Marsh Harrier

The largest of the harriers, the Marsh Harrier can be recognised by its long tail and light flight with wings held in a shallow 'V' as it drifts leisurely above the reed beds with steady wing beats between glides. It is distinguishable from other harriers by its larger size, heavier build, broader wings and absence of white on its rump. They breed in marshland and river valleys, with Norfolk being one of the best places to see them.

A Marsh Harrier is Buzzard sized but less bulky. The male has a light coloured head and tri-coloured wings, which are brown with grey underside patches and distinctive black wing tips. The underside of the tail is also grey. Female Hen Harriers are almost entirely chocolate-brown, with the top of their head and front of their wings having a yellowish straw colour.

The items on a Marsh Harrier’s menu are many and varied. Everything from amphibians to small mammals (like rabbits) and the chicks of waterbirds (like ducks) which live on or near marshes and wetland. The female, being larger, can target more substantial meals – including moorhens, water rails and wading birds. The Marsh Harrier’s hunting technique is ‘low and slow’. It quarters the ground like a Barn Owl, floating above the reeds looking and listening intently for movement below, surprise being their key to success. They can turn on a sixpence and drop on to their prey in an instant.

Marsh Harriers nest in reed beds. Before breeding, they do a breathtaking aerial display, including a sky-dance where the male mock attacks the female and passes food which she catches. Pairing usually lasts for a single breeding season, but some will remain together for several years. Marsh Harriers are mostly silent except during courtship when the male has a "kweeoo" call. Nesting starts in April. The female builds a nest from a pile of reeds and sticks on marshy ground while the male constructs 'false' nests nearby to show he could do it if she wanted. She lays 3-8 eggs 2-3 days apart, which hatch after 35 days giving an unevenly aged brood. Mum alone incubates the eggs while dad brings her food. Once hatched, dad continues to bring the food while mum feeds the young until they have grown and scattered in the nearby vegetation. The youngsters can fly after 35 days. Mum stays with them for a further three weeks, showing them how to hunt.

The Marsh Harrier is one of the success stories of recent times. In the 1800s, they were abundant in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia. However, they almost became extinct because of habitat loss from the draining of marshes for farmland and from persecution. They were down to one pair by 1971. They are Specially Protected and the restoring of wetlands has helped their recovery. There are now over 400 pairs. Most Marsh Harriers are summer visitors, with few staying over winter, migrating south to Southern Europe and Africa in the autumn.

Their Latin name is 'circus aeruginosis' where 'circus' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'kirkos', referring to a bird of prey's circling flight ('kirkos' means 'circle') and 'aeruginosus' is from the Latin for 'rusty'. A rusty coloured circling bird.

Raven

The Raven is the largest of the crow family. It is huge, really huge, and hangs out in desolate places, like sea cliffs, mountain crags, upland moors, and the Tower of London. As the Tower was where people got their heads chopped off and Ravens were often seen eating carrion on battlefields (eating the dead bodies), it understandably features in a lot of legends associated with death. Even their collective name is an unkindness. Superstition has it that if the Ravens leave the Tower of London, the Crown and Britain will fall.

The Raven is Buzzard sized. It is all black with shaggy throat feathers, a flat-looking head and huge black, people eating bill. The long wings have fingered ends, and the tail is a distinctive diamond shape. The Raven can look like a cross in the sky. They have a powerful, majestic, 'don't mess with me, I ate your ancestors' flight. Flying Ravens can be distinguished from other crows by their tail shape, larger wing area, and a more stable soaring style, which generally involves a lot less flapping. Their call is a deep, loud "kronk, kronk".

They feed mainly on the ground, eating mammals, small birds, carrion, insects, grains, berries, fruit, and eggs. They are clever enough to store food when it is plentiful and have been seen calling wolves to the site of a dead animal. The wolves open the carcass, leaving the scraps more accessible for the clever Raven.

Once paired, Ravens tend to nest together for life. They will have 4 or 5 nest sites in their territory and select their favourite one in February. The twig nests are usually on a cliff edge or in a tree. The 3-7 eggs hatch after 20 days and the youngsters can fly 45 days later but depend on their parents for a long 4-6 months.

There are 8,000 breeding pairs, mainly found in the western half of Britain, especially Wales. In winter, northern birds will move south, forming large communal roosts outside the breeding season. Ravens can be very long-lived, especially in captive or protected conditions. Individual birds at the Tower of London have lived for over 40 years, though normal Raven life expectancy is 23 years.

Their Latin name is 'corvus corax' from the Latin 'corvus' for 'raven' and the Greek 'korax' meaning 'raven' or 'crow'.

