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.

Common Gull

Despite its name, the Common Gull is not at all that common and is difficult to find in most inland areas. It is more abundant in breeding areas on the coast and on wetland. In winter, they are beginning to migrate inland to housing estates, sports fields and landfill sites like other gulls.

The Common Gull is smaller though has a similar in appearance to the larger, Herring Gull, but lacks the red spot on its bill and looks more gentle despite its dark eyes. The upper wings are grey with a large white spot on the black wing tip which is how to identify them in flight. There is no white on the wing’s leading edge, but there is a wide white trailing edge. The head and underparts are white, and their legs are yellow green. The call is higher pitched than other gulls, a mewing “keel-you”. One of its names is the mew gull.

The Common Gull feeds on aquatic Insects, worms, small mammals, carrion, eggs, small fish, crabs, and, like other gulls, is partial to a bit of landfill especially in winter.

It breeds on coastal marshes, sand dunes, rocky ledges, shingle beaches, and sometimes on buildings. Most nest on the coast among colonies of other gulls or terns, though a few small groups nest on northern moorland. There is a large movement in March to the northern breeding grounds. The nest is built on the ground by both birds and is made of vegetation or seaweed. The 2-5 eggs are laid in May and hatch after 23 days. The youngsters leave the nest within 5 days and stay in the vicinity, being fed by mum and dad, until they can fly 25 days later when they become bolshy teenagers and soon want their independence. 

There are 50,000 breeding pairs in Britain, though the number swells to 700,000 in winter as gulls arrive here from their summer nesting grounds in Scandinavia. The number of Common Gulls in Britain has recently declined, and this is thought to be due to the draining of marshes. 

Their Latin name is ’larus canus’ where ’larus’ means ‘gull’. There is a bit of dispute whether ’canus’ refers to ‘dog’, as its short call can sound like a small dog, or ‘grey’ because of its colour. Absentminded scientists named it and then can’t remember why.

Herring Gull

A familiar gull round our coasts whose laughing cry “kyow, kyow, kyow” is everybody’s sound of the seaside. It is seldom seen far out at sea, preferring to steal your chips on the beach instead. The combination of the Clean Air act (forbidding the burning of rubbish) and dwindling fish stocks have brought many Herring Gulls inland and they can be found on rubbish tips, farmland and parks, though they are still more concentrated at the seaside as this is where all the chip eating tourists are.

They have a pearl grey back and upper wings, light underparts, a fierce-looking eye with a yellow iris, a heavy yellow bill with a red dot (ideal for getting into bin bags), and pink legs. The wings have white spots on their black tips. The colour of a gull’s legs is one of the things that helps to tell different types of gulls apart, which is annoying since you can’t see them most of the time! The Herring Gull’s feet are so tough that they have no problem standing on the perching spikes designed to keep them off buildings.

Herring Gulls eat just about anything; carrion, discarded fish from fishing boats, small mammals, eggs, shellfish, human rubbish (especially if it is a bit rotten), and chips. With the help of street lights, the Herring Gull is happy foraging all night, ripping into black bags for tasty morsels. They are believed to have extremely keen daytime and nighttime vision, superior to ours, and can see ultraviolet light. All this is great for bin raiding. They also have excellent hearing and a sense of taste that is particularly responsive to salt and acidity, which is why they go mad for chips with salt and vinegar. All these eating habits can make them a bit of a nuisance.

Herring Gull flocks have a loose pecking order, based on size, aggressiveness, and physical strength. The males are usually dominant over the females and youngsters in feeding and boundary disputes, while the females are dominant when selecting their nesting sites. They rule the house like ladies everywhere else. Traditionally, Herring Gulls nested in noisy cliff colonies but are increasingly nesting on roofs in towns and cities and, with that hard stare, showing little fear of humans. Nesting starts in April on a nest that is a mound of vegetation built by both adults. They lay 2-4 eggs (though usually 3) which hatch after 28 days. The young leave nest after 3 days and waddle about admiring their city view. The youngsters peck at the red spot on mum and dad’s beak to make them regurgitate food. Being mottled brown, the young birds are well camouflaged from predators. They can fly at about 35 days and quickly become independent chip thieves. The young gulls take 4 years to get their full adult plumage which may seem a long time, but the oldest know Herring Gull lived to be 31 years old.

