Category Archives: Falcons

Guns Lane Raptors

Last Saturday before the snow came I went for a hike along Guns Lane heading north from Histon up to Rampton. It was an unusual walk because there was very little wildlife of any sort, and apart from small numbers of the usual birds such as chaffinch, blackbird and blue tit, and a small flock of 19 lapwing which flew over, there were also very few birds.

Two birds that were around were several kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk tårnfalk) and a lone buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge). Kestrels are one of my favourite birds, I never tire of watching them. They are compact birds, 34cm long with a 76cm wingspan, and their plumage is very attractive, which can be seen in the pictures below, and their flying skills combined with their UV vision and agile talons make them a superbly well designed weapons platform. So of course, as well as watching them, I try to photograph them.

This handsome male bird sat in the top of a tree carefully watching me as I got closer:

And decided I was too close as I got to the bottom of his tree:

Kestrel exiting the top of an ash tree showing of his talons and array of flight feathers

A bird that I never saw in this country until I was at least post-grad age was the buzzard. I saw them when I was on holiday in Denmark as a kid, but not here until I started holidaying in the south west and I’d see the occasional one in Cornwall, Devon and Pembrokeshire.

Like the kestrel, this buzzard was keeping a keen eye on my activities

But from the early 1990’s buzzards have spread to recolonise most of the rest of the country and are regularly seen them gliding overhead around home and perched on fence posts and telegraph poles by the side of the roads. The buzzard is a resident breeder in the UK and is a bird of open heath and farmland, its preferred prey is small mammals but will also take birds and reptiles, and when times are hard insects and earthworms can find their way onto the menu.

Buzzards are big birds with wingspan around 1.2 m and are unmistakeable when either down low like this one:

Also like the kestrel, exiting its perch when my unwanted attentions were deemed too intrusive…

…and gliding away to another less public location

…or when thermalling up high, minimising the effort required to stay aloft.

Meandering away on a non raptor related tangent, as I’m writing this post I’m looking out my window and there are blue tit, great tit, robin, dunnock, chaffinch, blackbird, long tailed tit and starling in my back garden. And goldfinch, and they’re the first ones to visit since last summer. As I posted about last time, the birds are being driven into gardens by the bitterly cold weather. It was -12C first thing this morning and it is now bright and sunny at 1pm, but the temperature is still only -3C. By the way, if you feed the birds try to put some food out the night before if you can, because the smaller songbirds such as blue tit and wren can die very quickly if they don’t find food soon after dawn when the weather is so cold.

The Motorway falcon

The kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) is so called because it is commonly seen hovering or perched on a branch next to the road side. This phenomenon led to the perception that the kestrel was widespread but unfortunately that’s not entirely accurate. In recent decades the eradication of all species other than the desired crop from agricultural land has left these highly specialised predators with limited options for hunting their regular prey of small rodents. But motorway verges present large areas of relatively untouched grassland with a healthy supply of mice and voles so they’ve become regular hunting grounds for the kestrel.

The individual in the photographs below was perched beautifully and I’d just got it framed when an unseen dog flushed it from it’s perch:

A male kestrel taking to the air

A hunting kestrel is immediately recognisable by it’s hovering flight which provides a stable platform for the onboard weapons system of phenomenal eyesight to spot the prey and talons to despatch it and carry it away. Technically kestrels don’t hover in the way that helicopters do, they fly directly into the wind at the same speed as the wind so they don’t move forward. It’s well worth taking a close look at a ‘hovering’ kestrel through binoculars or a telescope where all the fine and rapid adjustments of the control surfaces necessary to maintain a stable position in space can be seen.

The kestrel has another trick up its sleeve which enables it to hunt small, well camouflaged, rodents scurrrying through dense undergrowth. Rodents such as voles urinate constantly and they use this to delineate their territory and to communicate information to other voles. Rodent urine contains compounds which reflect UV light and kestrels are able to see near UV and thereby track the rodents down to the end of the urine trail.

Incidentally, the reason humans can’t see UV is because it is filtered out by the lens and some people who have had their cataracts dealt with by the insertion of artificial lenses, can see UV. I found this video clip at which contains some interesting information about various creatures’ use of UV light 

I think the one below may be the same individual. It was perched in exactly the same spot a week later and I’ve seen a male there several times during that week. This time it was me that flushed it, but it didn’t zoom away in typical falcon fashion, it alighted on the ground between it’s tree and me and didn’t appear particularly bothered by me or the dog.

I see kestrels either just perched in a tree or hunting most days but I never get tired of photographing them, or just watching them doing what they do.