dragonfly-catching hobby. We then spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the meadows of Folly Farm. We were joined by many more buzzards, all enjoying the warm air thermals. After that we didn’t see any more birds of prey, but we did see marsh tits, great spotted woodpeckers and plenty of stunning butterflies including the black and white patterned Marbled White.

These magnificent birds of prey need our support, and you can lend yours by not using pesticides and rodenticides at home. These chemicals can travel and build up in the food chain. That’s why rat poisons and other chemicals can cause huge problems for birds of prey across the country when they feed on poisoned rodents.

 If you would like to learn how to identify local wildlife, why not come along to one of our other Lifelong learning courses. Our next one is all about how to improve your garden for wildlife – sign up now to guarantee your place!