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.

White-tailed Eagle

The White-tailed Eagle is huge! It is an eagle of the sea. It is the largest eagle in Europe and the fourth largest eagle in the world, resembling a flying barn door with a big beak. Being so big, it is a bit of a playground bully, pinching food from other birds and throwing its weight about.

The White-tailed Eagle is brown with a long looking pale head and white tail, spotting a big mean-looking hooked yellow bill that is clearly visible, even in flight. The wings are broad with obvious fingered tips, it has a short wedge-shaped tail, and the head protrudes when flying. Their flight is like a Heron's with shallow wing beats flowed by a long glide. It soars with its wings held flat, which differs from a Buzzard's V-shape, though its barn door size isn’t difficult to miss.

They can spend 90% of the time perched or standing on ground looking mean, especially if the weather is poor. The males are slightly smaller than females. They moult slowly and continuously through the year so they can always fly or pick on people they don't like. Their call is a dog like yapping "kew, kew, kew" with most calls made during courtship or near their nest.

White-tailed Eagles are carrion feeders and opportunistic hunters, sometimes pirating food from other birds and even mugging otters. They will hunt singly or in pairs and being such enormous birds, they like big prey. They largely eat fish, but will also take birds, rabbits and hares. When fishing, they fly low over water, stop to hover for a moment and drop to snatch a fish from the surface. They eat fish like cod, herring and trout, and birds like ducks and gulls.

White-tailed Eagles pair for life and perform a stunning sky dance where they touch talons. They build their nest in a large tree or cliff edge, and it is made from large sticks and driftwood, then lined with grass and seaweed. A nest can be reused for many years and gets huge with the yearly added material. Two eggs are laid in April which are incubated by mum and hatch 38 days later. Both parents care for the youngsters who can fly after 70 days. They are fed for a further month until they leave home. The young eagles can roam widely.

The White-tailed Eagle suffered a massive decline because of persecution in Victorian times and nesting failures caused by various chemical pesticides and organic compounds. It is now specially protected and has been reintroduced in Scotland, where there is now a small population of 150 pairs which is growing slowly. Some threats remain, notably illegal persecution by gamekeepers, the activities of egg thieves and fatal damage from wind turbines.

Their Latin name is 'haliaeetus albicilla' where 'haliaeetus' means 'sea-eagle', from the Ancient Greek 'hali' for 'sea' and 'aetos' for 'eagle'. The 'albicilla' part means 'white-tailed' from the Latin 'albi' for 'white' and 'cilla' for 'tail'.

Golden Eagle

The Golden Eagle is now mainly found in remote Scottish mountains. Gamekeepers and egg collectors persecuted it almost to extinction, but it is now specially protected. In their natural environment they are fairly long-living birds, reaching the ripe old age of thirty-two.

The Golden Eagle is much larger than a Buzzard, in fact nearly twice the size. They are a uniform dark brown with yellow brown head and look all dark from below (unlike Buzzard). They have a wingspan of over two metres and their tail and head protrudes prominently when flying. Their flight is slow and laboured with deep wingbeats, though the Golden Eagle mostly soars and glides holding their wings in a shallow ‘V’ where the fingered wing tips are obvious to see. They have massive yellow feet, perfect for catching medium-sized animals. The female is bigger than the male and the youngsters differ from their parents by having white patches on their wings and tail. It takes a young Golden Eagle seven years to reach full adult plumage. For a bird that is so big. They make very little noise, using their excellent eyesight to find a mate instead. They make rare yelping ‘kyek’ calls.

Golden Eagles hunt during daylight hours. They often go days without food before having a big feast. They eat carrion, mammals (like hares, rabbits, squirrels, young foxes) and birds (like grouse, crows, gulls). Golden Eagles maintain some of the largest known territories of any bird species and can be as big as 200 square km!  

They are monogamous and may remain together for life. The courtship includes undulating displays by both birds. The male picks up a piece of rock or a small stick and drops it, then enters into a steep dive to catch it in mid air, repeating this three or more times. In response, the female takes a clump of earth, drops it and catches it in the same fashion. So she gets a nice rock, and he gets dirt. Pretty normal relationship then. 