There are about 140,000 pairs breeding in Britain rising to 740,000 in winter when large numbers of Scandinavian birds come over for a bit of battered cod having had enough of pickled herring. When the numbers are taken as a whole, the Herring Gull is declining across the country, despite their increase in urban areas. They are now protected by law and you have to get a special licence to remove them if they colonise your roof and cover it in poo.

Their Latin name is ’larus argentatus’ where ’larus’ means ’gull’ or ‘large seabird’ and ’argentatus’ means ‘decorated with silver’ as their backs are silver grey.  

Kestrel

The Kestrel is best known for its hovering, like a harrier jump jet,  above motorway verges and railway embankments. A pigeon sized falcon with a short neck, long wings, and long tail. The Kestrel has a grey head, spotted chestnut back, grey tail with a black band, and buff underparts with dark spots. The wings are held straight in flight with a contrasting light inner wing and dark outer wing that gives it a black tip look. The female Kestrel is slightly larger, has a more barred back and more streaked breast. You mainly hear Kestrels when being mobbed, issuing a yickering “ke ke ke” call.

The Kestrel hunts for food in daylight and at dusk, hovering effortlessly with tail fanned and wings flapping or by holding position in a head wind. They will also pounce from a perch. They feed on shrews, mice, moles, baby rabbits, voles (especially yummy short-tailed voles), and chicks of ground-nesting birds. They will also eat large insects. When a tasty morsel is located, the Kestrel glides gently down and at the last minute lifts its wings above its back to drop on to its prey. The Kestrel is able to see near ultraviolet light, allowing it to detect the urine trails around rodent burrows as they shine in the ultraviolet part of sunlight. A pee seeking missile. The average Kestrel needs to eat 4-8 voles a day. 

Kestrels nest in barns, holes in trees or disused nests of larger birds. It does not build a nest as such. When the 4-6 eggs are laid, both parents will sit on the eggs which hatch after 30 days. Mum looks after the kids for first 14 days and certainly lets dad know all about it. She can be very quarrelsome, issuing a “wik wik wik wik” call. Once the youngsters get a bit bigger, they are fed by both parents. They fly after 30 days but rely on mum and dad for a further month while they learn to hunt and hover. The young need to eat 3-4 voles per day and as feeding 6 is a lot of voles (24), only 2-3 chicks on average survive.

The Kestrel is a widespread, sedentary resident with about 50,000 pairs. It is scarce in mountain and urban areas. Sadly, the Kestrel is in decline as modern farming leaves less land to support voles and small mammals. The name kestrel comes from the French ‘crecelle’ meaning ‘rattle’ - a reference to its call. The Latin name is ‘falco tinnunculus’ where ’falco’ derives from ’falcis’ for ‘sickle’ because of the shape of the claws and ’tinnunculus’ from ’tinnulus’ meaning ‘shrill’. An archaic name for a Kestrel is a windhover which sums it up perfectly. I have no idea why we went all French.

Swift

Swifts are the supersonic fighter planes of birds. The scimitar winged aerial masters. They can cruise at 26 mph, their default speed, but in screaming parties they can get competitive and by radically altering their aerodynamic, can get up to speeds of 69 mph. This makes them the fastest bird recorded in straight and level flight. Like a supersonic fighter, they can even hold this speed when flying upwards with the afterburners on. Only Peregrine falcons are faster, but they cheat by using gravity to add to their speed when in a stoop.

A Swift is all sooty brown that looks black from a distance (as you usually see them high up or disappearing in the distance). They have a pale throat and stiff, narrow scythe like wings. The tail is forked. Their tiny legs (undercarriage) are forward pointing so they can only hang onto a rough surface and are unable to grasp a perch so you will not see them on wires or branches, only in squadrons excitedly screaming across the sky. 

