The lure of the Falcon

This is a wonderful time of the year to be out looking for all the wildlife the Kyle of Sutherland has to offer. There are 3 species of Falcon to look for, here are some tips to help you identify them

Female Kestrel. © andyastbury / AdobeStock
Merlin. © Chris Hill / AdobeStock
Peregrine falcon. / © Magdalena Bujak / AdobeStock

The ospreys have returned, the curlew are calling, sand martins are hunting over the Kyle and the salmon are heading up the rivers to spawn.

One family of birds that we often see in and around the Kyle of Sutherland are the Falcons. They are the fastest of all the bird species and I love to watch them. Their distinctive long sickle shaped wings cutting through the air in pursuit of prey.

There are three local species that we might see when out and about near the Kyle. Often they can be difficult to identify, so here are my tips on what to look for when identifying the Falcons.


First of all we have the Kestrel. It is mostly resident with us all through the year, though not in large numbers, sadly nationally they have had a large decline in recent years. It is a small falcon, distinctive because of the way it hovers when it’s hunting. None of the other falcons do this as a regular method of catching prey. It normally predates on short tailed voles and shrews. The male has a slate bluish grey head and tail and the female is brown with black bars. They have a call that is very distinctive, in fact their Latin name is falco tinnuculus which roughly translated means ‘scimitar shaped little bell ringer’ referring to both their wing shape and call. Sometimes you can hear them calling, particularly in spring when they are displaying prior to the breeding season. They like to nest on rock faces, in old crow’s nests in trees and sometimes in the crevices of buildings. They will also use specialist Kestrel nest boxes if a natural location is not available. Their preferred nest site is normally chosen in late winter and they then lay their eggs in late March. As the breeding season progresses they will hunt long into the evening when they have hungry chicks to feed, which can be as many as six in a good vole year. This is a good falcon to get your eye in when trying do differentiate the species.


Next we have the Merlin, now this is a difficult little falcon to recognise. It’s smaller than a kestrel though not by much, the female has a darker brown plumage and the male, known as a ‘Jack’, is a darker blue in colour.

My only way to describe it in flight is that it flies like a little rocket! Somewhat like a bumble bee racing through the skies. Hunting predominantly small birds, it courses through the air in aerial combat. It is seen over the moorland in spring and summer and becomes much rarer to view in the winter when many will head south or head to the coastal areas. It will nest on the ground and in trees.

Peregrine Falcon

Last of all we have the Peregrine Falcon. What can I say, the fastest bird of the three, some say the fastest bird on the planet. Capable of achieving speeds in excess of 150mph. This incredible speed is achieved in what’s called the ‘stoop’. This is when they dive from a great height onto their prey. Their preferred diet is other birds of a similar or slightly smaller size. In adult plumage they are slate blue on their back and head and a paler chest marked  with black bars. The female falcon is about a third larger than the male who is called a tierce, which means third. They like to nest on cliff faces or sometimes quarries. In the cities they have taken to nest on high rise buildings. In fact it is probably easier to see them in the cities than it is in the countryside today. Nevertheless you can see them locally and my what an incredible bird they are!

When you are out and about keep an eye out for one of these three birds, they are sure to brighten up your day whichever one you see.

by Ashley Smith

Last Updated on 10 June, 2021 by Kyle Chronicle

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