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Country diary: panic ripples through the birds as a raptor approaches

Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve in West Sussex
Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve in West Sussex. Photograph: Rob Yarham

Geese and ducks call softly to each other among the pools of water, still ice-edged and glimmering in the morning light. Twelve dark brown fallow deer graze under the trees.

The bird calls become louder, more urgent, spreading among the flocks. Lapwing cry and swoop into the air, first one, then two, then larger groups. Ducks and small waders fly up. Panic begins to ripple through the birds on the ground. They are detecting the approaching arrowhead shadow of a large, female peregrine falcon. It soars over the brooks at about 100 feet, but this is no idle flyover – the raptor is focused, intent. I can see it turn its face, watching the birds below, trying to single out possible targets.

A peregrine falcon
A peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). Photograph: Clement Philippe/Alamy Stock Photo

Suddenly, the falcon tumbles, then levels out with two flaps of its wings. Flying low and fast, it slices through the cloud of rising birds, but it doesn’t strike. It climbs, twists and banks for another pass, then it dives. The water splashes and sparkles, but the peregrine is already climbing, its feet lowered but empty. One of the ducks has had a near miss. The falcon powers up to a height of about 50 feet, and circles over the noisy flocks. It selects a new target and dives again. The water splashes higher this time, but again the falcon has missed. It tries a new tactic: gathering speed, it shadows a flock of teal through the sky, following the lower trailing edge of the birds. It picks out an individual falling away from the group, and closes. The small duck drops out of the way at the last moment, but the peregrine doesn’t follow it.

There are two more pursuits. The falcon’s wing beats become slower, more laboured – it is tiring, or losing interest. Finally, it glides to the ground to rest on the grass and, holding its wings out, it shakes them and starts to preen.

I walk on, uphill, but stop when I hear a sharp “tick-tick” call in the branches above. Perched in the crown of a tree is a single, large, top-heavy finch – a hawfinch, one of many this winter – its bronze head and silvered beak glowing in the sun.

This article titled "Country diary: panic ripples through the birds as a raptor approaches" was written by Rob Yarham, for The Guardian on Tuesday 13 February 2018 05.30am

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