Winter Raptors

© Andrew Whitmarsh

Winter is a wonderful time of year to see our beautiful birds of prey.

As the trees shed their leaves and the land braces for winter, birds of prey become increasingly conspicuous. With daylight in retreat and prey ever scarcer, raptors are hunting fiercely to survive the cold. 

These beautiful birds are hypnotic to watch as they soar through the sky in search of their next meal. Here are some you might spot locally…

Sparrowhawk © Russ Valentine

Sparrowhawk © Russ Valentine 

Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawks are elusive birds. Woodlands are their preferred hunting ground, which means they often go un-noticed in dense plantations and small copses. Like many other raptors they were seriously impacted by pesticide residues, but have recovered well from a particularly low point in the early 1970s. Since the arrival of goshawks, there is some evidence that sparrowhawk numbers have declined in the New Forest; they avoid their larger cousin, which will kill them given the chance.

Buzzard

© Darin Smith

Buzzard

Buzzards were once very restricted in our area, and as recently as the 1980s they could only be found in the New Forest. Since then their numbers have soared, and they can be seen swooping overhead whether you’re exploring rural Hampshire or navigating the M3. It is possible that they have benefited from a more positive attitude to birds of prey.

Kestrel near a city

© Andrew Whitmarsh

Kestrel

While kestrels are still a familiar sight as they hover over grasslands and road verges, they have not fared as well as other birds of prey in recent years. Their numbers have fallen by more than a third over the last couple of decades. This could be because rodenticides are impacting vole populations, which is having a knock on effect on kestrels - voles are an important food source for them. Despite this, kestrels can be seen almost anywhere, but open grassland sites are best. St. Catherine’s Hill nature reserve in Winchester and Farlington Marshes nature reserve near Portsmouth are both great places to see them.

Red Kite

Red Kite

One of the delights of the last decade has been the return of red kites to a number of areas around the UK. Red kites favour productive farmland, but can be seen almost anywhere – they can be told apart from buzzards by their distinctive forked tail. They feed on carrion and earthworms, and in winter sizeable flocks may be seen at communal roosting sites.