Saturday, 9 January 2016

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus






Before anyone states the obvious, I realise none of the birds above are actually Sparrowhawks. What connects them (apart from the fact they were all in my garden this afternoon) is that they are all Sparrowhawk prey.

I'm a bit obsessed with Sparrowhawks right now, having spent the week researching their ecology for an assignment for college. As a result, I have fallen quite a lot in love with them.

 

Not my photo sadly (how chuffed I would be to take something like this).

Persecuted relentlessly throughout the 19th Century by the Game Industry and then poisoned into virtual eradication by DDT, Dieldrin and Aldrin organochemicals during the 50s and 60s (which caused their egg shells to thin to the point they were not viable for breeding), Sparrowhawks have had full protection under UK law since 1971 and their numbers have recovered. Although you'd be forgiven for not knowing it.

How many of you have seen a Sparrowhawk? 

I can count on one hand the number of times I have, and all of these have been in the last two years when I wasn't looking for them. At each occasion they have been so intent on the hunt that my presence was of secondary importance to it. In fact, Sparrowhawks can be so single-minded when it comes to the catch that they have been known to fly into buildings, cars and pylons, sometimes killing themselves in the process. 

Along with the Kestrel, they are the UKs commonest diurnal raptor, but unlike the Kestrel Sparrowhawks are rarely seen, spending almost all their lives in cover and appearing like a bolt of lightening in the open only when about to snatch their prey, so I consider it an absolute privilege to have had my four close encounters with them.

The most recent was three nights ago. I was outside the front of the house watching one of our male Pipistrelles hunting midges through the gloaming. I was admiring the weave and glide of his wings as he twisted through the air above my head and thinking how lucky we are to have these two boys roosting in the eaves of our house, when out of nowhere and so fast had I blinked I'd have missed it, a female Sparrowhawk swooped through the air and grabbed him. In one swift and graceful arcing movement, she appeared, snatched the bat from the sky and disappeared.

M who was with me missed it, despite my squeak. One minute the bat was there, a tiny black shape in the air, the next the sky was empty.

Two summers ago I was eating my lunch on our patio when a noise like a sheet of paper being ripped cleanly and quickly right next to my ear made me start and, again in a split second, I caught the flash of a Sparrowhawk as it shot past me in a silent 50kmph dive. From the front when tucked into a dive they are virtually invisible, having small heads and narrow wings. This gives them an advantage in the hunt. Most small songbirds simply don't see them coming until it is too late. Plus they fly at less than 35kmph, so the hawk has the speed advantage in a straight dash. But small birds are remarkably well-adapted to announcing the presence of a predator when they get the chance to, and the second they do the entire space is cleared of all small birds as they dive for cover as one. Interestingly, swallows, pigeons and waders are faster flyers than Sparrowhawks. Pigeons- can you believe it? I'll have to tell Ted :o)

Last Spring, walking the dogs through the woods I was nearly flown into by a female. She erupted from the undergrowth with a blackbird clutched in her feet and a ferocious expression of complete concentration on her magnificent hawk features. I found myself shivering, as I looked for a split second into those intelligent, single-minded, bright yellow eyes before she twisted her wings to avoid crashing in to me and disappeared back into cover in complete silence. 

Those kinds of close encounters with wild hawks do something to you. It felt like I'd stepped in to a private world, a place usually hidden from humans, somewhere we walk past but can't see in to and are precluded from. A blessing from The Wild. I was mindful of it and walked like I was under a mild bewitchment, unable to shake it off for most of the rest of that day. I can still recall it: the whole thing which lasted seconds has been imprinted in my memory in slow motion.

My only other sighting was from the car. We'd pulled up at a junction last autumn and two birds fell out of the sky right in front of us, another female Sparrowhawk this time with a pigeon pinned underneath her. As soon as they hit the ground she stuck the claws of both feet into the bird (they have an extra long central toe for this purpose) and spread her wings out and down in a tent shape which I have since learnt is typical of the way these hawks protect their prey from competitors.

