Who's coming to dinner? by Andrew Cooper
After a warm dry summer here in Devon, a couple of days of rain has got the grass growing again. Parties of resident small birds are foraging through the hedgerow trees and some spectacular migrant birds have stopped to feed. I always keep my camera close. Of all our feathered friends that feature on favourite television programmes, none rate higher than birds of prey. And it's not surprising. Good looking with a hint of danger, they command respect. Their vital statistics are just as good. A turn of speed that can take your breath away and aerial agility that even Olympians would envy. Who needs Poldark for drama and excitement, when these fast flying stars of sky and screen are around?
Owls, hawks and eagles regularly achieve the highest ratings for wildlife documentaries. I never cease to be in awe of their power of flight - from tiny Merlin chasing a lark on the moor, to the aerobatics of Hobby taking dragonflies on the wing. We usually see a couple of Hobbies here in our valley in late summer, stopping off briefly to hunt around the big pond on their way south.
However, the prize for speed must go to the resident Peregrine. A pair nests a couple of miles away on a sheer coastal cliff. As they fly, we are less than a minute away and our well wooded valley offers a regular supply of wood pigeons. After high summer we often see adults and young, the grownups showing their kids how food ought to be won. Their calls echoing across the hills always quicken my pulse.
But for sheer size and excitement the biggest are best. A few years ago a soaring Red Kite put in a Spring appearance low over our farmhouse. They are still rare in Devon and so its timing was superb. A party of keen birders had just arrived for a farm walk and talk. What a thrilling start. But even the Kite is outclassed by another of its kin. Of all the birds we see, early September usually exceeds our wildest dreams. Few come close to the charisma of the Osprey. On the way to West Africa one often breaks its journey for a few days on the nearby estuary. Late one afternoon, we watched as a lone Osprey carried its fish supper to one of our tallest trees. That evening we dined at home with a superstar!