An Eagle’s nest, called an ‘eyrie’, is an extensive structure of branches, usually built on a cliff ledge. Two eggs are laid in March some days apart and mum then does most of the incubation. Each egg hatches after 43 days. If there is not enough food available, the elder chick will kill the younger one so often only one chick is raised. It pays to be nice to your older brother or sister. Both mum and dad feed what chicks there are which can fly after 65 days. They then fed the youngsters for a further 3 months until they are fully independent by autumn. The young Eagles wander widely until they establish a territory for themselves which can take four to five years. 

The Golden Eagle is mainly resident with only the young wandering from the breeding site. There are 440 pairs distributed in wilder parts of Scotland. Their Latin name is ’aquila chrysaetos’ where ’aquila’ is Latin for ‘eagle’ and ’chrysaetos’ is Ancient Greek for ‘golden eagle’ from ’khrusos’, ‘gold’ and ’aetos’, ‘eagle’. Double eagle in case you forgot how big they are.

Goldcrest

The Goldcrest is tiny. In fact, it is the tiniest bird in Britain - with a punky attitude. The Goldcrest is hyperactive, always on the move, flitting restlessly from branch to branch on rounded wings showing off its Mohican yellow head stripe. A bird that is mainly seen in wooded areas. Being so small, they are hard to spot although they are relatively common. The best way to find one is to sit in a conifer wood and listen out for the ultra-high-pitched song. It starts by repeating a little phrase "silly-so" three or four times, while getting louder, and then finishing with a flourish. Each song lasts 3-4 seconds. Once located, they will let you get quite close as they are usually too busy stuffing their face with insects.

Goldcrests are smaller than a Wren, with a dumpy, pale olive-green body, off white underparts, and a short tail. They have two small wing bars, a strong yellow crown stripe bordered with black, a small pointed bill, and large dark eyes. They mainly eat insects, caterpillars, and spiders, often hanging upside down or hovering in their search for food amongst the leaves.

Nesting begins in late April with both birds making the nest though dad does most of the work while being supervised by mum. The nest is a beautiful construction from moss woven together with spiders webs that hangs from the end of a thin branch. The 9 to 11 eggs hatch after 16 days and the young can fly 19 days later. The youngsters are fed by both parents and are fully independent within two weeks. There are usually two broods.

Most British Goldcrests are resident though some move south in winter. A few North European Goldcrests are even brave enough to fly across the North Sea to come here. An amazing journey for something so small. Goldcrests suffer in harsh winters being so tiny. They were badly affected in the early 1960s and their numbers did not fully recover until the mid-1970s. Currently, numbers are increasing and the Goldcrest is doing well with more than 600,000 pairs in Britain.

Their Latin name is 'regulus regulus', a small form of 'rex' meaning 'king'. They do look like a mini king with their yellow crown. An old English name for the Goldcrest is the 'woodcock pilot', since migrating Goldcrests preceded the arrival of Woodcocks by a couple of days. One legend has it that the Goldcrests would hitch a ride in the feathers of a larger bird, like an owl, and be carried like a king in his carriage. Suffolk fishermen called Goldcrests 'herring spink' because migrating birds often landed on the rigging of their herring boats out in the North Sea.

Brambling

The Brambling is like an exotic version of a Chaffinch and is sometimes called the 'northern Chaffinch' as they resemble each other in many ways. The Brambling is a winter visitor arriving in September from northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, and forming large flocks where there is lots of food. Another band of Norsemen that come here to nick our nuts. They have returned to their summer breeding grounds by the end of March. Only a handful have ever been known to stay.

The Brambling has a black head, orange breast and shoulders, white belly, and a white wing bar. They have a stubby, yellow seed-cracking bill in winter. The female is less colourful than the male with orange shoulders and a grey nape patch. In flight, their white rump and white wing bar are clearly visible against their black forked tail. The flight call is a rising nasal "tchwee" and stands out from other finch calls. The Brambling's song is rarely heard here.