Male Sparrowhawks are smaller than the girls, to enable them to hunt in summer forests when the canopy is thick. They take no active role in raising the young directly, but keep the female and then later the babies supplied with food (usually small passerines, or songbirds). The females hunt larger prey like magpies, jays, pigeons and thrushes, so you'll sometimes see them hunting in more open habitats. They'll also take male Sparrowhawks if they can! 

Sparrowhawks are not colonial birds but they are mate-faithful and monogamous, sometimes staying together for years (they live for between 5-10 years, although many male chicks die in the first year). They prefer to nest in young conifers woodlands where there isn't too much open space (this is driven by fear of Goshawks who inhabit older, more open woodlands and who predate Sparrowhawks). With the demise of Goshawks and Pine Marten (their other main predator), Sparrowhawks are now mainly at threat from Tawny Owls who predate their nests, and from habitat destruction. Ironically, re-afforestation policies that support the rotational management of conifer plantations every 40-60 years create ideal habitat for the Sparrowhawk, even if not much else gains by them.


The easiest way to find a Sparrowhawk is to look for their plucking posts- usually an area on or near to the ground where a pile of feathers has been left. These are re-used and are often sited not far from the nesting or roosting site. They do roost in broad leaved woods as well, but their absolute preference is for young, large, conifer woods in valley bottoms, so check your maps and take a walk out into the countryside and see if you can find any signs. If you're fortunate enough to see one you'll know you're one of the few who has.

Hope that was interesting/ useful? And that all are well?

CT :o)

ps- Ted still getting better. Poppy still being ultra well-behaved (which makes us all suspicious!)

43 comments:

  1. In the house where we moved from we had a sparrow hawk, he kept taking the Siskins, it broke my heart, but it's nature, what can you do?

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    1. That's the hard part, for sure. I will miss our bat, but watching the hawk hunting was something else. So quick and clean and precise.

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  2. One came into my garden a while back, it was eyeing up the guinea pigs but obviously decided they would be too heavy to take.

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  3. Thanks for sharing that info. It seems the Kestral is our smallest raptor in the eastern US, which are common. Very interesting that there is an even smaller one. In the countryside round me right now, though, it's eagles we get to see a lot of, thanks to the DDT ban put in place a few decades ago.

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    1. Gosh I envy you Eagles, Casey. I think I saw one once in Scotland many years ago but can't be sure. Am returning there this spring and will be keeping my eyes peeled and my fingers crossed!

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  4. We see a sparrowhawk almost every day. He or she (usually she) whips across the top of the hedge and swoops past the bird feeders - sometimes catching something and sometimes not. We have a big holly hedge by the feeders and the small birds dash into that for protection. Often it catches a collared dove -we have dozens, and I mean dozens. Then there are feathers everywhere. They are beautiful birds and my feeling is that they have to live, as do all other birds - and it has to be the survival of the fittest.
    We seem to have a resident jackdaw - I rather like the jaunty way they walk everywhere.

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    1. That's a classic garden/ farmland hunting technique and not something I have seen before so I'm envious. LOVE Jackdaws- we have some nesting in our chimney pot each summer. They are marvellous birds. So clever too.

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  5. I see sparrowhawks quite often but I think that's just because they are around and I'm quite observant and always on the look out for any kind of nature/wildlife! I saw one today as I was driving, which then landed on a tree nearby! We get them in the garden too and have done for the whole time we've lived in this house (almost 10 years) but I've only managed to take a photo of one in the garden once! http://roachling.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/a-garden-visitor.html

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    1. Your house is evidently in at least one Sparrowhawk's territory/ range if you're seeing them that often- how wonderful, lucky you. Have just looked at your pictures- glorious! I bet you were grinning all day after that :o)

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  6. I -think- I seen one once. I was about 12/13 and looking out of my bedroom window and something large and brown roared down and plucked a sparrow off the guttering. Then it was gone. A split second that I have never forgotten.