Swifts feed on insects including flying beetles, flies, hover flies, moths, butterflies, flying ants, lacewings, and airborne spiders, catching up to 10,000 a day! When flying around in Central and Southern Africa, Swifts will range widely in search of food and also to avoid storms.

Swifts arrive in early May and are gone by August. As time is short, they nest soon after arriving. They breed in old buildings with access to the roof space or cracks in cliff faces. They make a shallow cup of straw and other material that has been gathered while flying. They lay only 2-3 eggs which hatch after 19 days. The young can fly at 42 days once they have finished flight school. The young pilots are independent on leaving the nest and migrate off to Africa within days in their smart uniforms. Incredibly, they remain airborne for the first 2 years of their flying career before settling down to nesting themselves. Swifts can even sleep while flying! Swifts are totally aerial except when on their nests.

There are 80,000 pairs of Swifts in Britain, but this number is declining mainly through loss of nest sites as modern houses have no access to their roof space like old houses and even old houses are being modernised. It is important to fit Swift bricks and nest boxes to help them. Their Latin name is ’apus apus’ which  is derived from the Greek ’apous’ meaning ‘footless’, a reference to their small, weak legs. Swifts are often depicted without feet in old paintings, pottery and heraldic shields.

Common Buzzard

Buzzards, like Red Kites, have also been making a comeback after persecution by gamekeepers and pesticides severely affecting them. They also suffered a decline in the 1950s when large numbers of rabbits, their favourite food, died from myxomatosis. 

Usually seen singly or in pairs, they are larger than a carrion crow and can be a bit variable in plumage but have a couple of giveaway traits. They have a slightly streaky brown back, paler underparts and a hooked beak you don’t want to mess with. They can have a faint pale crescent on the breast. They are easier to recognise when flying with their short neck, broad ‘fingered’ wings held in a v-shape, and a short barred tail held like a rounded fan. The wings are pale underneath with a clear back rear edge. The youngsters are paler and more streaky than the adults and the female is slightly larger than the male. As well as soaring and gliding on their wide v-shaped wings, they can hover like a kestrel using slow wing beats. Although they are mainly seen when flying, Buzzards are a bit lazy and spend a lot of time perched on posts or trees, ready to swoop down on any prey that is silly enough to get too close. Their cat like mewing call  ‘meee-ooo’ can be heard all year and especially on sunny days.

For a Buzzard, if it moves and is not too big they will eat it. They feed on small mammals (like voles), insects, worms, and carrion (dead animals), but their favourite food is a tasty young rabbit.

Buzzard builds their nest in trees or on crags. The nest is made of sticks lined with bracken and moss. A pair of Buzzards will often re-use the same nest over many years. In April/May, 2-4 eggs are laid at 2-day intervals and hatch after 35 days with mum doing the bulk of the egg sitting while dad gets the bunny takeaways. The young are fed in the nest until they can fly 50 days later. They stay dependent on mum and dad for food for a further 40 days until they have got the hang of skinning a rabbit.

The Buzzard is mainly resident and found in cultivated country and wooded upland valleys. The young usually keep within a 50km radius of mum and dad so they can pop home at weekends for a good rabbit stew and a chin wag on a post. There are about 50,000 pairs in Britain. The Latin name is ’buteo buteo’ which means ‘buzzard buzzard’, science being highly original with the naming again.

Red Kite

The Red Kite is rusty red with dark streaks and a pale head. They have a noticeably forked tail, long narrow wings which usually held flat (unlike a Buzzard’s v-shape) that have pale patches at the end before the black wing tips. On their back, there is a faint diagonal pale stripe across the top of inner wing. The tail though is the giveaway.

The Red Kite’s call is more of a whistle compared to a Buzzard’s mewing call. It can almost sound like a builder’s wolf whistle, a “peeooo-weooo-weooo”. The Buzzard in contrast calls a single “meeooo” which is repeated after a short break.

