Osprey

With its natty black bandana, the Osprey is the swashbuckling Zoro of the skies. A Majestic black and white pescatarian that likes nothing better than a good fish supper. They are one of the most widely distributed birds of prey, found in every continent except Antarctica. They return here each Spring after their winter stay in Senegal. Being fish lovers, they live near lakes, large rivers, coastal lagoons and estuaries.

The Osprey looks gull-lie high in the sky with its bowed wings. It is slightly longer bodied than a Buzzard and has much longer wings. The Osprey is dark brown above, clean white below with a white head and a thick black stripe through its yellow eye - like a bandana mask. There is a dark patch at the bend in the wings and, in flight, the long wings appear kinked at the elbow. Their tail is barred. Like many birds of prey, the female is slightly larger than the male. Their call is a high-pitched “pieu, pieu pieu” whistle, often made round the nest.

Ospreys and Owls are the only raptors whose outer toe is reversible, allowing them to grasp their prey with two toes in front and two behind, perfect for grabbing fish out of water. They have well adapted nostrils which can be closed and feathers that are waterproof with special spines under their toes to grip their slippery prey. An Osprey can perch for hours on trees or posts before flying off to catch a fish, doing a spectacular feet first dive. Although their main diet is fish and more fish, they will eat small amphibians. There was a medieval belief that fish were so mesmerised by Ospreys that they turned belly-up in surrender!

Ospreys reach sexual maturity and begin breeding around the age of three or four. The male returns first in late March and does an aerial display to impress a female. Once paired, they will usually stay together for life. They build a big nest made of sticks in a tree and will reuse the same nest year after year, adding a few more sticks every year so the nests can get quite big. Two or three eggs are laid in April and the female does most of the incubating. They hatch after 35 days and both parents feed the youngsters who can fly 50 days later. The youngsters depend on mum and dad right up to the beginning of their migration back to Africa in August.

There are 240 Osprey pairs nesting in Britain, and the birds are specially protected. A lot of conservation effort and re-introductions has helped them recover. The biggest threat to Ospreys in Britain is from egg collectors, so many Osprey nests are either kept secret or carefully monitored by volunteer wildlife groups. The oldest European wild Osprey on record lived to be over thirty years of age.

Their Latin name is ’pandion haliaetus’ where ’pandion’ is derived from the mythical Greek king of Athens and grandfather of Theseus, and ’haliaetus’ comes from the Ancient Greek ’haliaetos’ which is ’hali’ for ‘sea’ and ’aetos’ for ‘eagle’. Not surprisingly, the Osprey is also called sea hawk, river hawk, and fish hawk. The origin of the English word ‘Osprey’ is obscure and is thought to be derived from the Medieval Latin ’avis prede’ meaning ‘bird of prey’. In Buddhism, the Osprey is sometimes represented as the ‘King of Birds’ and in Chinese folklore the Osprey is considered to be an icon of fidelity and harmony between husband and wife, due to its highly monogamous habits.

Bean Goose

You are incredibly lucky if you see this rare goose as it is normally only found in two places in Britain: the Slamannan Plateau, in Falkirk, Scotland, and the Yare Marshes in Norfolk, England. Originally thought to be one species, the Bean Goose is now split into two, the Taiga and the Tundra, based on a slight difference in bill colours. The Taiga is the one that comes to Britain and overwinters here from October to March. It is normally just called a Bean Goose. They like lakes or flooded fields close to farmland where they can feed.

The Bean Goose is slightly smaller than a Greylag. It a tall, elegant goose, mostly brown with a very dark neck and head. The brown breast has fine barring. There is a white line at edge of its wings, and a small white patch at the base of its tail. The bill is yellow and black. Apart from its orange legs, it is a bit of a brown job. It flies in the traditional goose V-formation and you can easily see the dark upper wing and its long neck. Their call is a “ung-ank".

The Bean Goose eats grass seeds, roots, berries, clover, and potatoes. It got its Bean Goose name because it also enjoys grazing bean field stubble. This doesn’t make it a big fan of farmers, though they do comparatively minor damage.

