In my latest blog for the Looe Marine Conservation Group I describe some encounters with raptors – birds of prey – in 2023. Many raptors spend all or part of their lives close to the sea.
Casually scrolling through the Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society’s Facebook pages a few weeks ago, I came across a comment (by Angie Emily Nash) that caught my attention: ‘I’m fairly certain I saw a White-tailed Eagle flying over St Martin’s near Looe at about 6 pm’. It appears that this sighting had taken place at Looe’s allotments. As one of those allotments belongs to my wife Christine, my interest was aroused! Bird-watching at the allotment might be more rewarding than I thought.
The comment had attracted a few responses, which did not ridicule the suggestion; seeing a White-tailed Eagle flying over St Martin’s (or Looe) was tacitly acknowledged to be a possibility in 2023. Since 2020 White-tailed Eagles have made several appearances in Cornwall, and in 2022 I made several excursions to Bodmin Moor where they had been reported, but failed to see one. I have seen several species of eagle in Europe and Africa, but never a White-tailed Eagle. But this spring I received a message that one had returned to the moor, and I made another attempt to see my first wild eagle in England.
The White-tailed Eagle, frequently referred to as the Sea Eagle, is the largest British bird of prey. It is often compared to a ‘flying barn-door’. Not that many people have a precise idea as to the dimensions of a barn door! It is one of the largest eagles in the world, especially measured by wing span, which may be up to 2.5 metres. This species formerly bred in England, though probably not in Cornwall, but suffered badly from persecution. It was last recorded on the Isle of Wight in 1780 and the Isle of Man in 1815. In Scotland it became extinct in 1916. In the late twentieth century re-introductions began in Scotland, using chicks translocated from Norway; there are now more than 130 pairs. But the birds that have begun to appear in Cornwall are the result of another project (a joint venture by the Roy Dennis Foundation and Forestry England) to re-introduce juvenile White-tailed Eagles into southern England, and specifically to the Isle of Wight, where 25 have already been released. These huge birds are fitted with rings and tracking devices so that their movements can be followed. It was reckoned that following their release they would wander widely and not breed until they were five years old, but in July it was announced that a pair of the released birds, only three years old, had bred successfully this spring at an undisclosed location! A historic moment for nature conservation in England.
Back in April my latest attempt to see an eagle proceeded relatively smoothly. The bird was visiting a moorland reservoir. The Gaelic name for the White-tailed Eagle, Iolaire chladaich, means ‘eagle of the shore’, and the shore of the reservoir was precisely where the bird was standing. Fortunately I had brought my telescope, and I certainly needed it – the eagle was at least 200 metres away. Photography was difficult, but I managed a few low quality ‘record shots’.
The bird was massive, with a powerful beak! It was feeding on what looked like a fish.
A Carrion Crow that wandered close to it provided a handy size comparison. The crow was dwarfed. Canada Geese swimming not far away were also smaller, and were attracting its attention. White-tailed Eagles prey on water birds as well as fish and are quite capable of killing a goose. They also feed on carrion. As I watched it, the Eagle flew to a perch on a tree stump protruding from the water, and then returned to the water’s edge, revealing as it did so its huge talons.
I tried to imagine the bird appearing over the Cornish coast near home, perhaps Looe Island, and the likely reaction of gulls and cormorants. The gulls would undoubtedly mob it. Inevitably some much-loved lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, floated into my mind:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
There are many interpretations of Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ (written in 1851), some of them metaphorical. I love it simply as a poem extolling the power of nature. It has been said to be inspired by sightings of eagles and other raptors during Tennyson’s several visits to the Pyrenees. ‘The wrinkled sea beneath him’ suggests it may not be unreasonable to suggest that his eagle might be white-tailed (though in the last line of the poem, falling ‘like a thunderbolt’ sounds very like a Peregrine Falcon). I like to think that one day, not too far off, White-tailed Eagles will be clasping crags with their crooked hands (talons) on Cornish cliffs.
