From the speed and power of a peregrine falcon, and the maneuverability and grace of a red kite, to the acrobatics of a hobby hunting dragonflies over the Thames, Colin Williams shares some of the great encounters with our local birds of prey that he has enjoyed this year.
I can spend hours watching the buzzard’s fantastic muscular display flight and territorial disputes with other aerial intruders high over Kennington Meadows. I will never forget watching a hobby catching emperor dragonflies with effortless skill and precision within yards of me at Heyford Meadow.
Sandford and the surrounding area provide ample opportunity to delight in some of Britain’s spectacular birds of prey.
Both Buzzards and Red Kites are a daily sight throughout the year in our neighbourhood. Watch on in awe as both species tussle with one another for aerial supremacy high overhead. At rest the red kite can often appear something of a misfit with such a small head and particularly long tail. But who cares, because red kites are all about the air. In flight they are agile, maneuverable, graceful and, above all, buoyant. Their rufous-brown colours are brought to life by the sunshine. In contrast Buzzards are an all power and muscular presence but are just as bewitching to watch.
One of my earliest birdwatching memories was as an eight-year old when my father took me to deepest, darkest mid-Wales to look for the mythical red kite. Only after five days of scanning the skies above the area’s hanging oak woods did we glimpse our target. Thirty years on and the daily sight of red kites swooping low over my back garden is a novelty that will never ware off. We are all the beneficiaries of the re-introduction of the red kite which must rank as one of the most successful conservation projects of recent times.
Much smaller but no less spectacular, the hobby is a bird which never fails to get the pulse racing. The all round great aerial acrobat which primarily feeds on dragonflies, as well as swallows and house martins, is arguably the star of the skies for me. A walk along the Thames Path north or south of Sandford Lock, in the summer or autumn is a great opportunity to catch a glimpse (literally) of this highly skilled hunter. Carefully watch their hunting technique as they can often confuse their prey, invertebrate or avian, by swooping from below to grab prey with their razor-sharp talons.
The Barn Owl is a stunningly beautiful bird with golden buff colours laced with silver grey and white. Throughout history it has been known by many different names. Commonly-used names have included “Demon Owl”, “Death Owl” or “Ghost Owl” illustrating that Barn Owls were considered, usually by rural populations, to be birds of evil omen in many places. This may be related to the often heard blood-curdling and ear-shattering schreeching call.
Kennington Meadows as well as BBOWT’s Iffley Meadows just north of the ring road are great places to look for barn owls. They can be seen silently quartering the wet meadows looking for small rodents or birds at dawn or dusk.
Birds of prey continue to be the targets of systematic criminal persecution, despite legal protection for decades under the Countryside Act. The RSPB’s Investigations Unit deals with hundreds of cases of the poisoning, hooting, trapping nest destruction of birds of prey every year. We can only hope the people who continue to illegally target our birds of prey are brought to justice if we want to continue to delight in the aerial supremacy of these wonderful birds.