The bird of prey, or raptor, is probably the genus of bird that is on everyone’s list of favourites. Perhaps as the world’s top predator we recognise our aspirational selves?in these agile hunters that seem to epitomise majesty and power, even if we are perhaps less comfortable with the demise of their oft cuter prey. It is no coincidence that so many have been taken as symbols for national identity. The internal tensions we perhaps struggle with when it comes to the assertion of power in national or social contexts is perhaps part of a similar continuum of feeling we experience when we consider predator and prey.
In practical terms, the raptor population is a signifier of the health of an environment. In short, if habitats are providing plenty of food for prey, there will be an increase in the number of predators: the greater the number of insects and seeds, the better breeding success of birds and small mammals, which in turn feed the raptor’s young. In a piece of shameless advertising for the Hawk and Owl Trust, of which I am a trustee, this is why the aim of the charity is to conserve raptors and their habitats.
Reflecting further on the assertion of power and conflict, too often raptors have not been admired for their majesty but persecuted for their success, especially by game-keepers preserving the source of their income. The white-tailed eagle, golden eagle, red kite, buzzard, and most notably at the moment, the hen harrier, have all been persecuted at one time or another to or beyond the point of extinction in Britain. Yet at the same time, when we as top predators decide to work together to conserve these magnificent birds, there is a way forward. Conservation difficulties are solved human to human.
One of the great success stories of recent years is the red kite. When I was a boy, the only place they could be seen was in South Wales. Following re-introduction programmes, notably in the 80s and 90s in the Chilterns and Rockingham Forest, kites, which are scavenging birds, are spreading. Travel up the M40 to Oxford, and especially around High Wycombe, you cannot fail to see one. A large raptor, at a distance it is the long wings and distinctively forked tail, which pivots on itself as the bird floats effortlessly, and often fairly low over fields and copses, which help identification. Up close and back-lit by the sun, its rust-red and grey plumage is remarkable.
Last year, a red kite arrived in Cranleigh and appeared to roost around Gaston Gate. I received a very excited greeting from Doc Young who said he has spotted a red kite over school for the first time last summer. After a couple of irregular sightings, the kite became a frequent visitor, especially over the Lowers; on one occasion flying barely a couple of metres above some very excited Prep School pupils who could not manage much more to say than, ‘Wow! What’s that?’ A fair reaction methinks. The good news is that the kite is still around and we hope that a solo will become a pair. It should be possible to see it over the entirety of the Cranleigh site, and on Smithwood Common and the road to Wonersh, so keep an eye out.
The other raptor that is spreading is the buzzard. A bird which was ubiquitous in the South West was rarely seen in the South East. We got quite excited ten years ago when I was at Reigate Grammar?that a buzzard was distracting the fielders at the Hartswood cricket pitch. Please see the following article for a more in depth analysis: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35916515 Returning to the South East after only eight years, it is striking how common they have become. They are daily visitors, especially over the golf course; their distinctive mewing call a signal to look up. Sometimes you will see a group of two or three circling high on the thermals.
Sadly while the buzzard is spreading the once?more common kestrel is declining – its alternative common name of Windhover much more evocative, describing its behaviour perfectly, especially when you see it above and to the side of motorway verges. Thankfully, the long grass of Smithwood Common and the paddocks at Cranleigh?s equestrian centre, provide good food and the telegraph poles good perching sites. At the end of April, I saw a male kestrel hunting from the Trevor Abbot Sports Centre; on 13th May, I saw a female perched on one of the telegraph poles in Van den Burgh field, so you never know.
There are two other raptors frequently around?Cranleigh School: the sparrowhawk and the tawny owl. The latter is more often heard than seen and I wrote about them in my first blog of the year: https://www.cranleigh.org/headmasters-blog/gatherings/. I most often see a sparrowhawk above the South Field and the golf course. Any golfer will know that there are plenty of small birds for prey around. You might be lucky enough to see it with prey on the ground: the West House girls took a photo of one behind the boarding house last year. Ultimately with all these birds, you need to spend some time looking up rather than down, a good habit anyway, and with the sparrowhawk you might see it at first as a pigeon but look for the broader wings and the distinctive flap, flap, guide flight or a series of short circles. If you are really blessed, you might hear a rumpus and catch a sight of it mid chase.
In the 1951, Birds of Cranleigh District, published by DD Lees master of the school, both little owls and barn owls were resident, with the latter at High Upfold Farm for years. I am reliably informed by a Cranleigh birder that there were recently little owls around the Prep School field but I have not seen or heard one. ?There is an old barn owl box on Smithwood Common which was inhabited?before it fell into disrepair;?and there is no reason to suggest why we could not attract one back, so my aim for the next year is to put boxes for little, barn and tawny owls around the school site.
For me, the excitement of seeing a bird of prey is a reminder of the unnoticed drama of living. In comfortable Surrey, where we take so much for granted, such a perspective is salutary.