The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Birds That Kill

Colin Varndell admires Dorset’s birds of prey

A sparrowhawk
A sparrowhawk in mid-winter, plucking a breast feather. Sparrowhawks are not able to moult at one time like other birds as this would inhibit their flying capabilities. Instead, they moult all year round, except when they have young in the nest.

There is something about birds that need to kill in order to live which many people find fascinating. Whenever I see a sparrowhawk I always marvel at the thought that here is a bird that has got to catch and kill another bird in order to survive the day. What if it doesn’t? Does that mean its time is up? The very presence of hawks and falcons in our countryside raises many questions. These are the princes of the air, supreme avian predators which have evolved to exist at the very top of the food chain, and Dorset is blessed with a wide variety of them.

A Red kite
Red kites can be easily identified in flight by their large wings and long, forked tail.

The sparrowhawk is generally unpopular with humans, probably because this is an ‘in-your-face’ predator. The sparrowhawk will regularly visit reliable concentrations of small birds like wagtail or starling roosts at dusk or garden bird tables during daytime. Sparrowhawks expend enormous amounts of energy in pursuit of prey and therefore need to spend long periods of time just resting. I remember once calling to my wife as she was about to leave on a trip to Dorchester and Yeovil to point out a sparrowhawk sitting in an elder bush in pouring rain in our garden. When my wife returned, hours later, the hawk was still sitting in exactly the same position.

Young peregrines
Young peregrines can be seen around Portland and along the high cliffs of the west Dorset coast during late summer.

The sparrowhawk is an opportunist, relying upon the element of surprise. The hawk mostly catches the less alert birds, or old or diseased individuals. This is evolution’s way of ensuring that the fitter, faster individuals survive to pass their genes onto future generations. It is therefore often argued that the sparrowhawk in our woods and gardens is actually fine-tuning the well-being of its prey species.

The common buzzard
The common buzzard will rise on the thermals on fine days, holding its wings in a slight ‘V’ position and circling higher and higher.

I remember that when I was a boy, growing up in west Dorset in the 1950s, we rarely saw buzzards. The rabbit population had been decimated by the introduction of myxomatosis and this had resulted in the demise of the buzzard, as rabbit featured high on its menu. Buzzards began to return in significant numbers during the 1970s and now the population of common buzzards in west Dorset is as high as anywhere else in Britain, if not higher. Buzzards are also opportunists and will readily take carrion or insects which have been chopped up by harvesting machinery. Once I counted 76 buzzards in an arable field near Beaminster. The local farmer allowed me to take my hide into the field and I observed them taking earthworms from the surface of the field.

A merlin
It is unlikely that the merlin breeds in Dorset, although it can be seen along the coast in autumn and winter.

The peregrine, too, suffered in the past as toxic insecticides like DDT made their way up the food chain during the 1960s. As a consequence, peregines and sparrowhawks laid thin-shelled eggs which were broken during incubation and these two species declined drastically. Since the banning of these noxious chemicals, both sparrowhawk and peregrine have returned to Dorset. The peregrine is an exciting bird and is in fact the fastest creature on earth, reaching speeds in excess of 180 mph in a determined stoop. Peregrines are capable of killing just about any other bird species but seem to concentrate mainly on doves and pigeons. This is probably due to the large breast muscles of these birds producing maximum meat for the falcon. Peregrines can be seen at Durlston, West Bay and Portland among the gulls, which take little notice of this deadly predator within their midst.

The hobby
The hobby is a small, dark falcon which is present in Dorset through the summer months. Look for it especially on heathland where it might be seen catching dragonflies.

The hobby is very much synonymous with Dorset and has always had its stronghold here and in Hampshire. It is a summer visitor to Dorset, migrating with swallows and martins and feeding on them en route. During summer months while they are here, they feed principally on insects, especially dragonflies and cockchafer beetles. The hobby can be told from other hawks and falcons by its small size and its narrow scythe-shaped wings. I remember once visiting Morden Bog to look for hobbies. I met a man with a dog and he told me he had walked his dog there every morning for twelve years but had never seen a hobby. Just then, a hobby plummeted from the sky within feet of us as it pursued an emperor dragonfly across the bog.

The kestrel
The kestrel’s ability to hover motionless in one position makes it easy to identify. It also likes to sit on prominent posts watching the ground below like this female.

The kestrel is a common bird of prey in Dorset and can be seen just about anywhere in the county. Its preferred habitat is rough ground, where there will be plenty of movement of small mammals, especially voles, in daylight. The kestrel is one of Dorset’s four falcons (the others are peregrine, hobby and merlin) and is capable of extreme aerobatics as it hovers motionless to watch the ground below for movement. The merlin is similar in appearance to a female kestrel, although slightly smaller. It is not a resident bird in Dorset but may be seen during winter months. The merlin feeds mainly on small birds and is most often seen along the coast chasing meadow pipits in low, direct flight.

The red kite
The red kite is being recorded increasingly more often in Dorset.

The major bird of prey success story is that of the red kite based in the Chilterns, and this large predator is now being recorded with increasing frequency in Dorset. Over the past couple of years I have personally had several sightings of red kites around Melplash and Beaminster. A local vet also told me how he had been watching three of them following a silage mower near Mosterton recently. If the success of the red kite continues and its breeding range spreads, there could easily be red kites nesting in Dorset in the near future.
And what about owls? They, too, need to kill to survive but with the added problem that they have to do it in the dark! That’s another story, though…

The buzzard
The buzzard is an opportunist and will readily feed on carrion.

Dorset Directory