A guide to spotting birds of prey in Cheshire during winter
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 January 2014 | UPDATED: 18:09 24 January 2018
Often fast, occasionally mysterious and always impressive, our birds of prey are just a glimpsed flash of feathers for most of the year. Winter however, sees them come a little closer. Cheshire Wildlife Trust's Tom Marshall tells us what to keep an eye out for
They say size isn’t everything and that’s certainly true of the merlin, our smallest bird of prey. After all, what better accolade can you get than having the Spitfire’s thumping engine named after you? Little bigger than a mistle thrush in the case of the male merlin, this diminutive falcon relies on stealth and ambush for hunting success. Focusing on meadow pipits during the summer months spent on our upland moors, winter sees the merlin – like many falcons and hawks – go for the better odds of flocks, such as twite, other finches or occasionally small wading birds on our estuaries. Even with the tell-tale burst of birds heading in all directions, it’s still no mean feat to pick out the merlin among the snowstorm of feathers. Perhaps your best chance though is to hedge your own bets and scan fenceposts, large boulders or other prominent items among the saltmarsh. You never know, there might just be a merlin sitting on top.
If one creature could sum up the story of nature’s comeback from the DDT disaster that led to the ground-breaking ‘Silent Spring’ penned by Rachel Carson in the 1960s, then it has to be the peregrine. Not only has the world’s fastest animal undertaken a gradual revival in its traditional countryside haunts, these Top Guns of the sky have now developed a taste for city living – moving in to nest on our skyscrapers, cathedrals and universities in ever-increasing numbers. While a never-ending supply of pigeons keep their urban counterparts happy, coastal areas still see a welcome return of the peregrine during the winter months. Also opting for speed and surprise when looking for a meal, peregrines choose to attack from above - and at an eye-watering 200mph velocity that few can survive. Keep a close eye above estuary flocks of knot and dunlin - peregrines have even been known to dive into the New Brighton Marine Lake in the hope of catching out a purple sandpiper standing just a little too far away from the others.
For every good-news story in nature there often has to be a tragedy too. As the peregrine’s rise in prominence above our shopping streets grabs the headlines, the hen harrier’s story on our moorlands continually struggles to find a happy ending. Last year, the hen harrier failed to successfully nest in England for the first time since the 1960s, many believe due to a continuing threat from persecution, despite strengthening poisoning laws. As conservationists battle with turning around the fortunes of the hen harrier during the breeding season, we can still enjoy the sight of these stunning birds – including the ghostly pale-grey male – on our winter saltmarshes. For the harrier, speed isn’t of the essence, and their ‘quartering’ hunting technique offers us a wonderful opportunity to observe the harrier, eyes transfixed on the ground below. Their large face disc – not dissimilar to an owl – delivers all the visual and audio information they need, picking up on the tiniest movement. Drifting a few feet above the reeds, it only takes a split second for the harrier to twist in the air and thrust out their long, featherless feet. And with their peerless ability to drop and rise so easily from the ground, yes you’ve guessed it, the hen harrier also lent its name to the RAF’s jump jet stalwart.
Despite its name, the ‘ears’ on a short-eared owl (and its cousin the long-eared owl) are in fact just tufts of feathers, with the business end of their unparalleled hearing hidden away on each side of the head. Like most owls, their ears are actually positioned slightly lop-sidedly (unlike our own) giving a greater ability to pinpoint prey. If you’re lucky enough to see a short-eared owl perched on a fencepost or lonely stick among the marshes, then it’s hard to forget their piercing yellow eyes and that permanently startled expression. Heading down from their upland summertime home for winter, it’s not unusual to find several short eared owls hunting together in a small area of suitable marsh or rough grassland, sometimes even within relatively urban or industrial areas.
Best of the rest
Along with the stars of the show, there’s a supporting cast of other birds of prey that can just as easily impress during a winter walk. Despite its monika of the ‘motorway falcon’, the kestrel also finds plenty to hunt on our saltmarshes and although easily confused with the merlin in level flight, its hovering pauses are unique and a sure fire way to tell you come across a ‘kes’.
Although less common along our coasts, the red kite is making an increasing appearance in Cheshire as their range expands from the traditional mid-Wales breeding areas and numbers increase thanks in part to reintroductions in Yorkshire and the Midlands. With a five foot wingspan – smaller only than the golden eagle and sea eagle – the red kite has an almost leisurely flight with frequent wing flaps (with the similar-sized buzzard more prone to gliding on thermals). The absolute giveaway of course is that classic forked tail and stunning rust-red plumage if you catch one on a sunny day.
Where to go
The key to seeing birds of prey is to look where they’ll find a meal. In winter that means the thousands-strong wading bird flocks of dunlin, knot and sanderling on our estuaries like the Dee and Mersey. The sweeping sands at Hoylake and further up at New Brighton are a great place to be during the high tide roosts, when wading birds are at their most concentrated. Peregrines will often drift high overhead, giving great views as the nerves build within the flocks below, in anticipation of the inevitable split-second strike.
For hen harriers, short-eared owls and the merlin, saltmarshes are the place to be. These vital habitats providing shelter for ducks, geese, waders and finches are rich hunting grounds, whether for the speed and surprise of the merlin, or the patience of the harrier and short-eared owl. Wigg Island’s ‘lost lagoon’ and the surrounding marshes near Runcorn, along with Parkgate on the Wirral all offer good opportunities.
You can find an A-Z of British wildlife on the Wildlife Trust website at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk.