Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Why I Love Birds of Prey

A few days after Christmas, I went for a ramble along one of my favourite local routes, in an attempt to clear the festive fuzz from my brain and breathe some turkey-free air. It was what I consider to be the perfect Winter's day; the sky was clear, the sun was blazing and the air was crisp. The lack of clouds was a blessing for me as it made spotting birds a lot easier. I saw a pair of redwings chasing each other around an oak tree then a little further down the lane, another one take sudden flight from the hedgerow and fly low across the field. The trees were bustling with the usual suspects; blue and great tits, blackbirds, woodpigeon. Robins eyed me from the branches and carrion crows littered the fields.

My highlight, though, was a bird I never tire of seeing, or hearing for that matter, since on most occasions I hear them before laying eyes on them. The unmistakable caw of a buzzard drew my gaze high up and I had to shield the sun with my hand in order to fully focus on the three raptors circling above. I am so fortunate to get frequent sightings of buzzards where I live and a great number of these have been directly above our house. Once, an adult flew so low across the house that I could see the pale under-feathers on its wings.

On this occasion, the birds were obviously hunting, gliding effortlessly in large circles above the fields. One dropped down low to the treetops and the crows feeding in the fields became agitated by its presence, taking flight and cawwing loudly. I carried on up the lane, following the buzzards as they moved higher and nearer to the woods surrounding my house. I lost sight of them briefly but could still hear their calls echoing through the trees. When I next spotted them, I had more or less reached home; the three birds were performing acrobatics between themselves above the fields neighbouring the house. I watched two of them spin through the air, attached to one another by their talons for only a moment before breaking apart. I presumed one of two things was going on; either they were fighting with each other or they were passing food between their feet. I couldn't say for sure since I was lacking binoculars and they were too high for any specifics to be made out.

As I said, I never tire of seeing and hearing them and I doubt I ever will. It's a particular joy in the Summer, when they are extremely active and I'm guaranteed to at least hear the buzzard call a few times in a day. There's something about them that is mesmerising and I think that's a view that I carry through to all birds of prey. They are fascinating to see in action, whether I see a tawny owl drop from the low branches in front of me while I'm driving at night or I'm marvelling at the brilliant strength of a kestrel hovering in high winds.

Rather oddly, my favourite raptor (a word that is the Latin for "to seize and carry away", as I discovered today) is one I've never actually seen in the flesh, and that is the osprey. I'm always fascinated whenever I catch segments on tv showing them in action; the coverage of Monty and his mate on Springwatch made for wonderful watching. They are such striking birds and it is definitely a dream of mine to see at least one in its natural habitat.

I think it is the strength and intelligence of raptors that has me so besotted. Owls may not be able to turn their heads the full 360° and might not be quite as wise as they are often portrayed in children's books, but their brilliantly-honed hunting skills are enough to set them apart. The marsh harrier can dismember and eat a dragonfly while on the wing and a vertically-plummeting peregrine reaches unbelievable speeds; these are birds that are experts in their fields.

I was lucky enough to receive a falconry experience as one of my Christmas gifts and I am so excited. I have handled owls in the past but only small breeds so I'm looking forward to learning more about other birds of prey and getting some hands-on experience.

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