We spent yesterday at Nosterfield Nature Reserve , a mere couple of miles from here. There’s no point in having a bird reserve almost in your back garden if you don’t know a wigeon from a pochard, or if you confuse a rail with a dunlin. It’s even worse if you’ve heard of none of the above. We signed up to ‘Start Birding’, and birding’s what we did, for the whole of a bright and sunny Friday.
Linda, our teacher, was infectiously enthusiastic. She lent out decent pairs of binoculars, and made sure we knew how to use them. She helped us observe birds for their silhouettes, colouring, flight patterns, so we could begin to identify the hundreds of birds who regard Nosterfield as home, a holiday resort, or a stop-over on a long voyage from the Arctic to – who knows? Southern Europe or even Africa.
And we hadn’t been there long before she saw drama begin to unfold. We saw no drama. Oh yes, we could see that birds who had been feeding in scrubland, and waterfowl who’d been serenely gliding in the shallows all flew skywards, all started wheeling and turning, circling the area they’d come from time and time again, in some agitation. But, well, birds do that, don’t they?
Linda knew better. She knew they’d all spotted something we couldn’t see. We all used our binoculars and her super-powerful telescope to scan the sky. It was more than 5 minutes before she saw, high above, a peregrine falcon. He rose high on the thermals, looking down on all his possible prey, all flying close together for their mutual protection.
And suddenly, talons extended, he dropped. Only Linda and Dianne spotted the moment when he scooped up a lapwing, and plummeted swiftly to earth to despatch the bird and inspect his catch. He didn’t get much chance. A small gang of carrion crows moved in. They wanted the falcon to open his prey up, then they planned to steal it.
The peregrine wasn’t having that. He grabbed his lapwing, flew off, and came down again, this time where Linda was able to train her telescope so we could get grandstand views of what happened next. The crows reappeared too, but knew there was no food for them while the lapwing’s corpse remained intact: their beaks are not designed to pierce outer skin. By determined, measured stabbing, the falcon started to open his prey up. White downy chest feathers flew, as he discarded these in search of the flesh beneath. The crows pranced round. They snapped at the falcon’s tail, they tried to provoke and hustle him into abandoning his catch. They even ventured to pluck at the lapwing feathers themselves. But though irritated, the falcon carried on, ripping away at the flesh with his super-strong beak. As the crows took occasional chances to dart close and grab a mouthful, they were rebuffed by the falcon’s impressive skills as a sentry: and no doubt from the fear of that beak too.
Little by little, the falcon ingested his meal. That may be his diet sorted for the next day or two. He even left the carrion crows the bones to pick clean. They too wouldn’t have gone away entirely hungry.
And after that, we had a day of lapwings and golden plovers, and cormorants, and rails and wigeons and pochards and shovellers and Barnacle geese and Canada geese, a kestrel or two, and goldfinch and twites and great tits, and many many more. We can confidently identify many of them, and now have the tools to gain in confidence and knowledge every time we go out with our eyes wide open and our senses tuned in. Even without the blockbuster tale of savage death at the lakeside, Friday would have been a fantastic day.
If you live in Yorkshire, within reach of Leeds, and would like to know more about birds, do follow the link to the ‘Start Birding’ site and see what’s on offer. This is an unsolicited testimonial to Linda Jenkinson, Top Twitcher!
I was too busy on Friday to take many photos, so the ‘bird portraits’ are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.