Peregrine

The Peregrine’s fortunes have varied. Falconers have used Peregrines for over 3,000 years, beginning with the nomads of central Asia. In the Middle Ages, they were held as a symbol of royalty and nobility, and harsh punishments protected them. Later, when shooting became popular, gamekeepers persecuted them. In the Second World War, they killed Peregrines to protect the homing pigeons carrying secret messages. Then pesticides like DDT affected the calcium in their eggshells, causing them to break before the chicks could hatch. Thankfully, these pesticides are now banned, and the Peregrine is once again protected. Its numbers are steadily recovering and you can regularly see them nesting on top of tall city buildings, cathedrals being a firm favourite, showing off how noble they are. Although they nest on buildings, cliffs and crags, they are a bird of the open countryside.

The Peregrine is crow sized with a dark blue back, finely spotted buff underparts, and sporting a black fighter pilot’s moustache on its white cheeks, giving it a hooded look. It has long, broad-based pointed wings with a relatively short tail. Their underwing is barred, stripy looking. The female is noticeably larger than the male. The Peregrine’s silhouette is quite distinctive, and it flies with swift wing beats followed by long glides.

Their favourite food is a nice fat Woodpigeon, though they eat birds of all sizes from Blue Tits to Black-headed Gulls. They pick their prey from a high perch or by circling high in the sky, then shooting down like a Stuka in a fast diving ‘stoop’ to catch it, ripping it apart with their talons or knocking it senseless. In a ‘stoop’ the Peregrine is the fastest bird in the world, reaching speeds of over 200mph! They will even dive on to small mammals like rabbits, eating them in extreme weather conditions when birds are scarce. Its athleticism, eagerness to hunt, and easiness to train has made it a very popular bird with falconers.

Peregrines mate for life. The courtship involves breath-taking aerobatics. The male will drop food for the female to catch in flight. Nothing like a juicy Collared Dove for dinner or a Skylark snack to cement a good relationship. The female chooses the nest site, where she scrapes a shallow hollow in which to lay her eggs. The 3-4 white to buff eggs, with red or brown markings, are laid in March. Mum does most of the incubating. Dad helps during the day and keeps guard at night. The eggs hatch after 29 days. Both parents feed the chicks (‘eyases’) who can fly 45 days later but depend on mum (called a ‘falcon’) and dad (called a ‘tiercel’) for a further 2 months. To breed successfully Peregrines need a large open area with plenty of food to hunt. Mum and dad will vigorously defend their nest against other predators, issuing a warning “keck-keck-keck” alarm call, then killing anything that gets too close. In one recorded instance, a Snowy Owl killed a chick and the larger owl was in turn killed by a stooping, angry Peregrine parent. The message is simple; don’t mess with a Peregrine’s chick.

Away from the nest a Peregrine is solitary. There are 1,700 pairs in Britain, with the strongholds of breeding birds being in the uplands of the north and west and along rocky seacoasts. Northern birds move south in winter and many move into coastal areas where there are plenty of seabirds for Christmas dinner. The oldest ringed Peregrine lived to be 18 years old. Their Latin name is ’falco peregrinus’. Both the English and Latin names mean ‘wandering falcon’. The Latin ’falco’ comes from ’falx’, meaning ‘sickle’, as a falcon’s silhouette is sickle-shaped with their long, pointed wings.

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-like 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 is 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 the 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 favourite 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 their youngsters are 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 are 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 ones 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 take-off 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 all 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 is 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 a 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 feeds 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 because 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 is 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 call 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 favourite of farmers when they uproot the autumn sown crops.

Barnacle Geese pair for life and breed in the Arctic. They nest on inaccessible cliff faces near the sea to be safe from Arctic Foxes. Once hatched, the parents show the young goslings the way to jump down from the cliff and the goslings follow them by instinct and take the plunge. Their small size, feathery down, and very light weight helps to protect them from any serious injury. The parents then lead them to places where they can find food. The goslings are not out of danger, as the Arctic Foxes can stalk the young as they are being 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. Like Brent Geese, because medieval people thought they hatched from barnacles, they were counted as fish and could be eaten on a Friday.

Brent Goose

The Brent Goose is a winter visiting goose, having spent a brief summer break breeding in the artic. They leave the arctic in September to arrive here in 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 goth goose. The underparts 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-formation. Goths like to be different. Their call is a ""warunk" which is made mostly when landing or taking off - to show how tricky it is. There are two types of Brent Goose; the 'dark bellied' where their underparts are 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 it is 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 Arctic tundra. Breeding must take place within a 100 days before the Arctic snow and ice return. Nesting often starts before all the snow has melted. Bad weather or the early onset of winter has a big impact on their breeding success. The 'dark bellied' breed in Arctic Siberia whereas the 'light bellied' prefer Artic Greenland. Although the Arctic 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 or on islands. The nest is a shallow depression lined with plant material and goose down. Egg laying usually occurs in mid-June. Mum incubates the 3 to 5 eggs 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 chicks abandon the nest soon after they have hatched and can fly six weeks later. They stay together as a family group until 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.