My brief encounter with a wandering eagle led me to reflect on other raptors that I see in South-east Cornwall, both inland and along the coast, even flying over Looe. There are 15 species of bird of prey that breed in the UK, of which almost half breed in Cornwall, while others pass through Cornwall on migration. We might also include owls as raptors; both Barn Owl and Tawny Owl are found in South-east Cornwall.
Probably the commonest bird of prey in South-east Cornwall is the Buzzard (sometimes known as the ‘Cornish Eagle’). From my house in East Looe I sometimes see Buzzards overhead, usually being mobbed by gulls or corvids. They are often seen soaring over Hannafore fields.
The wing span of a Buzzard is perhaps half that of a White-tailed Eagle. Buzzards are a familiar sight on telegraph poles in country lanes, and often attract the attention of corvids.
Also relatively common is the Sparrowhawk. Occasionally one dashes through our garden on a stealth attack. Pigeons and collared doves are frequently its victims (it leaves tell-tale piles of feathers). I once photographed one in a country lane near Looe, standing over its kill, a blackbird.
Peregrines are seen along the coast and over Looe Island at irregular intervals.
In late summer there is a chance of seeing the Peregrine’s smaller relative, the Hobby, on migration. The Hobby is an exquisite small falcon with fantastic manoeuvring ability in the air as it hunts dragonflies and hirundines.
But the most familiar raptor is smaller than any of these, apart from the male Sparrowhawk, and is certainly at the other end of the size spectrum from the White-tailed Eagle! It is the Kestrel, larger only than the Merlin, and immortalised by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem, ‘The Windhover’:
‘I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon……’
The Kestrel was known to many in the past as the ’motorway hawk’ from its habit of hunting by hovering over motorway verges. It is not in fact a hawk, but a member of the falcon family. I frequently see Kestrels hovering along the Cornish coastal path, though it is now probably not as common as the Buzzard or the Sparrowhawk.
The male Kestrel is a stunning bird, with its reddish-brown speckled back and blue-grey tail.
Its head is grey, whereas the female’s head is a streaky brown. The female is slightly bigger and browner, with finely barred rump and upper tail. Like many birds of prey both birds have smart yellow feet with black claws.
About the same time as my brief encounter with our largest raptor, the White-tailed Eagle, an encounter closer to home with almost the smallest, the Kestrel, captured my attention, and provided a new focus (perhaps an obsession!) for my summer’s birding. In recent years I have often seen a pair of Kestrels on sea cliffs between Looe and Seaton.
Kestrels often nest in trees, but also on ledges on cliffs and buildings. This year I repeatedly saw a pair on the same stretch of cliffs. On 14th April my suspicions that they were nesting were further aroused. The male Kestrel appeared at 11.45 am, flying fast, and shot into a large recess in the lower part of the cliff. It re-appeared quickly, flew round a corner in the cliff, and disappeared from sight. Perhaps it was bringing food to the female out of sight on the nest?
At 12.30pm I received the confirmation I was hoping for. The female was sitting on the cliff at the entrance to the nest site when the male returned with something in its beak, which it passed to the female. She took it into the recess but almost immediately re-appeared, and I could see she had in her beak a Short-tailed Field Vole, very common Kestrel prey.
The male watched her eat it, rested briefly, and then flew off in the same direction as before. The female lingered a few minutes in full view, but then slipped back into the recess, out of sight.
Later that same day I saw the male bring another small rodent, and the female carried it to eat on a shady perch.
She was probably incubating a clutch of eggs. Both birds were relatively quiet, perhaps not wishing to draw attention to themselves. There were other birds nesting on the cliffs in close proximity – a rowdy selection of Jackdaws and Fulmars, but there was surprisingly little interaction between the different species. Other birds tended to give the Kestrels a wide berth.
Where the cliffs were more overgrown, there were also Woodpigeons, and a small flock of domestic white doves appeared from time to time. Gulls were often seen flying along the coast, but rarely nested on the cliffs, except for the large colonies on Looe Island.
