At lunch time today I headed out to the edgeland in search of Reed Bunting which I have not yet seen here but that I know I have the habitat for. The first half of my walk up to and around the river was relatively quiet save for a Kestrel being mobbed by Crows in the river meadow and not a Bunting in sight but things took an unexpected and dramatic turn as I entered the large scrub at the sewage works.
It was notably cooler than it has been for the last couple of days and the wind had whipped up a little. The sky was overcast and the sun only broke through in fleeting bursts. As a result there was not much insect life about although there were vast blankets of knats around the sewage works and both scrubs. Chaffinches and Long-tailed tits were in abundance at every turn, more so than I’ve ever really noticed before. Stepping in to the large scrub a Kestrel met me in hover just twenty or so yards away. Nothing unusual in that as this field is a hotbed for old Kes and it’s more unlikely to not see one than it is to see at least one.
I followed her (she was a mature female) through my binoculars as she wound around the opening section of the scrub, pausing to hover before looping away again to a new spot a few yards away. This scene is one that plays out constantly all over the country, from farmland to highland to motorway verges but it doesn’t matter how often I see it I am still drawn in and the pleasure remains the same. Who doesn’t want to watch a bird of prey hunting? Isn’t that what all young birders (adult ones too!) dream about? There is a certain buzz that comes when watching predator and prey, the food-chain on display. I think it’s inbuilt in our make-up to enjoy or at least acknowledge this brutal fact of nature almost like a blood-lust or back to basics hunter gatherer type reflex. Even those who are not that in to the natural world send TV viewing figures through the roof whenever a wildlife documentary focuses on the battle between predator and prey. Lion versus Zebra, Cheetah versus Gazelle, Crocodile versus Wilderbeast, Kestrel versus Field Vole.
She flies off and perches on the telegraph wire, watching me from the distance, nonchalantly preening herself. She is joined briefly by a male, her mate perhaps. He is not visibly smaller at this angle like so often the case but he is distinct with his duck-egg blue head and tail feathers. He doesn’t hang around long though and heads to the northern corner of the field, hovers effortlessly for a while – an amazing feet in quite a stern breeze – before flying beyond the hedge and into the wide farmland.
As I watch her intently through my binoculars something else fills my lens and the sky emits a raucous crowing. A Buzzard, stocky and broad glides low over my head from the trees on the sewage works boundary, closely followed by another which in turn is followed by three angry Carrion Crows. They are so low that I can make out the glint in the first Buzzards eye, I can see the detail in the mottled and somewhat scruffy plumage, the white underwing with tips and trim dipped in chestnut and dark chocolate browns. Keeeee Keeeee a third buzzard, notably smaller, streams in from the left and the numbers are suddenly even. Two parent birds and a late juvenile is my guess. Numbers might be even and the corvids may be smaller but the harassing and continual dive-bombing from the Crows is enough to drive all three Buzzards over the edgeland boundary and out of sight.
Two different species of raptor in such a confined and space is not uncommon. Both Kestrel and Buzzard feed on different prey and in fact the Buzzard is more akin to a vulture preferring to scavenge most of its diet rather than kill it. I know there are Sparrowhawks sharing this space too and although Kestrels will take small song birds the main part of their diet is small mammals and invertebrates. Sparrowhawks feed almost entirely on other birds with the much smaller males preferring tits and finches whilst the larger, bulkier females are more than capable of taking Stock Dove and Wood pigeon.
Walking through the middle of the scrub to where the Kestrel was previously sat on the high-wire I was taken by surprise as a small bullet of a bird flew in from beyond the hedge. I twisted sharply on my heels and raised my binoculars as quickly as I could to catch the bird in mid-flight. With pointed wings pinned back and tucked in to the body I noted the streaky breast and mottled underwing. The bird flapped in bursts and glided in others before settling in a Hawthorn in the opposing overgrown hedge. My first instinct was Sparrowhawk – the bird was definitely a raptor – and the sharp bullet like flight had me almost convinced except this bird was tiny. Male Sparrowhawks can be not much larger than a thrush but this bird seemed smaller still. Once perched in the relative open which I found peculiar given that Sparrowhawks rarely perch in view unless on a plucking post or stopping to eat, I managed to get a better look with less handshake on my binoculars.
The eye was not that of a hawk. Hawks have symbolic, threatening and recognisable stark yellow eyes whilst Falcons have all-black eyes. These eyes were black. Having watched Kestrels regularly all of my life and being extremely familiar with Peregrine Falcons at close range since a pair took residency on Leicester Cathedral I immediately rule out both birds, the Peregrine in any event is a large stocky bird incomparable to this miniature prospect sat before me.
My next logical though was Hobby and it might come as a surprise to know that these birds are actually similar in size to Kestrels and have a slightly longer wingspan. The trouble is, Hobby’s are a Peregrine in miniature, they have such bold facial plumage and bandit mask-like tear stripes that they are easily recognisable. The Hobby is also a summer visitor, not resident although they can stay here well in to October in some years. The less striking facial plumage and a complete lack of slate-grey upper, the diminutive stature, the dark eye all lead me to the same conclusion. I believe I’ve seen a female Merlin. Britain’s smallest bird of prey.
Of course it is hard to reconcile this with my brain. Merlins are an upland bird of wide open spaces sometimes heading inland to lowland areas and coastal sites in autumn and winter but still only 1500 or so breeding pairs exist in the UK. They are however recovering from a population crash in the late 20th century and in winter numbers are boosted by migrants from Iceland so it is not out of the question that one may end up here, in this humble edgeland. Trouble is, in Leicestershire Merlins are a very scarce winter visitor and fly through in winter passage only, never sticking around. Records are thin on the ground and so the doubt creeps in.
I’m not sure if other birders are the same but without concrete, photographic proof that seed of doubt always creeps in with me. I am experienced with birds, I’ve taken an active, passionate interest in British birds, in fact all flora and fauna since I was a boy and I’m pretty confident that I can accurately ID almost all of the birds we have here in the UK, possibly with the exception of some waders – I do live about as far away from the sea and wetlands as is physically possible. I reported my sighting to the Leicestershire and Rutland Ornithological Society and although they will spread the news and try to get somebody out to relocate and confirm the birds presence it is highly unlikely that a Merlin, this Merlin would stay around in the same place for very long at all, on its winter passage.
Despite being confident of what I’ve seen I am struggling to add this one to the ‘confirmed’ species list just yet. Maybe I’ll invest in a top-notch digital SLR with a powerful zoom and then I might just be able to trust myself a little more. I’ll be heading back to the newly christened ‘Falcon field’ tomorrow and even if my Merlin alludes me I can certainly settle for her cousin and that old friend, the hovering magician that is the Kestrel.