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    1. It does stay in the memory, doesn't it? I'm going to try and be more alert to them and hope to see them in non-hunting mode this year!

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  7. Came across one sat watching the feeders on my downstaris neighbours' tree, its yellow eyes are remarkable even at a distance. Mainly you see them gliding overhead, flap-flap-flap-glide. I saw one chase a pigeon under a car port when cycling home.

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    1. Those eyes are amazing, aren't they? Interesting to hear about the chase under the car port, I've not seen that before but it fits exactly with what the books I've been reading say about their single-minded focus when hunting.

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    1. I know :o( I was so torn between being sad for the bat and impressed with the grace of the hawk.

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  9. What a fabulous post today. I enjoyed reading it very much.
    I love hawks. I live on the top of a hilly area and the Cooper Hawks zoom by. One had caught and was eating a quail right my my studio window and citrus trees. I started to watch and then he looked straight at me (I was inside a dark room he was in sunlight and he moved behind the trees.
    They know.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. I've just looked Cooper Hawks up and they look a lot like the male sparrowhawk in their colours- how amazing to have them so near you. I think you're right- raptors have a very strong instinct for being away from people.

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  10. Oh CT I have a local sparrow hawk. Not mine really but you know what I mean. I was very excited to read this post & I will root out some photos. We have an extremely healthy population of garden birds so we tend to see him/her quite often through the year. I have photos of the sparrow hawk sitting on my garden fence & next doors front gate post, I really must search for them & post them xx

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    1. I'd love to see your pictures Jo and am envious you have a local one. It's interesting that most folks are reporting seeing them in gardens where they're coming for small songbirds rather than out in the wild, where you really don't see them all that often. Unlike most other birds of prey xx

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  11. Really fascinating. Your course is SO interesting, it makes me wish I was doing it too. It's so disappointing that sparrowhawk numbers have fallen so much. I've never seen one, to my knowledge, although the biggest boy says he saw one once. As you say, it's such a privilege to have a glimpse into the world of the wild. I'm always amazed how fast pigeons fly. Sometimes a flock go over in a fast swish of wings and they're gone in an instant. Wishing you a good Sunday with a little wildness thrown in. CJ xx

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    1. It is a great course and I have learnt so much on it. I have always loved The Wild, but now have a new respect for various species having studied their ecology, and feel very protective of our wild creatures and places. They are a touch-stone with where we've all come from and I think we'll be much worse off if they continue to go at the rate they currently are. xx

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  12. Excellent blog post. Although I am sad about the pipistrelle - we used to have three around at nightfall but these days I see only one.
    I have seen a sparrowhawk only once and briefly - in my own backyard. I saw a hedge sparrow zoom across and over the fence with a "Peep!" and the sparrowhawk followed to land with a twist on the fence (missing the sparrow).
    It was there just long enough for me to identify it by the pale, barred breast.
    Your descriptions bring it all back.
    All the best for 2016 :)

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    1. I am sad about the Pip too and just hope another will take his place. I'm not sure how usual it is for a sparrowhawk to take a bat, must ask those wiser than me!
      I'm fascinated that almost everyone here who has seen a Sparrowhawk has done so in their garden. They just aren't seen in woods in the same way. Happy 2016 to you too :o)

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  13. Great post on this wonderful bird. We have a local population-might be just one or two birds but I see them regularly here at Broadsands as one likes my neighbours roof opposite, to rest on. Kestrels are much scarcer sadly but we have the occasional one flying across the green.
    So glad Ted is getting better-Harry sends a friendly woof of support.

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    1. Their preferred method of hunting is called short stay perch hunting- it's sounds like that was exactly what the bird you saw on the roof was doing. We get Kestrels here- they nest in the woods down the road so I see the male and female regularly and last year heard the children learning to fly. Very Noisy they were too!
      Ted says thanks Harry and he hopes his ears are better too :o)

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  14. I am very lucky where I live to have a good variety of wildlife to see regularly and sparrowhawk is one often spotted around us. I think my most memorable sighting of a brd was a barn owl which swooped low in front of the car windshield and then settled as bold as brass in the tree right next to us for a minute or two before taking flight again...magnificent birds!!