They hunt by circling high overhead until they spot something to eat. Their eyesight, like all raptors, is phenomenally better than ours! They are top predators and have a varied diet, eating both live and dead prey. Their bill is not strong enough to penetrate tough skin, so they are unable to take any large prey. When catching live prey, the kites will dive from the air (or drop from a post) feet first to catch them. Their diet consists of some small mammals (rats, voles, mice, young rabbits), birds (crows, pigeons),  earthworms, amphibians (like frogs), but mainly carrion (already dead animals) like road kill, dead sheep and game birds. Red kites were common in medieval London, even being referenced several times in Shakespeare’s plays. For many years, gamekeepers and farmers, seeing kites eating their animals, assumed the kites had killed them and nearly persecuted the birds to extinction.

Nesting starts in late March. A large nest made of twigs in the fork of a tall tree in a wood or copse.  The male brings the twigs while the female neatly arranges them. The female often decorates the nest with rags, plastic bags, and even underwear pinched from washing lines! Ladies are so much better at home making than men. A pair of Red Kites may reuse the same well decorated nest of several years. Both birds incubate the eggs, though the female more than the male. The 1-3 eggs are laid at 3-day intervals and hatch after 31 days (a long time). The youngsters only fly after a further 50-70 days and are fed by the parents for another 20 days. With taking such a long time, they raise only one brood in each year.

The 2,500 pairs of Red Kites are largely resident. The young birds can wander widely in spring to find their own patch. Their Latin name is ‘milvus milvus’  which means ‘red kite red kite’. Not very original for something so magnificent. 

Skylark

The Skylark has inspired so many poets and so many verses because the song is truly exceptional and because nobody but a dullard could miss it cascading down from the sky on a sunny day. The Skylark is the master of circular breath control, flying and singing for minutes at a time without a pause.

About the size of a Starling, the Skylark has a brown-streaked back, pale underparts, a streaked breast and a short crest that can be up or down so don’t rely on it to identify them. They have broad wings with a noticeable pale back edge, and white outer tail feathers. The wings can look almost triangular in flight. They blend in with the ground and can be very difficult to see until they suddenly fly off from feet away.

The non-stop singing while flying is what this bird is all about. It is to demonstrate how fit they are to all the girls. They can sing for 10-15 minutes while rising vertically higher and higher in the sky until they become the merest dot. It is an unbroken, burbling doodle of notes with frequent quick repetitions and fast trills, laced with a bit of mimicry just to show off. They fall rapidly back to the ground once done. They love singing in the sun, even when it is windy, which is why we think of them as the sound of summer.

When not showing off, the Skylark spends most of the time walking on the ground in wide open spaces away from hedges and trees so all his adoring fans can see him for autographs. Out of singing season, the Skylark’s call is a ‘chirrup’ and can easily be confused with that of a sparrow, particularly as they all look brown from a distance. There may be more Skylarks around than you think.

Skylarks eat insects, seeds and some leaves like nettles and docks (for vocal strength like Popeye). These are foraged from the ground. 

They nest on the ground in a small depression lined with grass. The female Skylark sits on the 3-5 eggs, which hatch after 11 days. The young leave nest after 8 days and learn to walk before they can sing while being schooled and fed by mum and dad. They fly after 15 days and are dependent on their parents for another week. With such a fast turn round of potential Pavarotti’s, Skylarks can have up to 3 broods in a year.

In autumn, northern Skylarks come south and west to feed on arable fields and can form large flocks called an ‘exultation’ (which is a perfect way to describe them). The Skylark is a common resident with about 1.5 million pairs and is one of the most widespread breeding birds in Britain. They can be found in all types of open areas including farmland, salt marshes, dunes, rough ground, and even urban spaces. They are only missing from the tops of high mountains where there is no one around to hear them. There used to be even more Skylarks, but changes in farming practices have affected breeding success and halved the numbers in the last 20 years. In the distant past, they were trapped for food and for their tongues as lark’s tongue was considered a delicacy (how horrid).

The Skylark’s Latin name is ‘alauda arvensis’ where ‘alauda’ means lark and ‘arvensis’ means of the field. So, confusingly, a field lark. Science can be weird.