Goshawks galore!

Goshawk

I had a lovely couple of walks during this past week on an estate not too far from Perth. On both occasions the days were sunny and with light wind. I try to avoid walking on windy days as wildlife seems to have the sense to stay under cover.

On the first of the two days I was on the edge of a narrow strip of woodland with a lovely mix of native trees interspersed with one or two conifers. A yearling roe doe, in resplendent summer coat of foxy red stepped daintily out of some bushes and surveyed its surroundings. I doubted that it would see me as I was motionless and to a degree blended in with the gate I was leaning against. What little wind there was unfortunately blew from the south from me towards the deer. It lifted its head, facing in my direction, clearly got my scent and retreated, albeit without panic, back into the bushes.

Suddenly three young pheasants about 100 yards from me jumped in the air and began to cuck, cuck, cuck in alarm. I thought they’d been spooked by a fox but seconds later a female sparrowhawk landed in a small rowan tree just in front of me. She had lovely slate grey and white bars on her breast and leg feathers and was close enough that I could see her yellow, piercing, eye. She had most likely flown low over the pheasants, as hunting sparrowhawks do, and was unseen by me until she landed. I slowly reached into my pocket for the camera but the sparrowhawk, much persecuted for centuries and in fact the last of the raptors to be protected by law, was not for posing and flew off to the other side of the wood.  The pheasants, still alarmed by the sudden appearance of this stealthy predator, continued to cuck cuck cuck for some time after it had gone. Even the much smaller male sparrowhawk has the same effect on my domestic ducks at home: they often dive into the pond if a sparrowhawk flies over, and they quack in alarm, often for a good 15 minutes afterwards.

Amazingly the next birds I saw were much bigger versions of the sparrowhawk: goshawks. I had walked further westwards along the woodland and was sitting on a stile having a sandwich when three birds appeared in the air about a quarter of a mile further west. I thought of the oft-quoted tale about buses: you wait for ages for one and then three come along at the same time. So it was with the goshawks, with the last one I’d seen being around seven years earlier. They are normally pretty secretive birds, mostly keeping to woodlands where they hunt small mammals and birds up to the size of an adult pheasant. In the springtime they display with an undulating skydance above their woodland nest site but what I was being treated to today was, I am sure, a form of training.

Of the three one was much larger and was clearly a female. The other two were male. I suspected they may have been this year’s youngsters though could equally have been the female’s partner plus one youngster. Unfortunately they were just out of the range needed to make this differentiation. The three were diving at each other in mock aggression, with the main player being the female. They were probably about 150 metres high and at one point the female closed her wings and plummeted towards the ground in a stoop that would have done credit to a peregrine. She rose again and this mock sky battle continued for at least five minutes until unfortunately they were lost to my view behind trees. It was interesting to note their underwing colour, which was much lighter and much more even that those of buzzards, birds of a similar size, and which very often have dark and light patches under their wings. The goshawks’ wings were broad and short, which facilitates their fantastic manoeuvrability through the narrowest gaps in trees in their more usual environment, woodlands.

This was a fantastic display by top avian predators. I thought of the prey species in the woodland underneath the trio of raptors and wondered how they were reacting. All was quiet and I suspect the pheasants had hidden out of sight. Rabbits would have been perfect prey for the goshawk family but they seem to have been killed off in the area by viral haemorrhagic disease, a disease that is even more deadly than myxomatosis.

On my second walk I was still on the same estate though a couple of miles northwest. I was in an ancient woodland that has a loch in the centre. I was interested in three birds on the loch that were sometimes bobbing on the surface and other times disappeared underwater and which I thought would be some variety of grebe, but my attention was attracted by an osprey which had come from the far side of the loch and was now flying over my head. Unbelievably, following on the same parallel course but a bit higher was a goshawk. The colour of the underside showed that it was an adult and, since I had the osprey to give a size comparison, I suspect the goshawk was a male. It was remarkable that I’d never seen a goshawk for years and here was one for the second time in a week.

And the three birds on the loch? Two  had disappeared and one was hiding in reeds at the side of the loch, but they were little grebes.

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