Friday 8 December 2023


Gail and I had two intimate and amazing encounters with two species of raptor this week. First up, was a stonking male Merlin when we were out completing a wintering bird survey on Wednesday, at our survey site south of the Ribble Marshes.

We were stood at our vantage point, on a cold and crisp morning, when I picked up a male Merlin coming in from our left. The field that we overlook is full of cabbages, and these cabbages are more than a bit rotten now! I think the combination of rotten plant material, plus it being a weedy crop, is creating a good seed and invertebrate food source for a number of passerines. In the field on this morning were 25 Skylarks, 34 Meadow Pipits, a Grey Wagtail, 30 Linnets and seven Pied Wagtails, at least.
As the Merlin flew over the field, no more than fifteen metres from us, it was flushing these birds left, right and centre. Whether that was the hunting technique that it was employing, or whether it was pure chance, these birds were being flushed by the Merlin, and this was his opportunity for some breakfast.
He would climb high into the sky, and then turn, flipping over (a stall turn I would have called it in my brief flying days) and then dive towards the ground, pulling up at the last moment to see if he could flush any birds. He did flush some birds, but only gave a half-hearted chase, and then he would climb, and try again. This seemed to go on for quite some time, but in reality, it was probably only for about two minutes. Gail and I just stood there in awe, with our mouths wide open watching the amazing spectacle in front of us. He then headed back west from the direction he came. Stupendous! 
I didn't get any pictures I'm afraid, mainly because I was enjoying the show, and he was too fast! I did try and get some video footage, but it was useless. The picture below is of a Merlin chick from a brood of three, that I had the pleasure of ringing with a dear friend of mine, sadly no longer with us, fourteen years ago. 
A gorgeous Merlin chick
Raptor number two, was a female Sparrowhawk in our back garden this afternoon. Gail and I had just finished a late lunch, and I walked into the kitchen just before 2:00 p.m. and in the garden in front of the Hedgehog house, I could see a female Sparrowhawk devouring a pigeon sp. I shouted Gail, and she ran in to enjoy the rather gruesome spectacle. I think she had only just taken the pigeon, and for the next hour and fifteen minutes she fed on it continually. Watching her through our bins, we could see her crop getting bigger and bigger, as she was getting fuller and fuller!
After this 75-minute marathon eating session, she eventually flew off, and I went out to have a look at the remains of the prey. I could see that it was a Woodpigeon that she had taken, and she had stripped the carcass to the bone. No wonder her crop was full. I had a look in my copy of Professor Ian Newton's book The Sparrowhawk, and he states that to cope with large meals, Sparrowhawks have a capacious crop, which in the female can hold up to 45g, with a further 10 g in the gizzard! And I suspect that she was full to capacity.
It was a dreich afternoon as we watched the Sparrowhawk, and the photograph below was taken through a grubby, rain splattered conservatory door, but you get the idea. What a fabulous encounter we had with two stonking species of raptor. By the way, if you like raptors I can thoroughly recommend Ian's book, it is absolutely fascinating, and Ian has a gift in being able to put across scientific work in a very readable, and enjoyable way. 
Female Sparrowhawk devouring a Woodpigeon
In addition to the fabulous Merlin at our wintering bird survey site, we did have two Kestrels, but no other raptors. The cabbage field also attracted a Redshank, and I was surprised when I heard it calling, and dropping into the field. I watched it for a while through my scope, and it seemed to be finding plenty of food, so those rotting cabbages must have been attracting invertebrates, even on a cold December morning. 
Another odd cabbage field encounter, was a Great Spotted Woodpecker that we had flying over and heading northwest. Where it was heading to, I'm not sure. A few Whooper Swans and Pink-footed Geese were moving around, and we even had a Black Swan fly past with two Mute Swans
Gail and I topped our feeding station up this morning, nothing to report really, other than there is obviously lots of birds using it as one of our 20 kg seed feeding bins had emptied since Saturday. The other 20 kg feeder was half empty, and as we expected, the two, six port, sunflower seed feeders were empty, but we suspect that they empty within a couple of days.
It is looking a bit windy and unsettled for the next few days, but it looks like improving conditions by the middle of next week. Fingers crossed for some more raptor encounters.   

Over on the right you will see that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of November. Two new species for the year were ringed during November and these were Crossbill and Nuthatch. In fact, the four Crossbills that were ringed by Will at Oakenclough were a new species for the group. 

Below you will find the Top 5 ringed for the month and the Top 10 'Movers & Shakers' for the year.

Top 5 Ringed in November

1.Chaffinch - 35
2. Greenfinch - 27
3. Blue Tit - 24
4. Great Tit - 17
5. Tree Sparrow - 15

Top 10 Movers and Shakers

1. Goldfinch - 198 (same position)
2. Blue Tit - 140 (same position)
3. Chaffinch - 125 (up from 4th)
4. Great Tit - 103 (up from 5th)
5. Sand Martin - 101 (down from 3rd)
6. Greenfinch - 79 (same position)
7. Meadow Pipit - 45 (same position)
8. Lesser Redpoll - 43 (up from 9th)
9. Linnet - 40 (down from 8th)
10. Redwing - 37 (straight in)

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