Enraptured by Raptors: Beauty and menace in the skies above Sudbury by RB

Enraptured by Raptors: Beauty and menace in the skies above Sudbury by RB
November 4, 2020 Adrian Walters

During the summer I stepped out of my house in central Sudbury and immediately felt like I was at the seaside. This false impression had been caused by the panicked squawking of a pack of gulls overhead. The reason for this cacophony, I soon found out, was the presence of two buzzards circling higher up in the sky, causing the gulls to mob together to warn them off.

I had never seen buzzards this close to town before. I have seen them flying above Grove Wood across the river from Friars Meadow and recently I’ve watched them ascend on the thermals in the sky near Bulmer, going higher and further with hardly a wing movement until they are a dot in the sky. Sometimes on the Common Lands, I just hear their distinctive caw-cawing call but fail to spot them with my eyes.

 Moving east

Without a doubt we are seeing more buzzards in these parts. A decade or so ago, I would see them in the West Country and on trips to Oxford to visit family but rarely in the east. Now they are commonplace here. As numbers have increased, so the buzzard has spread its wings towards East Anglia in search of new territory.

Less persecution by gamekeepers, and the withdrawal of pesticides like DDT in the 1960s, which got into the food chain and weakened the eggshells of raptors (as birds of prey are also known) are two key reasons why buzzard numbers have increased to the point where they are now the most common bird of prey in the UK.

 Hanging

In recent years, the buzzard has been joined by another large raptor over the Sudbury environs.

The red kite is a relatively new addition to our skies – I’ve had several sightings in Cornard this year, each one a memorable experience. Kites are lighter and sleeker than buzzards and more elegant in the air. They tend to fly closer to the ground as well, allowing views of their white head and underwing flashes and rusty red body. 

But the most distinctive element of the kite is the deep fork in its tail, which is the easiest way to identify them.  Kites use this tail as a rudder for steering and maintaining a slow hanging flight while they survey the world below where, like buzzards, they will be on the look-out for small mammals, birds and carrion to eat. Even earthworms and large insects are on the menu if other prey is in short supply.

The resurgence of the red kite is a remarkable story considering that for most of the twentieth century they were extinct in England with only a small population found in Wales.

The kites we see here are a result of a reintroduction programme that saw red kites from Sweden and Germany released in the Chilterns and the Midlands during the 1990s. One theory is that the red kite’s move towards Suffolk can be charted along key roads like the A14 where the birds have thrived on the rich pickings from roadkill.

Hovering

Another raptor that has a deep connection with roads is the kestrel, which are often spotted hovering over roadside verges as you whizz by in your car.

An old country term for a kestrel is windhover – an apt name for a bird that faces into the wind and uses its fanned tail to hold still.  

I’ve seen more of these wonderful birds in and around Sudbury in recent weeks – sitting on telephone wires or furiously beating their wings to maintain a still airborne position. I’ve read that kestrels move territory to find better food sources as the seasons change – maybe, we are seeing new additions from the north and even from the Continent move to our temperate region as autumn takes hold.

It is widely believed that kestrels like road verges because they tend to be wild, unkempt places, home to small mammals like voles and mice. Studies have shown that kestrels can see in ultra-violet light, allowing them to pick up the urine trails that voles use to mark their territory and ascertain quickly if there is a potential meal about. Others speculate that the constant rumble of traffic causes worms to come to the surface on roadside verges, presenting kestrels with an easy snack.

Of course, when I say we are seeing more raptors, this is only because many of these birds, especially the larger species, were pushed to the brink of extinction in the past century. Their slow return has brought much beauty and a hint of menace to the skies above Sudbury and should be celebrated.