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