The Bean Goose (Taiga) is unique because it nests in dense coniferous and birch forests in Northern Europe. (The Tundra species nests on the Siberian tundra, hence its name). They mate for life and their courting takes several weeks. Once they have paired up, a "Triumph Ceremony" is performed where they put their heads close together and sing to each other. They often repeat the ceremony as a way to renew their bonding and to strengthen family ties when youngsters are about and driving them mad. An average of 4–6 white to pale straw-coloured eggs are laid in a scrape or shallow nest of vegetation lined with warm down. The eggs are incubated for 25 to 29 days before hatching. The youngsters can feed themselves almost immediately and the young goslings fledge 40 days later. They are fully independent after a further 2.5 months. Mum and dad do their moult after raising the family and our flightless for a month before coming here. The family will stay together for their first winter.

About 450 Bean Geese over winter In Britain and are often seen with White-fronted Geese. Their Latin name is ’anser fabalis’ where ’anser’ is the Latin for ‘goose’, and ’fabalis’ comes from the Latin ’faba’ for ‘broad bean’.

White-fronted Goose

The White-fronted Goose is the most numerous goose in Europe during the winter but is rarer in Britain. Like many geese, they breed on the Arctic tundra before overwintering here. Two distinct groups arrive in October: Greenland ones come to Scotland and Russian come to England, particularly East Anglia. They stay until March and like wet meadows and farmland close to lakes or estuaries.

The White-fronted Goose is smaller than a Greylag Goose and has a grey-brown head, neck and body with a distinctive white forehead (hence its name). There are black bars on the belly and the brown back is crossed with pale lines. Their legs are orange and the bill is a pinky orange. An agile goose whose speciality is a vertical takeoff and flying in neat V-formations. They have a squeaky wheel like "will-a-wik" call.

They roost in large flocks that break up into smaller feeding groups during the day to eat grasses, roots, seeds, potatoes, and sugar beet. They are picky about the grasses they like, favourites being couch grass, cotton grass, and horsetail.

At two years old, White-fronted Geese partner up and then stay together for life. They wait for a year while agreeing on domestic arrangements before raising a family. The nest is a shallow affair made of vegetation on the ground and sparsely lined with down and feathers. The 3–7 creamy or pinkish pale buff eggs hatch after 22 to 28 days. Mum does all the sitting while dad proudly stands guard. Both parents defend and feed the newly hatched goslings. Arctic weather conditions are a key factor for the breeding success of White-fronted Geese. There is only about three months to make a nest, incubate the eggs, and raise the youngsters until they are able to fly. While raising the young, the parents do their moult. They moult all their flight feathers simultaneously and they are flightless for 25 days while the youngsters grow. An early onset of the Arctic winter can be deadly for both parents and young when they are both flightless.

About 20,000 White-fronted Geese overwinter in Britain with nearly half of all Greenland Geese coming to Scotland. The drainage of farmland has restricted areas where they can be found. In recent decades, the number of Russian birds wintering in England has fallen sharply, with milder winters allowing birds to remain in the Netherlands rather than crossing the Channel to come here. The oldest known White-fronted Goose lived for 17 years.

Their Latin name is 'anser albifrons' where 'albifrons' comes from the Latin 'albus' for 'white' and 'frons' for 'forehead'. The 'anser' is Latin for 'goose'. The White-fronted Goose is also called a 'specklebelly'.

Pink-footed Goose

You guessed it, a Pink-footed Goose has pink feet, but so do other geese, so not such a brilliant name after all, though its feet are the brightest pink ones around. Pinked-nose Goose would have been better. The Pink-footed Goose is another goose that overwinters here, arriving in October and leaving in April, and often seen in large flocks around estuaries and freshwater lakes.

