Among the jumble of birds using my bird-table is a solitary sparrowhawk. I caught it the other day flying into the branches of the rowan tree in pursuit of small birds – almost certainly chaffinches.
It stretched out those long legs hoping to waylay one of those as it tried in vain to get past some of the branches that were obstructing it and, in the end, came away empty handed or should I say empty footed. Somehow the chaffinches had avoided the clutches of its far-reaching feet and it served to illustrate that on occasions, sparrow hawks do fail in their quest for small birds.
To further illustrate the point, some time ago in the summertime, I watched a sparrowhawk fail in its quest to nail a meadow pipit. The pipit flew past the tree in which the hawk had laid its ambush and immediately the hawk launched its attack. However, the pipit was not for catching and dodged this way and that to avoid the hawk. Time and time again, the hawk made a bee-line for the pipit but every time the pipit dodged each advance to such an extent that the hawk eventually tired of the chase and gave up, returning somewhat sheepishly to the tree where it had laid its ambush. It appears that sparrowhawks don’t have much stamina or resolve.
It got me thinking about the unsuccessful sorties birds of prey must periodically make. I’ve certainly watched ospreys dive and miss their targets, presumably when at the last moment a fish dives to avoid the mighty swoop of the bird. Only ospreys do dive deeply so a fish has to be pretty quick to sidestep that dramatic impact. However, it is a fact that ospreys by no means succeed with every dive they make.
The various methods of hunting are as many as there are different birds of prey. Each has its own particular technique. The kestrels I used to watch with such enthusiasm as a lad, either used their lovely hovering flight or occasionally would use a pole – a telegraph pole perhaps – as their aerial vantage point from which to spot a tiny mouse or vole way below them on the ground. However, the full hover is when these particular raptors are at their very best. There is in my view, nothing so beautiful as a hovering kestrel with its wings trembling, tail fanned, it is simply magnificent. However, I do not know whether a kestrel is more successful at the end of its dive than for example, a hawk!
I have often thought the goshawk to be the deadliest attacker amongst raptors. This opinion is gleaned from a single instant when I saw a goshawk launch a very final attack upon a hovering kestrel. It was a very brief attack and it lasted seconds. Wham-bam and that was it. A flurry of feathers drifting down to the ground – the kestrel gone! Goshawks are truly awesome raptors and absolutely lethal. Little wonder that keepers have a pretty jaundiced view of them.
Speed is what does it for peregrines. I well remember being high up in the hills when a peregrine took off from the cliff above me heading down the glen. It seemed miles away but far below me I could see a group of pigeons flying along the floor of the glen. The peregrine was clearly homing in on them and accelerating fast. They say peregrines can attain a speed in the stoop in excess of two hundred miles an hour and I guess this bird was edging towards that kind of speed when it caught up with the pigeons. It singled one out and struck it a mighty blow behind the head. Game, set and match! Magnificent!
I’ve watched hen harriers fly low over moorland – a magnificent sight. We used to see them patrolling the hedges here during the window months. They flush out small birds from the hedgerows, heather or bracken reaching out for them with their exceptionally long legs. But the real joy of watching hen harriers is to see them in courtship when they become really high flyers and present-bearers. The pair will soar to great heights and the male will drop a ‘present of food’ to the female which she will catch, sometimes by turning upside down. Of course, hen harriers are among the most persecuted of raptors due to their predation upon grouse moors. Yet the presence of some predation surely produces stronger grouse.
Short-eared owls hunt in a similar way, flying low over open moorland, although voles as opposed to small birds, are their principal prey. This is, of course, an owl which unusually does its hunting in daylight hours. In my view, nothing quite looks as facially threatening as a short-eared owl. Somehow, short-eared owls always look very angry indeed, its eyes are simply melting! But then the large eyes of a long-eared owl bear the same kind of threat.
Buzzards, together with kites, are perhaps our most familiar birds of prey, which somehow adapt themselves to many different methods of procuring food. Although they take a lot of carrion you may also see a buzzard hovering, kestrel-like, as they search for voles and mice. I have also seen a buzzard launch itself hawk-like at a rabbit albeit unsuccessfully, for the adult rabbit, although bowled over by the impact of the strike, survived to reach another day. However, they do catch a lot of young rabbits. By and large I regard buzzards and kites as opportunistic. I once saw a buzzard seize a blackbird a-la-sparrowhawk. It just happened to be in the right place at the right time – flying past a hedgerow, doing nothing in particular, when a blackbird exploded from the hedge and landed literally in the talons of the buzzard.
Golden eagles rely quite heavily on speed to catch their prey, whilst sea eagles often literally scoop up fish from the surface although occasionally, they will commit themselves to a full-scale dive. Both are awesome predators and take a wide range of prey including mountain hares and ptarmigan. I remember well watching my first sea eagle take off from the shore and soar. Before long, it was no more that a dot in the sky so fast did it climb.
One raptor relies more on its fine-tuned sense of hearing than upon its eyesight. The barn owl has such a sensitive sense of hearing that it can very precisely locate exactly where its prey is and home in on it without seeing it. The juxta-position of the ears – one marginally higher on the head than the other, enables this very precise location. By turning its head, those ears locate exactly where the prey is.
The thread that runs through nature, is perhaps sometimes too much for us to understand, especially the interdependence that runs right through every stage of nature and the reliance that every facet has on the next phase of natural life. It is perfectly true to say that nature is indeed red in tooth and claw.