October 15th   Leave a comment

I had a bit of a raptor hunt fest today. I was distracted by a flock of feral pigeons suddenly taking flight up at Wormiston Farm when an immature female peregrine came shooting in, scattering the flock and nearly catching one as it swooped past. It then started gaining height to catch up with a single feral pigeon flying high above. It was gradually closing in on it when the pigeon decided to seek cover and it dived straight down into the trees of the Yellow House. The peregrine stooped at it but pulled up before the trees – playing it safe – and the pigeon escaped. A crow had been attracted and started to follow the peregrine which promptly started chasing the crow. It just made it to the cover around the Yellow House too, although I think the peregrine was just playing. Its final lunge at the crow just as they made it to the trees didn’t seem as determined as the pigeon hunts preceding it. The peregrine retired to perch on a telegraph pole, bolt upright and looking for its next chance. I have watched too many peregrines to be fooled – they sit around for ages waiting for the chaos they create to subside before they start hunting again. The element of surprise is crucial even for an open hunting pursuit predator like a peregrine. I left it to it and continued down to the shore.

Immature peregrine beginning a stoop

Just as I got to the beach a female sparrowhawk came shooting down behind me and continued low over the sand, using the contours, rocks and seaweed as cover. It perched on a creel and I could admire it as an old adult female. As female sparrowhawks get older they get more male like – even getting a blue-grey sheen to their upperparts as well as a reddish tinge, particularly about the upper breast. The way you reliably sex sparrowhawks is by size rather than plumage and I had some good size comparisons as it hunted along the shore. As I continued cycling so the sparrowhawk kept pace with me, launching hunts of a couple of hundred meters before perching again. It attacked redshanks, rock pipits and probably the single wheatear that I saw rapidly flying away in the opposite direction. The last attack I saw was at Balcomie Beach, where it perched for a few minutes watching the waders before cleverly waiting for a redshank to go behind a rock. It then used the rock to conceal its approach and grabbed the redshank just as it took flight, pushing it straight down into a sandy pool. The sparrowhawk stayed in the open on the redshank for a few minutes. Sparrowhawks find it hard to kill prey and they often drop larger prey in flight if it is still alive and struggling. So it stayed put as it literally squeezed the life out of the redshank. This was despite two crows being attracted to the opportunity of stealing a meal. Either the crows knew the sparrowhawk was not to be intimidated, or they were inexperienced, but they kept their distance, circling the sparrowhawk and not really taking advantage of their numbers. I have seen crow pairs work together – one at the front distracting while the one at the back jumps in and grabs the prey. One crow made a half-hearted lunge but the sparrowhawk just flapped its wings and lunged back. The crow retreated and that was the end of it. A few minutes later the sparrowhawk carried the now dead redshank off to the marram grass to begin plucking it. I think this sparrowhawk has been hunting along Balcomie Beach for several years now and is a consummate professional. All it has to do is to keep working its way along the shore from rock cover to rock cover and sooner or later it will surprise something. The redshanks among the rocks may be hard to see themselves – and this is probably great defence against peregrines – but they can’t see an ambush predator also using the rocks to hide.

An adult female sparrow hawk eating a redshank – this photo from 2015, Roome Bay – but this looks just the old female I saw today. It could easily be the same bird, specialising on hunting along the shore around Crail.

Posted October 15, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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