The Pink-footed Goose is smaller than a Greylag Goose. It has a short dark neck, rounded head and a black bill with a pink tip. The overall plumage is a pinkish-brown and pale edges to the dark feathers gives it a barred appearance. There is a white line on the body below the wings and it has pink legs and feet. The short neck and grey forewings are obvious in flight. Overall, it looks more compact than other geese. It is also a much better formation flyer, with skeins ('strings') of geese keeping in a neat V-shape, while making a musical "wink, wink" call to keep together. No-one is quite sure why skeins of geese fly in a V-shape, though the benefits are probably aerodynamic, reducing the effort of flying when not the one at the front.

They eat grains, root crops and grass, feeding on farmland during the day before returning to the safety of a lake or estuary at night. Although they graze on farmland, they cause little damage and may even help by gleaning leaves and roots left behind after a crop is harvested, reducing the transmission of diseases.

The Pink-footed Goose pairs for life and breeds in Iceland and Greenland. They nest in inaccessible river gorges where they are safe from ground predators. In May, they lay 3-6 eggs which hatch after 27 days. The goslings accompany their parents on foot to the nearest lake, where they fledge after about 56 days while mum and dad do their moult before flying here. Both mum and dad help look after the youngsters and the family will stay together for their first winter.

About 372,000 individuals spend the winter in Britain, 90% of the world's population of Pink-footed Geese. Numbers have increased in recent years, particularly in Scotland. This might be connected to the increased growing of barley, which they love, and the increased protection from shooting on their wintering grounds. There are two largely discrete populations of Pink-footed Goose. The Greenland and Iceland population which winter in Great Britain, and smaller Svalbard population which winters in the Netherlands and Denmark. The oldest known bird lived to be 38 years old!

Their Latin name is 'anser brachyrhynchus' where 'anser' is Latin for 'goose' and 'brachyrhynchus' comes from the ancient Greek 'brachus' for 'short' and 'rhunchos' for 'bill'. A goose with a short (pink tipped) bill.

Meadow Pipit

The Meadow Pipit is tricky to see on the ground as their camouflage blends in so well. They are more often seen in the sky when doing their parachute display flight. Unlike their cousins the Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipits don't need trees from which to sing, preferring showy off display flights instead, while giving their accelerating, repetitive "seep seep" song. They are heard mainly from March to July, falling silent until September when doing their moult, as they lose the flight feathers first and can't show off so well on the ground (and don't want to draw attention to where they are anyway).

They are similar in size to a House Sparrow and are brown with darker streaks on their back. They have uniform sized streaks on their pale breasts and flanks. The tail is short with white outer feathers that show in flight, together with white wing bars. They have a thin pointed bill and a noticeably long hind claw. This is one of the best ways to tell them apart from other small brown, streaky birds - if you can see it. The Tree Pipit is very similar to the Meadow Pipit, but looks ‘cleaner’ with more distinct markings, paler pink legs and short hind claw.

The Meadow Pipit feed mainly on insects, though will have the odd seed. It loves to munch daddy-long-legs, beetles, moths and spiders. It feeds on the ground, moving along in jerky motions.

Meadow Pipits nest in meadowland, upland moors, lowland marshes and other open country. The female builds a nest on the ground in April and lays 3-5 eggs which hatch after 13 days. Mum mostly incubates the eggs though both parents feed the young. The youngsters can fly 12 days later but leave the nest before then to hide in the undergrowth for safety as Merlins and Hen Harriers love a good Meadow Pipit snack. There are usually two broods. The poor Meadow Pipit is also often duped into being the 'foster parent' of a young Cuckoo. The adult Cuckoo will lay a single egg in a Meadow Pipit's nest. After hatching, the Cuckoo chick will push the other eggs or young birds out of the nest, so its foster parents concentrate on feeding their new, single, oversized chick.

There are 2 million Meadow Pipit territories in Britain. They are not as common as they used to be, mainly because of changes in land use and the loss of field margins. Set-aside (uncultivated land in which various wildlife habitats can develop over several years), wider field margins and traditional hedgerow management can all help to halt and reverse their decline. In autumn, more northern moorland Meadow Pipits will move down to the lowlands and the milder south.