Bramblings feed on seeds, especially beech mast. They feed on the ground and may be seen on farmland, country parks and occasionally gardens. In summer they switch their diet to eating insects like beetles and caterpillars that are found in trees and bushes.

They build a cup-shaped untidy nest of moss and lichen against a tree trunk or in a fork. It is lined with hair and feathers. The 5 to 7 eggs hatch after 11 days and the young can fly 13 days later.

The winter population varies from 50,000 to 2 million and they can be found in most parts of Britain. Less than eight have been known to stay and breed here. The oldest ringed Brambling lived for 14 years. They have gone through a moderate population decline in the last 30 years, but the number of birds is still huge and is estimated to be up to 66 million in Europe alone. When conditions are right, Bramblings can gather in staggering numbers. In January 2019, a mega flock of around five million Bramblings was recorded in Slovenia.

Their Latin name is 'fringilla montifringilla' where 'montifringilla' is derived from the Latin 'montis' for mountain and 'fringilla' for finch. The English name is probably derived from Common West Germanic 'brama' meaning bramble or a thorny bush. They have also been called the cock o' the north and, unsurprisingly, the mountain finch.

Goshawk

The Goshawk is the ultimate, deadly woodland predator. Its wings are tailor-made for weaving through trees at up to 40km per hour as it hunts birds and mammals, catching them after a short, fast chase. It is known as the phantom of the forest as it is incredibly elusive and best seen in March when displaying above the trees. And you thought it was safe to go into the woods.

Goshawks are a big hawk, almost the size of a Buzzard but with shorter wings and a longer tail. They look a like a huge Sparrowhawk being dark grey-brown above, white and finely barred below, with a dark head, and having broad bands on their tail. With a hooked bill, yellow eyes, white eyebrow, and dark cheeks, they have a fierce, hooded appearance. A bird not to be messed with. The female is larger than the male and browner. Sparrowhawks are only half the size of a Goshawk by comparison. When soaring, Goshawks hold their wings flat with three or four fingers showing at the end. The wing looks like it has an S-curve along the back edge. They are stealthily silent, only making a "gek-gek-gek" call when nesting.

Such a big bird needs a big meal. They like to eat mammals like squirrels and rabbits (even taking small hares) and birds like Woodpigeons, Jays, Starlings, Thrushes, Crows, and Pheasants (which doesn't make them popular with gamekeepers). Their prey is caught after a short, fast, low flight, crashing through vegetation in pursuit and even chasing on foot!

Goshawks are generally solitary, except when nesting. They perform a fantastic sky dance to each other when courting in March. Once paired, they build a nest of sticks high up in a large tree and line it with things like pine needles. They will often reuse old nests. The 3-4 eggs hatch after 35 days and the young are fed and tended by mum for the first 10 days. She will fiercely attack anything that comes near, including humans! Mum stays on the nest while dad hunts for food. He calls when approaching to let her know it is him so she doesn't beat him up. The young can fly after 35 days but hang around on a nearby branch for 10 days before finally leaving. The girls leave after the boys as, being larger, they take a bit more feeding before they are ready. All the young have dispersed by late summer though they do not move far from their original breeding sites.

There are 600 pairs of Goshawks scattered across Britain with the greatest numbers in Wales and Southern Scotland. Their numbers are slowly increasing from being all but extinct a hundred years ago due to the loss of woodland habitat and persecution from gamekeepers. They are now protected by law. Their rate of increase has been improved by the planting of coniferous forests but hampered by egg collectors who steal their eggs. Habitat loss and persecution remains a threat for the Goshawk. Goshawks that survive their first two years can expect to live 11 years. The oldest known bird lived to be 19. The squirrels kept their distance.

Their Latin name is 'accipter gentilis' where 'accipiter' means 'hawk', from 'accipere' 'to grasp' and 'gentilis' means 'noble' or 'gentle' because in the Middle Ages only the nobility were permitted to fly goshawks for falconry. The English name comes from 'goose-hawk' as sometimes they even hunt geese!