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Part 6 - The Kestrel and the Meadow Pipit
Kestrel – Falco tinnunculus

A line drawing of the Kestrel in Flight A line drawing of the Kestrel perched

Most people will be familiar with the kestrel, the commonest bird of prey across much of Europe and beyond. As recently as the early 1970s, this was the only bird of prey that you could expect to see regularly in the south east. Things have improved greatly since, as populations of many birds of prey including both sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons have increased.

The kestrel’s old name – wind-hover – sums up its hunting method very neatly although when the wind is strong enough, the bird is able simply to hang effortlessly in the air, its eyes fixed on the target area below. Unlike the very similarly-sized sparrowhawk, it’s unusual to see kestrels in Kingston gardens since their main prey is small mammals, especially short-tailed voles, rather than birds. However, like most successful predators, kestrels are fairly adaptable and will also take other prey including small birds. Later in the summer, family groups of birds can sometimes be seen over the Downs.

At this time, they may be hunting for beetles or even grasshoppers; further south in Europe lizards can be a regular part of the diet. Kestrels may nest in the forks of trees or on ledges in buildings or cliffs. Sometimes, they build on the foundations of old nests abandoned by other birds, like crows. There may be only one or two pairs in the parish, perhaps one in Ash Wood or the copse at the top of Kingston Hill.

Meadow pipit – Anthus pratensis

Anyone who walks regularly on the Downs will have encountered meadow pipits, although this is one of those species that may be entirely overlooked by those without a great deal of interest in birds. Their plumage may be unexciting – predominantly brown, with a whitish, streaked breast– but their song, while not really in the same league as that of the closely related skylark, is nonetheless extremely attractive. It’s usually delivered in flight, as the bird parachutes slowly down to the ground. Meadow pipits are birds of open landscapes and are probably the most common bird of all on the northern moors. In the south, they breed rather sparsely. Numbers seem higher in the winter, when resident birds may be joined by migrants to form largish groups.

Meadow pipits can be heard singing and can breed as late as July, the nest being cleverly hidden in a tussock of grass. The name is presumably imitative, as are local names like cheeper, peep, teetan, wekeen and chitty, all of which show just how difficult it is to represent a bird call in words! Next time you walk up Kingston Hill, keep an eye open for a small brown bird perched on a fence or a bush: if it’s not a linnet, it’s probably a meadow pipit.

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