Their Latin name is 'anthus pratensis' where 'anthus' is the Latin name for a small bird of grasslands and 'pratensis' means 'of a meadow ', from 'pratum' for 'meadow'. The English name 'Pipit' is an onomatopoeic (sounds like) of their call.

Barnacle Goose

In medieval times, the Barnacle Goose was confused with the Brent Goose which was silly as they look completely different. They also thought they hatched from barnacles, hence the name, which was even sillier. Like the Brent Goose, the Barnacle Goose migrates from the artic areas of Greenland to overwinter on our coastal lowlands, arriving here in October and leaving in March.

The Barnacle Goose is a medium sized goose, smaller than a Canada Goose. It has a black neck and breast, a creamy white face, and barred back. The underparts are pale with black legs and a white tail. It I thought the white tail helps them keep together when flying in their noisy family V-formations. When flying they look black and white with pointed wings. Their calls is a single high pitched bark, "rak!", that sounds like a yapping dog.

Barnacle Geese eat grass and other vegetation. They will use their bill to pull up roots which doesn't make them a big fan of farmers when up rooting the autumn sown crops.

The Barnacle Geese pair for life and breed in the artic. They nest on inaccessible cliff faces near the sea to be safe from artic foxes. Once hatched, the parents show the young goslings the way to jump down from the cliff and the goslings follow them by instincts and take the plunge. Their small size, feathery down, and very light weight helps to protect them from serious injury. The parents then lead them to places where they can find food. The goslings are not out of danger, as foxes can stalk the young as they are led to the wetland feeding areas. Sadly, only 50% of the chicks survive their first month. The ones that do survive, stay with their parents for their first winter.

About 90,000 Barnacle Geese overwinter here , mainly in Scotland and their numbers have increased over the last 50 years. Like other geese, they are specially protected.

Their Latin name is 'branta leucopsis' where 'branta' is from Old Norse 'brandgas' for 'burnt (black) goose' because they are black and 'leucopsis' is from Ancient Greek 'leukos' for 'white' and 'opsis' for 'faced'. A black goose with a white face is spot on. Because medieval people thought they hatched from barnacles, like Brent Geese, they were counted as fish and could be eaten on a Friday.

Brent Goose

The Brent Goose is a visiting winter goose having spent a short summer breeding break in the artic. They leave the arctic in September to arrive here October before leaving for the artic again in March. It is our smallest goose, though very elegant in its black finery.

The Brent Goose has a small black head with a white patch on the side of the neck like a tiny necklace, a dark brown body, dark belly, black legs, and a black bill. A bit of a goose goth. The under parts are variable but under the tail is always white. The wings look pointed in flight and they fly in lines rather than the more traditional goose v-shape. Goths like to be different. Their call is a ""warunk" which is made especially when landing or taking off - to show how tricky it is. Their are two types of Brent Goose; the 'dark bellied' where heir under parts almost as dark as their upperparts and the 'pale bellied' where their underparts are a lighter grey-brown. The Brent Goose is flightless for 3 weeks during July to August while moulting.

Brent Geese are veggies, eating plants on land and in water, especially eel grass. They feed at winter feeding grounds on estuaries or the seacoast where eel grass, seaweed and sea lettuce is abundant.

The Brent Goose breeds in the artic tundra. Breeding must take place within 100 days before the snow and ice return. Nesting often starts before all the snow has melted. Bad weather or early onset of winter has a big impact on their breeding success. The 'dark bellied' breed in artic Siberia where as the 'light bellied' prefer artic Greenland. Although the artic summer is short, food for the geese is plentiful while they are there. They nest in loose colonies on flat tundra areas near ponds and lakes and on islands. The nest is a shallow depression lined with plant material and down. Egg laying usually occurs in mid-June. The three to five eggs are incubated by the mum for 24-26 days while the male stands guard as polar bears, arctic foxes, glaucous gulls and arctic skuas can all take the eggs or chicks. The nest is abandoned soon after the chicks have hatched and the young can fly six weeks later. They stay together as a family group until the spring migration the following year.