Kestrels do not build nests but use a scrape or hollow in the rock, or (in trees) the abandoned nest of another species. As I could not see the scrape, I could not tell the progress of incubation. Kestrels lay up to seven eggs and do not usually begin incubation until three eggs have been laid. I visited the cliffs frequently for several days and saw the male return again and again. April was soon over and the pattern of behaviour changed very little.
In May I was sidetracked by an urgent request to carry out a survey of gull nests on the roofs of Looe, a labour-intensive activity that took me five full days! This survey was a repeat of one I carried out in 2019 as part of a national study of urban gulls.
The onset of avian flu has been having a devastating effect on many sea-bird colonies; a new survey might give a measure of the impact of the pandemic on the Herring Gull population. The Herring Gull is a Red-listed species of Conservation Concern, because of population decline. My repeat survey in fact showed comparatively little change in nest numbers, and I can only marvel at the birds’ ingenuity in finding nooks and crannies to nest in, and their ability to circumvent attempts to discourage them.
I encountered numerous artificial raptors in the form of bird-scarers! Owl statues are particularly popular. Some Looe residents use these devices to deter gulls from nesting on their property. But how effective these bird-scarers are I do not know!
On roofs in West Looe overlooking the harbour I also found some small statues of an eagle-like bird of prey.
My survey was followed by two weeks’ absence on holiday. On my return I resumed visits to the Kestrels on 9th June, after a long interruption, wondering what I was going to find. Straightaway I saw four quite large chicks!
They were well on the way to fledging, and exhibited a mixture of down and feathers. Sometimes the youngsters formed a close huddle, but as they grew they became increasingly active and started to explore the cliff environment. Increasingly I was treated to some spectacular wing-flapping exercises.
Because I could not see into the cliff, I did not know how many eggs were laid. Some raptors begin incubating eggs as soon as they are laid and do not wait for the full clutch, and this can lead to big size discrepancies between different members of the brood, and the youngest chicks struggle to survive in times when food is sparse. This pattern is less marked with Kestrels. These chicks were similar in size, with one a little larger than the others, but there was no runt. Both adults were bringing food, though I could not decide what it was – perhaps invertebrates? The chicks were changing fast. Every day they looked more complete and ready. There were liberal splashes of white excreta staining the cliff below the nest entrance.
By 16th June they appeared to be well-feathered; one of them shuffled up the cliff away from the nest. It seemed unsure what to do next, but suddenly flapped its wings vigorously, and flew a few metres back to the nest entrance! It had fledged.
One day one of the youngsters seemed to be interested in the nesting Fulmars higher up the cliffs. Fulmars eject a foul-smelling oil at intruders, and I was relieved when the young Kestrel moved away. Birds which have the sticky oil on their feathers are in big trouble!
When I visited the site on the 19th June, I realised that three birds had flown more than 20 metres into a shady area of the cliff, where they continued to practise wing-flapping.
Over the next week there were regular sightings of the youngsters, and both parents were still bringing food. The nest handbook notes that the chicks would be fed around a dozen times per day, though I never watched long enough to confirm this. One day the male brought food to a couple of the brood and then sat by itself further up the cliff. Job done? It clasped the cliff with its crooked yellow claws.
Suddenly it flew off, rapidly ascending until it was little more than a dot in the sky.
While I was watching, I realised that six Swifts were also overhead – the first I had seen in Cornwall in 2023!
By the beginning of July the Kestrels were seen infrequently. My enrapture by Kestrels was over for another year. My dreams of eagles remained………
Bruce Taggart; White-tailed Eagles, Cornwall 2020, in Birds in Cornwall 2020, the annual report of Cornwall Birds (CBWPS).
James Macdonald Lockhart (2016) Raptors. Fourth Estate: London.
https://roydennis.org/isleofwight/ White-tailed Eagle Reintroduction on the Isle of Wight.
Derek Spooner, July 2023