Forest’s birds of prey put under microscope

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A RESEARCH student’s studies are getting off to a flying start.

Sarah Hoy, who grew up near Brigg, is spending three years working in the Kielder Forest untangling the complex relationships between birds of prey.

Goshawks, buzzards, sparrow hawks, kestrel and owls, among others, find a safe haven in the 155,000 acre Northumbrian forest – the largest man-made woodland in England – but little is known about the way they interact as a feathered community and with other birds.

Some of the larger birds, like goshawks and buzzards, have bounced back after years of persecution, and are now “pretty stable” and Ms Hoy is looking at what effect their increased numbers has on smaller birds like the tawny owl.

The 26-year-old, who is working for a postdoctoral degree at Aberdeen University, grew up in Cadney, three miles from Brigg, where she used to watch a pair of tawny owls on a tree in the garden – little suspecting that one day they would be the subject of her research.

Working with Forestry Commission rangers and ornithologists, she has now put down temporary roots in Kielder – England’s remotest village.

“There are few places you could do this kind of research,” she said. “Not only are there long established study populations of birds like goshawk, tawny owls and peregrine falcons in Kielder, but there is a mountain of data already collected which can be further analysed.”

For more than 30 years Kielder, which was originally planted with conifers in the 1920s as a strategic reserve of timber for the nation, has been the centre of the UK’s longest running tawny owl research project of its kind.

The research will look at what effect the larger birds of prey like goshawks is having on smaller birds like tawny owls and how owl behaviour and foraging times have been affected.

More light may also be shed on raptors killing and eating other raptors – a fairly common, but not well studied, phenomenon.

“Roughly five per cent of the diet of goshawks is made up of other raptors, kestrels or owls,” she said. “It is usually the very young tawny owl that gets taken before they are full fledged. They probably will have just been in the branches because they will still have downy feathers and they will be quite conspicuous and food-calling and quite easy for a goshawk to find.”

The research means the entire adult population – this year there were fewer than 30 breeding pairs – needs to be tagged. A reader and data logger fitted in the nest keeps tab on how often the birds fly in and out.

She said: “The majority are amazingly docile which is quite incredible considering you are putting a metal band round their leg – they just lie there quite still.”

She went on: “I’d say they were probably not that wise, for example when we need to catch the males we fit a trap onto the front of the nest box with the family inside and the male has to go through the trap to feed the chicks.

“It looks very different and they still go in – they must notice it, but the desire to feed the chicks will override that.”

Ms Hoy says both her parents are interested in wildlife and when she was a child they’d go to Blacktoft Sands and Donna Nook to see the sealife. After leaving Brigg, she studied zoology at Manchester University and completed a Master’s degree in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at Imperial College London.

Martin Davison, Forestry Commission ornithologist, said: “It’s fascinating research, which could help our understanding of bird behaviour in what is a man-made forest. There are always winners and losers in nature and as Kielder matures some species do well, while others, like kestrel, decline.

“But fortunately human persecution, with birds being killed and eggs and chicks stolen, is not a major problem in Kielder. That means it is possible to look at the way species naturally impact on each other.”