A Brent Goose can live for 19 years or more. About 100,000 overwinter here, nearly half of the world's population. Loss of eel grass marshes in the 1930s led to a decline in their numbers but restoration of marshland has helped them recover.

Their Latin name is 'branta bernicla' where 'branta' is the Latinised form of Old Norse 'brandgas' meaning 'burnt (black) goose' and 'bernicla' is the medieval Latin name for a barnacle as people in medieval times though they came from barnacles as they didn't understand where they went in the summer. An important medieval man called John Gerard even claimed to have seen the birds emerging from their shells. The legend persisted until the end of the 18th century. In County Kerry, until relatively recently, Catholics could eat a Brent Goose on a Friday because it counted as fish, so was allowed.

Merlin

Another magic bird of prey. It is Europe's smallest falcon of the open countryside. The Merlin has for centuries been well regarded as a falconry bird with its small bird catching ability. Being small, it was known as lady's falcon in medieval times.

The Merlin has a typical falcon shape with triangular pointed wings. It is smaller than a Kestrel and not much bigger than a pot bellied Mistle Thrush. It is easy to tell apart from a Kestrel as it doesn't hover. The Merlin has a blue-grey back and a rusty streaked breast. The pointed wings are dark at the ends and their is a striking black band at the end of the tail. The female is larger and has a browner back. The Merlin flies close to the ground in a direct dashing flight with short powerful wing beats followed by glide.

Merlins usually hunt alone, chasing birds with agile twists and turns and catching them in the air. It is a fast and magical chase to watch. It eats small birds like Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Chaffinches and Thrushes. It will also feed on voles, bats, moths and beetles. Merlins rely on their speed and agility to hunt their prey by flying fast and low, typically less than one metre above the ground, using trees and large shrubs as cover before taking their prey by surprise.

Merlin breeding occurs typically in May/June. They nest on the ground amongst moorland heather or in old crow nests. The 3-5 eggs hatch after 28 days both mum and dad incubate the eggs. Initially mum tends the young while dad gets food, issuing a "kek, kek, kek" call near the nest. After 18 days the young Merlins leave the nest and hide somewhere nearby. They can fly at 25 days and depend on mum and dad for 4 weeks. Crows are the the primary threat to eggs and nestlings, though in general carnivorous birds avoid Merlins due to their aggressiveness and agility. Their desire to drive larger raptors away from their territory is so pronounced that it is an identifying characteristic.

There are 1300 pairs in Britain. In winter, they move south from their moorland breeding grounds to lowland areas like coastal salt marshes. Some Merlins from Northern Europe also overwinter here. By far the most serious long-term threat to these birds is habitat destruction, especially in their breeding areas. Ground-nesting populations in moorland have a preference for tall heather, and are thus vulnerable to over management by burning or sheep grazing. They are specially protected.

Their Latin name is 'falco columbarius' where 'falco' derives from the Latin 'falx' or 'falcis' for a sickle, referring to the claws of falcons and 'columbarius' is Latin for 'of doves' from 'columba' meaning 'dove'. The English name Merlin is derived from Anglo-Norman 'merilun' or 'meriliun'. They were once colloquially known as a 'pigeon hawk' from their bird catching ability.

Hobby

A Hobby is a fairly small, spectacular, fast falcon with long, narrow wings and wears red trousers. It is a summer visitor of open fields and woodland, often seen over flooded gravel pits.

It looks like an oversized Swift with its sickle like shape. It is the size of a Kestrel but more rakish with long pointed wings and short tail. The Hobby is dark blue-grey above and sports a black moustache on white cheeks. It is thickly streaked below with reddish flanks and red under the tail that makes it look like it is wearing rusty red trousers. The natty dresser of the falcon world. Both sexes look the same though, as with many bird of prey, the female is slightly larger. Hobbies are elegant flyers that have power and speed, capable of rapid acceleration and breathtaking turns.

The Hobby is the only bird of prey that regularly feeds on large insects, which it catches in flight with its feet, and eats while slowly soaring in circles. Big juicy dragonflies are a favourite, followed closely by grasshoppers and moths. It will also eat small birds. The Hobby is so agile it will even take Swallows, House Martins and bats in the air. Swallows and House Martins even have a characteristic "hobby" alarm call when one is about. It is fast enough to rob other predators like Kestrels.

