Raptor quest

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One of my aims for this year is to get some great shots of raptors - in particular, birds I have never photographed before. With that in mind I headed off to the Isle of Sheppey in Kent recently, where there are several RSPB reserves which are reputedly a good bet for winter raptor sightings. Marsh harriers, hen harriers, common buzzards, rough-legged buzzards, peregrines, short-eared owls and barn owls are all present and the very best place for sightings is supposedly the raptor viewing platform at Capel Fleet.

Sunday morning dawned with barely a cloud in the sky, as my friend and fellow photographer Mark Smith and I drove over the bridge into Sheppey. We parked the car at Capel corner, and with Mark as chief map reader (my sense of direction is haphazard at best!), we set off along the bridle path. It was a pleasant - if muddy - walk, and we spotted plenty of lapwing, a flock of white-fronted geese, three common buzzard and a kestrel. We also put up no fewer than five hares in one field, though we weren't close - or quick - enough to get any good shots!

As we approached the raptor viewing platform Mark spotted a marsh harrier and what looked like a male hen harrier (though he couldn't be certain) taking off from the reed bed close to the platform, disturbed by a car pulling into the car park.

We spent a good few hours watching several marsh harriers quartering the reed beds in search of a meal - mice, frogs or small birds. Unfortunately none of them came within 100 metres or so, but it was highly enjoyable watching them go about their business nevertheless. Later on in the afternoon more and more bird watchers turned up and we learned some useful local knowledge that they were more than happy to share with us. And we saw the male hen harrier again - a first for me, and I'll be hoping to get much closer views - and much better shots - in subsequent visits.

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