Hawks and Hirundines, a study of predators and prey around Broadway village residences. August to October 2014
Mark Turner & Christine Turner
On 3rd August at 09.30 hrs, short, brief and distressed shrill notes from a female House Sparrow in a Weeping Pear tree next to the garden, warned neighbourhood passerines as a Hobby swept low through the avenue. The bird community must have been on edge following this as a few minutes later another alarm went up as about 30 Jackdaws descended on the estate.
The new month started fairly quietly for local hawk-watching as our Kites mysteriously became lost to view. The afternoon of 7th August only offered singles of a distant Kestrel over the wooded hillside to the east (approx two thirds km away): a Buzzard and a patrolling female Sparrowhawk.
Of course avian social circumstances and changeable weather all conspire to disrupt raptor movements, even among local resident birds. Prey species here remain in abundance at this time, though Swifts (occasionally targeted by Peregrines) are now leaving us as we enter the season of noisy juvenile Buzzards, dynamic flying lessons for juvenile Sparrowhawks and hopefully more hunting Hobbies with the swelled ranks of hirundines.
From 11.30 hrs on 8th August I watched for several minutes as a Kestrel and Buzzard rose together circling round each other over escarpment fields. Each bird took turns in stooping on the other. It was clear neither was the main aggressor, but neither backed away as they rose ever higher. There was no physical contact and it was the Buzzard which launched the first attack. However, the Buzzard appeared to have long narrow wings and no gaps in the main flight feathers which I am certain confirmed it to be a current year juvenile showing a typically curious attitude to others on the wing as part of the learning process. The Buzzard was first to depart taking a long, shallow descent with those narrow juvenile wings and closed pinions angled rearward giving it a falcon-like silhouette. The Kestrel meanwhile continued its ascent.
I am certain the sheer abundance of passerine species around the residential estate contributes to many extraordinary sightings of raptors as typically demonstrated by the next scenario. Also on 8th August at 20.05 hrs in the evening whilst relaxing on the sofa with a glass of wine watching the television, a cursory glance out of the living room window revealed a Hobby in full view hanging over the house opposite with a swarm of House Martins above it. Hardly cold hard scientific recording you might be thinking, but I argue these scenarios present opportunities to study bird behaviour around human habitation.
09.05 hrs, 9th August and I saw panic stations among the House Martins in our adjacent avenue as a Buzzard loomed large over the rooftops. It was also thanks to our embattled House Martins that today at 11.40 hrs we had a eureka moment. Panicked alarm calls were swiftly followed by three Peregrines swooping around the neighbourhood, swinging round over the Infants’ School playing field and returning overhead where we watched in awe from the back garden. Two adults with a highly vocal, nay screaming, and a brown plumaged juvenile was desperately trying to keep pace.
For several minutes just after midday an adult Peregrine appeared high to the north closely shadowed by a Buzzard. The Buzzard feigned an attack causing the Peregrine to turn and drift back towards me now at an extraordinary height in blue sky. I was now slumped back in my comfy garden chair as I followed the action way above me. At this point there was no sign of the other parent or the youngster.
August however, proved a real contrast to July being unsettled and very wet for most of the month and this impacted on the number of raptor sightings in the neighbourhood. I had to wait until clear blue sky greeted me on the morning of 20th August at 09.00 hrs when a falcon hung directly overhead the back garden. A beautiful adult Hobby raised terror among the House Martins as it surveyed the estate on long outstretched wings and fanned tail: the red leg-feathering was perfectly visible. It was more than a little short on the element of surprise as a good number of House Martins had managed to get above it, but what a fabulous sight on such a clear day and well worth the wait. This was repeated on 24th August in the same spot beginning with the collective chorus of distress calls from many House Martins, this time at 12.25 hrs.
By 28th August there were clear signs of autumn avian activity around our Broadway residential estate. Two Buzzards from the hillside to the east drifted over and proceeded to draw attention to themselves as the juvenile continually pestered the adult bird with begging calls whilst tagging closely behind circling low over houses and gardens. Meanwhile, just below them juvenile Swallows in a small chattering group joined resident House Martins on overhead electric cables and two late Swifts wheeled around high overhead in blue sky.
Interesting to note on 31st August late afternoon, a single Raven closer to the hillside than to us felt it necessary to execute a display flight incorporating several half barrel-rolls whilst circling gracefully around with hardly a wing beat.
3rd September at 15.45 hrs it was again the Hobby showing a presence when it beat a hurried route into the estate from the direction of the Infants’ School, but it seemed to be in vain. There was not a House Martin to be seen. This does not mean they had all taken their leave until next year, they have occasion to disappear from view returning to their roosts late afternoon. The Hobby toured around circling slowly over Bibsworth and Lime Tree Avenues before heading off towards the village centre.
After 19.00 hrs twittering, fluttering aerial feeding parties of five or six dozen House Martins were again all around me and even a single late Swift appeared, taking advantage of a plentiful supply of food on this warm evening. This however, was a comparatively minor event leading up to the morning of Friday 5th September between 08.00 and 08.30 hrs. It was then by watching the gathering masses from our north-facing kitchen window that we realised the autumn spectacle of hundreds of hirundines collecting on overhead wires was happening. Gulping down my mug of tea and grabbing the point and shoot camera I hot-footed it across to Sandscroft Avenue to immerse myself in one of British birding’s truly great events. The photos I took were a poor representation of the actual numbers present (01).
Raptors however, were late coming onto the scene and were not chasing hirundines when they eventually showed. After 11.00 hrs, far-carrying Raven calls alerted me to look up near the sun where Buzzards and Ravens circled gracefully together. However, a more intriguing vision was that of two Hobbies passing overhead going east to the escarpment and interplay between the two birds strongly suggested a youngster and parent. Hobbies identified as juveniles locally in the past have included one at Childswickham, 19th September 2002 and two hawking insects over Broadway Gravel Pit on 6th September 2006.
By 3rd October there were one to five House Martins in view from time to time, but when the long run of good weather finally broke on 4th October, the vestiges of a bountiful hirundine summer seemed to be reduced to the last two Martins, fluttering about in the rain.
Despite gales, heavy showers day and night and cooler temperatures overall, I still detected a good presence of airborne insects. Each morning it was heartening to discover our last two House Martins, but alas they took their leave sometime between 9th and 10th October.
Listed here is 1 month’s worth of raptor sightings from 7th September to 7th October not documented in the text above: 14 Common Buzzards, 14 Ravens, seven Sparrowhawks, two Hobbies, one Kestrel. This list I think typifies what I would expect from our locality during this period. Buzzards and Ravens are virtually a daily occurrence while Kestrels occurs more around the edge of the village not venturing into the housing areas so much until harder times in the winter.
15th November 2014, short double alarm notes from a Starling in our garden Weeping Pear tree forewarned of a Peregrine passing over going due north at 08.50 hours.
Turner, M.E. 2007. Hawkwatch. Trafford Publishing.
01. House Martins and Swallows gathering before migration. Mark Turner