Hobby courtship starts in May with dramatic soaring and diving aerobatics. This is quite late compared with other migrant birds. It nests in mature trees using the old nests of other birds like crows. The only time you will hear a Hobby is when it gives a "kew, kew, kew" call in the vicinity of the nest. The 2-4 eggs are laid in late in June and hatch after 28 days. Mum does most of the incubation while dad brings the food and occasionally relieves her when she fancies a wing stretch. The youngsters can fly 28 days later but depend on their parents for a month. It is thought Hobbies lay their eggs late so many inexperienced young birds are about for food when the youngster are ready to fly and learning to feed. With their late start, there is only time for one brood.

The Hobby is a summer visitor, found mainly in England though a rare few get as far as Scotland. There are 3,000 pairs and it is specially protected as its like for small birds has not made it a friend of gamekeepers. Its current biggest threat is egg thieves. The oldest known Hobby lived for 15 years though the average life span is 5 years.

The Latin is 'falco subbuteo' where 'falco' derives from the Latin 'falx' or 'falcis' for a sickle, referring to the claws of falcons and 'subbuteo' is from the Latin 'sub' for 'near to' and 'buteo' for 'buzzard'. A falcon near to a Buzzard. The English name comes from Old French 'hobé' or 'hobet'. Interestingly the inventor of the table top football game called it 'Subbuteo' because the Hobby was his favourite bird.

Hen Harrier

A male Hen Harrier elegantly flying, like a grey ghost, back and forth above a misty moorland is a sight that once seen is never forgotten. They are a hunter of the open uplands, keeping as far away from people as possible.

The Hen Harrier is a slender bird of prey, smaller than a Buzzard. The male is a ghostly blue-grey with long black fingered wing tips, a long tail, a white rump (like a House Martin), and white underparts. The females are larger and dark brown. They have an owl like appearance on their face. The flight is buoyant and low, just one or two metres above ground, when quartering (zig-zagging) over the ground for prey holding their wings in a shallow V.

Hen Harriers use their ears as well as their eyes to find prey amongst the dense moorland vegetation. They eat small mammals and birds, so becoming the enemy of gamekeepers (who sometimes illegally kill them) for eating the grouse and partridge chicks.

When courting, the male performs a spectacular sky dance, passing food to female in the air or dropping it for her to catch. A male has a territory of more than a square kilometre and might have multiple partners. Where a male has mated with several females, all the nests tend to be close to one another as he is a bit of a lazy dad and doesn't want to go too far when delivering food. Nesting begins in April and the nest is made of a pile of heather on the ground. The 4-6 eggs hatch after 30 days and are incubated by mum while dad brings the food. The eggs are laid one or two days apart so their is a noticeable age gap between the young. After two weeks they are big enough to be left on their own, and both parents hunt for food. The youngsters can fly 35 days later but stay with mum for several weeks to learn all about quartering. Hen Harriers are silent apart from when approaching a nest when they make a yikkering call.

There are 600 pairs in Britain and they are specially protected. Their number plummeted as a result of persecution in Victorian times when they were almost exterminated from Britain. They still face threats from illegal persecution by game keepers and egg collectors. Planting of conifer forests on moorlands has also restricted the available habitat.The Hen Harrier is partially migrant as northern birds move south and all birds leave their moorland breeding areas for lowland or coastal areas in winter where they may even be joined by others from the continent. Large groups can gather in a single roost.

Their Latin name is 'circus cyaneus' where 'circus' is derived from Ancient Greek 'kirkos' for 'circle' which refers to a Hen Harrier's circling flight (and also where we get circus from as circus rings are traditionally round). The 'cyaneus' is Latin for 'dark-blue'. The English name Hen Harrier comes from the fact that the once used to hunt free-range hens! Female hen harriers are also known as 'ringtails' due to their distinctive tail banding.