Wildlife - Kestrel
- Credit: paul hobson
Perched on high, soaring above us or hovering as it watches its prey, Paul Hobson finds the sight of a kestrel is no less special for being familiar
Motorway driving can be incredibly dull. Long stretches without any bends or too much need to change gear dull the senses and allow the mind to wander. Any distraction is welcome to alleviate the tedium. I must admit that I spend quite a lot of time when driving on the motorway noticing birds. The sight of rooks on the roadside dodging speeding cars and trucks always fascinates me. I suppose they are picking up splattered insects that have found a windscreen or radiator at 70mph too much for them!
Buzzard numbers have increased hugely in the last 20 years and I often spot their white underwings as they seek the thermals to soar up high. I have even seen them perched on fence posts completely at ease only 10 metres from the slow lane during rush hour. The bird, though, that I am always on the look out for is the kestrel.
These delicate, long-winged falcons have made the motorway verges their home. When the first motorways were built the banks were grassed over and soon became a refuge for many different animals and plants. Those creatures that were able to adjust to the constant drone and danger of half-ton cubes of steel hurtling past have found a haven from many predators. Indeed, foxes and badgers hunting along these verges often fall prey themselves to fatal collisions. Rabbits, in some places literally grazing the grasses at the very edge of the safety lane, are left undisturbed. Voles and mice have also found a perfect haven away from the quieter but more dangerous open countryside, and shrews have moved in to take advantage of the abundant insects. The salting of the motorway in winter also creates nutrient rich grasslands that offer good grazing for rabbits and voles. However, voles, mice, shrews and the occasional young rabbit are components of the perfect diet for a kestrel, and it wasn’t long before they realised that a feast was there for the taking.
Watching a kestrel hanging in the light breeze is a thrilling sight and explains its other name of windhover. Kestrels need at least a light breeze to balance on so that it can hover over one spot. Quickly flicking their wings and a fanned tail help them almost to stall, their head and eyes held amazingly still. If an unsuspecting vole is spotted, then the wings are folded in and the kestrel drops like a stone, often with a quick check a few metres above the prey before the final drop with talons thrust forward. Their eyesight is piercing, I have heard that it is 20 times sharper than man’s and that they can spot a beetle at 50 metres. If that doesn’t sound impressive, try it!
Kestrels are probably the most common bird of prey in Europe. In Britain this may no longer be true, as sparrowhawks and buzzards may have overtaken them, but there are estimated to be over 36,000 pairs in the UK. They are almost certainly the most adaptable bird of prey and occur in virtually every habitat in Derbyshire from the high moors to all types of farmland and right into the cities and towns. Kestrels feed dominantly on small mammals with voles taking the brunt of the impact. Mice and shrews make up most of the rest of their diet. In urban situations, where rough grasses are at a premium, they take small birds more often because small mammals are scarcer.
Male and female kestrels have different plumages when they mature, which they do in their second year. Male kestrels are really handsome birds, with rich, speckled, reddish-brown backs and lovely shades of grey on the head and tail. The breast is paler and speckled. The female, as is often the case, is drabber and lacks the depth of the red and the grey head and tail.
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Kestrels are falcons and as such they have long pointed wings. Many people often confuse them with sparrowhawks because they are very similar in size. The more rounded wings of the hawk should help identify them. If the bird is soaring on high it is likely to be a sparrowhawk and if it is hovering, it is definitely a kestrel.
Kestrels, like most falcons, don’t build their own nest but use a platform created by something else. This can be an old crow’s nest, a ledge on a city building, the floor of a gap in a farm building or a nest box. I was talking to a farmer in South Derbyshire recently who has put up nest boxes around his land and now has kestrels and barn owls using them every year.
Kestrels can be seen in the county all year round, although you may not always be seeing the same birds. In winter a few from Scandinavia may arrive and our resident birds do move around, although this often depends on the vagaries of their chief prey, voles. During certain years the number of voles can reach plague proportions and birds such as the kestrel take full advantage, laying more eggs and rearing more chicks. Often, in the year following a ‘plague’ the vole population will crash and kestrels may not breed at all.
The sight of a kestrel hanging in the breeze is magical and can occur anywhere, from the banks of the Ml to farmland in the heart of the countryside, or from the centre of Derby and Chesterfield to the heather-clad moors above Ladybower. A kestrel may not raise the pulse rate quite as much as its larger cousin the peregrine, but then, how often does a peregrine appear to alleviate the tedium of a long motorway journey?