The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about Kites and other birds of prey to help us create a community Top 50!

Birds of prey seen along The Ridgeway all year round include Red Kite, Buzzard, Barn Owl, Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon, whilst winter migrants include Hen Harrier, Merlin and Short-eared Owl. Falcons, hawks, eagles and owls are all birds of prey which are large, predatory birds with hooked bills, sharp talons and keen eyesight and hearing. Read on below to find out more….

Thanks to D Cavanagh for contributions to this Top 50.

Usain Bolt’s top speed during his 100 metre world record sprint was 29.5 mph,  the Cheetah can reach 68-75 mph….and the highest recorded speed of a Peregrine in it’s characteristic hunting stoop (high speed dive) is 242mph! As the fastest animal on earth, Ridgeway visitors should feel excited and lucky to see it! The Peregrine is well-suited to capturing prey mid-air, such as feral Pigeons and Collared Doves. It is the UK’s largest type of falcon.

Ridgeway visitors are almost guaranteed to see a bird of prey since Buzzards are the commonest bird of prey in the UK and the Chilterns is a national stronghold for Red Kites where large groups are often seen circling in the sky. Kites are impressive due to their large size which is more obvious when they come down to land in ploughed fields to find worms or pick up carrion (dead animals) from roads. Amongst the Ridgeway group, Red Kites have the largest wingspan of 175-195cm (comparable to the height of adults!) and weigh 800g to 1.3kg, whilst the smallest is the Merlin which is not much bigger than a Blackbird (56cm wingspan and 180g to 230g). A Merlin preys on small birds, especially Meadow Pipits which they chase in flight low to the ground.

To help Ridgeway visitors identify what birds they have seen, videos and call recordings for each bird can be found by clicking the weblinks in the list above, including a Buzzard’s ‘kee yaa’! Here is an additional recording of a Short-Eared Owl’s ‘rasping bark of alarm’ which it makes when it is disturbed. This RSPB online tool can help Ridgeway visitors figure out any bird they have seen, bird of prey or otherwise.

The sight of numerous Red Kites is particularly special considering it was declared extinct in England in 1871 and it remained so for over a hundred years until conservationists brought birds into the country from Spain, Sweden and Wales. Extinction had come about due to centuries of persecution as ‘vermin’, initially encouraged by a 16th century ‘bounty’ on its head, and later, when numbers had dwindled to only a few, egg collectors and taxidermists targeted them for their rarity. Conservationists began to rally in 1903 by forming a Red Kite Committee and it became a priority in the 1980s as one of only three globally threatened species in the UK. Between 1989 and 1994, the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) released 93 birds from Spain, Sweden and Wales at a site in the Chilterns and a site in Scotland. Today, there are 10,000 birds across the UK and 1,800 UK breeding pairs. Consequently, the re-introduction programme is applauded as perhaps ‘the biggest species success story in UK conservation history’ and ‘one of the world’s longest-running protection programmes’. A new book about the Red Kite Project is being published to inspire conservation action on UN World Wildlife Day 2023.

Red Kites are by far the longest living of The Ridgeway’s birds of prey, with one of the oldest so far recorded dying at 29 years old. In comparison, a Barn Owl or Kestrel lives 4 years on average and a Merlin just 3 years! Also, being mainly sedentary, the same Kites may be seen by Ridgeway visitors on return visits year after year. February and March is the time to watch pairs performing courtship displays, especially in the early part of the day, when they will fly behind one another with deep exaggerated wingbeats, followed by a vigorous chase and pass close together before twisting apart at the last moment. With lots of viewpoints on the hills along the Trail, it is worth stopping to count Kites in the sky around you as one of our visitors, Mr Cavanagh, does when he stops for a rest after his regular climb up White Horse Hill (Oxon)!

Owls are another special sight and sound along The Ridgeway, with both the Barn Owl and Short-eared Owl being daytime hunters. Winter is a good time to look for Barn Owls because they have to extend their hunting hours into dawn, dusk and even daytime to find extra food to get through the colder months. They fly back and forth over rough grasslands and farmland – this is called ‘quartering’ – searching for small mammals, especially field voles. Their heart-shaped faces direct high frequency sounds to help them locate their prey on the ground. Their white underparts, silent flight and shrieking call – they screech rather than hoot – has led to names such as ghost owl, screech owl and demon owl.

Note: If you hear birds making alarm calls and/or see them flying up from the ground, they are suffering disturbance. Follow the Countryside Code – keep to the worn track of The Ridgeway and other rights of way and always keep your dogs close to you too. Thank you for caring for The Ridgeway.

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