Sunday, 26 July 2015

Kestrels, Sparrowhawks red in tooth and claw

In theory summer time should be a quiet time for me but in actual fact quite the reverse is true. As an exam marker for OCR I was kept occupied with 455 exam papers to mark over May and June, on top of this I have been updating and writing new textbooks for the new A-levels being released in September. All this has had an impact on my ability to get out and see wildlife.

 I have still managed my weekly patch visits but nothing out of the ordinary has turned up in the past few weeks. I m unsure if the Kestrels have indeed bred, there has been much activity in the suspected nest tree but not enough food drops to suggest breeding. Having said that last week the Adults got very flustered by a Sparrowhawk passing by and some of the calls from individuals sounded very juvenile and in the distance they did seem like possible youngsters. As in previous years the concrete proof may well come from observing the parents teaching their young to hunt.

I have watched this happen several times in the past 10 years. The young take place on a prominent tree and when not bickering with each other watch as one or the other parent hovers over the field. If there is a catch the food is either taken up to them or the youngsters come down to investigate. Eventually they seem to take it in turns to fly up hover and then drop.  I am not certain that every drop was in response to a prey item but more like a practice run to ensure they learn how to extricate themselves from the long grass. It is whilst on the ground with prey that they are most vulnerable themselves and have to learn to despatch the prey quickly and retreat to a safe tree.

Speaking of hunting the Sparrowhawk has been very busy around the housing estate. Usually a female is seen but now a male has become more conspicuous. Perhaps the female is on eggs or with young as his hunting pattern has increased considerably. In the hot weather during the tennis on three separate occasions the male swept into the garden to perch on the lilac tree, even when people were sat in the garden. Like most birds of prey they get most of their water from their food but the sparrowhawk always seemed to be aiming for branches above the bird bath. In each case it did not seem to be in hunting mode and was always startled by us before it could either bathe or drink.

Yesterday however hunting mode was definitely in action. I was sat on the patio when an alarm call alerted me to his presence. It’s hard to explain the difference but the alarm call for Cat by birds is different to that of Sparrowhawk and I knew instantly to keep an eye skyward. Faster that I could track the male swept low over the leylandi hedge with a starling snatched from the next door neighbours feeder clutched in its talons. The starling was still very much alive and screeching in fear. The hawk alighted on the lawn barely 3 metres from me its trademark yellow knitting needle thin legs pinning the bird to the floor. Usually in this situation the hawk would bend and dispatch the bird with a peck to the head or a re-positioning of the talon to the neck. Sometimes a hawk will take time to take a few mouthfuls or to strip away some feathers but our garden is quite enclosed and so usually it heads off immediately.

In this case, a case that took of all of milliseconds to take place things were different. Although I had risen from my seat the hawk had not seen me or had discounted my threat. From out of a push leapt a male Blackbird who stood proudly on the lawn wings and feathers flared in display chiming out an alarm call. The hawk glanced at the Blackbird and then tracked across to me where our eyes met.

There is something about the meeting of eyes that holds a certain power. I have noticed this in many wildlife encounters. That as soon as eyes are met something unspoken takes place, where once an animal was happy with your presence they become skittish and nervous. A kind of understanding passes between you that you in fact could be a danger... a recognition by the animal that you are an enemy to be avoided. In a split second and with a look that could have been both resentment and annoyance the sparrowhawk released the starling and flew off with characteristic agility. Acting on instinct alone I imagine, still squawking, it fled to the bush into which the blackbird had now retreated. I have no idea if the starling survived, after all it must have suffered wounds from being gripped by the sparrowhawk. Had my presence and the blackbirds interference actually deprived the predator and its possible chicks a meal whilst condemning the starling to a long slow death from wounds sustained.


It is an interesting philosophical point and one that should challenge your views on nature. Nature is ‘dog eat dog’ out there. It is complex and dynamic and to appreciate it fully you must accept both the cute fluffy ducklings and the pike that appears from below and drags one to oblivion. Life and death such as this is portrayed regularly on documentaries about the Serengeti with lions bringing down wildebeest or wolves tracking deer in Yellowstone but these patterns occur in the UK and are just as important, poignant and raw as elsewhere.