Thursday, 11 February 2016

The birds that are predators, hunters and scavengers

One of my prime areas of interest in wildlife is described in the title. The birds that primarily rely on their ability to hunt and kill and those who feed mainly on carrion, the scavengers often better described as the cleaners up of nature.

It is hard to completely categorise any bird as those that hunt have been known to feed on carrion and those that scavenge occasionally kill, but I will show some examples and attempt to describe their typical behaviour.

All these birds have hard lives, populations rise and fall in line with the numbers of their prey, most suffer losses in the first winter of their lives due to a lack of skills in finding or killing suitable prey.

I'll start with a conroversial one, the sparrowhawk...many complain of their attacks around garden feeders, but by having feeders you are providing a concentrated hunting ground for these birds and they only kill what they need to provide food for themselves and their own family.

I was lucky to see a tussle between a large female sparrowhawk, a magpie and a crow near a local wood. The battle was probably territorial but certainly spectacular!

Sparrowhawks will launch sudden and swift attacks around hedgerows, turning laterally to pick off any unsuspecting birds and will take anything up to the size of a pigeon.

Another often seen raptor is the buzzard, the true master of all manner of feeding. Often feeding on food as small as worms given the opportunity they will take rabbits, small mammals, rodents and reptiles and nestling birds. They also appreciate the opportunity to feed on any carcass they find, true opportunists!

A male sparrowhawk I spotted one day...

Hen harriers are perhaps the most persecuted of all the birds of prey, their reputation for feeding on young birds has led to their virtual extinction on the natural habitat of the grouse moors. Numbers are not good but close monitoring by RSPB and other specialist teams are ensuring their survival. This female one was spotted on a local moor, distant shots so apologies for quality!

Their diet must consist of plenty of other things apart from young birds, the UK nesting season is none too long! We saw this one successfully hunt for voles on the moor.

One of the birds with little bad press is the iconic barn owl, probably the owl species that suffers most from the recent wet weather. They rely a lot on their silent flight, the slightly serrated edge to the wing feathers allows the wind to pass through, diffusing any sound. When these become wet they cling together and create a solid, noise creating barrier which lessens the hunting ability.

One positive note, strictly selfish from a photographic point of view! recent wet weather during nights and mornings has seen the emergence of the local barn owls at times of the day they would not normally be seen and I was lucky, or persistent enough to witness that one day. Barn owls main prey are voles, rats and mice but they will take small birds.

Probably the bird of prey people see most often is the kestrel, stunning birds which use the wind to hover almost motionless in the air. Complete masters of flight and also complete masters of a varied diet from worms, small mammals, rodents and amphibians, carrion and when hungry birds up to the size of a blackbird as a good and trusted friend witnessed in his garden recently. A kill this size would be rare but also raid nests for young birds.

Some close shots from a few days ago...

Red kites are true scavengers, since their re-introduction and with feeding station help numbers are on the increase. Graceful, very vocal and with their spectacular colours they are a delight to watch. Their talons are quite small in relation to the wing size and carrion is the main food, though again small mammals, rodents and young ground nesting birds will be taken if available.

A very good site locally usually yields some good shots, buzzards as well.

Marsh harriers are becoming increasingly numerous in the country with the warmer year round temperatures.  The name derives from the dictionary definition of harry...persistently attack or persecute. They will glide and hang over reedbeds seeking small mammals, rodents, amphibians and small birds, I once witnessed one drown a coot by persistently pushing it under water. Their talons do not have the killing power of a sparrowhawk, peregrine or eagle.

Female marsh harrier....

Male marsh harrier

Short eared owls are, along with little owls, the ones most visible during daylight. Often hunting in good light their wonderful colours are a delight and when the sun shines those honey and gold tones with the contrasting dark patches just hold you entranced. A wise man once told me never stare into the eyes of an owl you will be hypnotised, errr I am! Diet? Again rats, mice, vole, shrew and small birds...

That will teach me!

Some flight shots of the short eared owls...

And a close up of one having a rest!

Probably wondering what the orange thing in the sky is!

And a complete and very pleasant surprise, when checking my photographs the other day one of the owls looked different. After some advice from some very expert friends and confirmation from the British Trust for Ornithology I was delighted to know I had some photographs of the normally nocturnal long eared owl, much lighter plumage than normal so maybe a visitor from the continent. Feeding habits much as the short eared owl.

I am quite delighted by the fact the BTO have requested use of these for their image library as these birds are rarely seen in such good light.

 Hope you have enjoyed a look through the wildlife world I love, soon the peregrines will be paring up so much more for me to enjoy. A tough life for all these special birds and some are hard to find but the love of them will continue to draw me out.

Many thanks to all who read the blog, please do not forget that if you do comment they come to me first for moderation.

Cheers everyone!