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    1. Barn Owls are something else, aren't they? Years back one would fly in front of the car all the way along the lane home of an evening. I got so used to seeing him I forgot it doesn't happen regularly elsewhere. My most recent sighting was in Cambs last summer when we disturbed one in a tree in broad daylight. Beautiful creatures.

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  15. We get a sparrowhawk regularly in the garden. I've seen it plucking larger birds such as collared doves but never seen it catch a smaller species when it chases round them the feeders. Rarely see kestrels these days though :(

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    1. It's interesting to hear everyone's garden-related sightings. I wonder whether they are adapting to hunting in gardens more frequently as more people put out bird feed and the prey supply is therefore reliable? Sad to think that Kestrel sightings are falling in parts of the country. We seem to have a good population here. I think I'll read up on kestrel ecology too now :o)

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  16. Hey CT,
    Two Sparrowhawk encounters here. In 2011, a Sparrowhawk took up residence near my in laws house, which overlooks Porthmeor Beach. It spent the summer killing all manner of birds in their garden. I was luck enough to see it a couple of times. But my favorite and best was one early evening whilst sat in my conservatory reading, I looked up to see one sat on my fence. There for about 30 seconds and then gone. Utterly took my breath away.
    Leanne xx

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    1. Fantastic! I can well imagine your feelings. There used to be a Kestrel in the fields where I kept my horses. Once or twice he landed on the stable roof, surveyed the land about then deigned to look down at me. We locked gazes and after a few seconds he looked away, as I if were rather boring and he had more important things to stare at :o) XX

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  17. Very interesting and very useful, thank you. We caught a brief glimpse of a sparrowhawk back in the autumn, not in a valley bottom, but next to conifer woods on a valley side. Such a beautiful bird.

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    1. Fantastic! Sounds like perfect habitat too. My understanding is they prefer valley bottoms and sides to uplands, but are really driven by prey availability and competition from other birds ultimately.

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  18. There's a lot of Sparrohawk activity round here, often in our gardens. Maybe that's why my feeders are not so busy!

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    1. Quite possibly! It's great to hear how many are seen in and around gardens. They are hard birds to study because in woods they are so secretive unless you happen to see one hunting x

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  19. Loved this post CT. Sparrowhawks are magnificent birds, aren't they? Ages ago I lived in a rented house next to fields and a wood that had a plucking post in the garden – an old tree stump – and we were lucky enough to see one several times.

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    1. How fantastic, I bet you have special memories of that. I would dearly love to see them up close and perching as per the Kestrels here but brief flashes from time to time are better than nothing.

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  20. Such a brilliant post -- I've learned lots, so thank you!! Sparrowhawks sound like such marvelous creatures -- small but fierce and what a fantastic thing to have had those close encounters!

    I have to admit I was a bit sad about the bat, though....:(

    I'm reading a Roger Deakin book just now and it reminds me of you. xo

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    1. They are amazing things, but then I think all hawks have something special and other-wordly about them.
      I'm also sad about the bat. It's those moments that balance your empathy with nature-awareness.

      I got a Roger Deakin for crimble- saving it at the mo until I have some time to absorb it. Love his books :o) XX

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  21. I've seen them in the garden quite a number of times and seen them dive into the Leylandii hedge too, only to come out with nothing. I'm always torn as I don't want them to take my garden birds, yet they have to eat. Unfortunately the closest I've ever been is to a dead one that flew into our downstairs bathroom window and broke its neck. I did take photos but couldnt post them as it seemed wrong. :-( xx

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    1. I know what you mean, it's hard to support one side over the other but I guess it's just nature at the end of the day. My feeling is as long as you've got a large enough prey population to cope with the predator losses you're doing OK.

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  22. Well photographed CT, lovely you laid it out, cheers.

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x