Sparrowhawk

Accipiter nisus

Thou dost not fly, thou art not perched, 
The air is all around: 
What is it that can keep thee set, 
From falling to the ground? 
The concentration of thy mind 
Supports thee in the air; 
As thou dost watch the small young birgs, 
With such a deadly care.
...

William Henry Davies

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A regular visitor to my garden. In putting up feeders, I’d provided relatively easy prey for the Hawk. I’ve written about this, and my experience of watching and photographing the Sparrowhawk in my garden, in more detail below.

Some of the images below are a little bit gruesome. Such is nature.

RSPB information

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Sparrowhawk, garden
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The Sparrowhawk in my Garden

I can’t recall the date I saw the Sparrowhawk in my garden for the first time, but I clearly remember the circumstances.

I opened the bedroom curtains, still feeling very sleepy, and stood for a few seconds, yawning, and looking out into the garden. The garden is quite small and enclosed, and at the time was full of shrubs and plants, so it was not easy to see at first glance whether there was anything unusual – not that I was ever expecting anything unusual.

I became aware of a small movement down to my left. I looked at what I thought was one of the many Doves that regularly visit the garden; his back towards me and his head turned to look up at me. Then, as the bird’s head moved again, as if sizing me up and deciding what to do, I noticed a bright yellow eye, staring right into mine.

Suddenly the bird launched itself toward the bottom of the garden and I caught a brief glimpse of orange under-parts and noticed broad grey wings. As I watched it fly swiftly over the shrubs, I saw what looked like a small bundle of feathers hanging beneath the bird.

A few minutes later I went out into the garden and stood where the hawk had been. The area was covered in small grey feathers; those of a House Sparrow no doubt.

I have fed the birds in my garden for many years, and since starting to photograph birds a few years ago, I frequently set up my camera at a window overlooking the feeders. The most common visitor among many is the House Sparrow, and no doubt this is what attracts the Sparrowhawk.

The second time I saw the Hawk I was sat behind my camera at the window. There were many birds – sparrows, tits, finches – on the feeders, or perched in nearby shrubs waiting their turn.

Sparrowhawk, garden

Suddenly, the small birds scattered in all directions, screeching loudly. A large brown/grey bird entered the garden from the left and crashed into one of the shrubs and out of site. I stood to get a better view, but all I could see was the rapid twitching of the shrub’s branches.

What I could hear was the frenzied flapping of wings within the shrub, as both attacker and intended prey darted and dodged desperately; the latter in a frantic and instinctive attempt to cling on to life.

When the activity within the shrub ceased, I assumed the worst for the small bird. However, the Hawk reappeared and alighted on a branch, empty handed. I was able to poke my camera lens through a small window and take a few shots.

Throughout the chase, all the garden birds had continued to chirp, almost as one. This surprised me, as I thought they might want to remain silent and hidden away. The Hawk appeared confused by all the noise – perhaps this was the intention – but occasionally it would fix its stare in a particular direction, bobbing its head from time to time in the way all predators do when sizing up the distance to a target.

Suddenly the Hawk dropped off the pergola and once again crashed into a shrub before re-alighting in the same spot; this time he was not empty-handed. The small grey-brown bird with still-yellow gape, gripped tightly in the razor-sharp talons of the Hawk, was a juvenile House Sparrow. The young Sparrow was alive, its beak repeatedly opening and closing slowly, although it wasn’t possible to determine whether any sound escaped.

The Hawk continued to scan the garden, much like the diner who, after choosing his meal, continues to peruse the menu and wonder whether he’s made the right choice. He then looked down at his still whimpering prey and lowered his beak towards it. For a dreadful moment I thought he would devour it before my eyes, but he raised his wings and with a few powerful beats was gone. The garden soon fell silent.

Throughout this drama I had continued to take shots of the Hawk when it was within view. When the Hawk had gone, I sat and thought about what had happened.

I had that same feeling in my stomach that I would get if I witnessed a car accident or a violent act on the evening news. There was something mildly shocking about it; a feeling that what I had just witnessed shouldn’t really happen. I also briefly considered whether I should be providing food for birds if, in turn, this provided easy prey for the Hawk.

Thinking about it more, of course, I realised that this is the everyday life of a Sparrowhawk and other predators. Although I might find it unpleasant to watch, the Sparrowhawk must perform this violent drama several time a day to avoid starvation.

Since this first encounter, I have seen the Sparrowhawk on many occasions. When the days are longer and the mornings light, the first thing I do after opening the curtains is scan the garden and houses opposite for the Hawk.

On several occasions, when I’ve opened the curtains in the morning, I’ve seen the bird roosting on the pergola, perhaps (I like to think) after spending the night there. On other occasions I’ve seen the bird settled on the eaves of a house opposite or on the neighbour’s garden shed.

At times when in the kitchen I catch a glimpse of an unidentifiable large grey bird as it flashes past the window at incredible speed, heading alongside the house and for the back garden. I rush to the back room as quickly as I can and scan the garden.

Sometimes the Hawk is nowhere to be seen and I must use my imagination. Has he already left the garden with his unfortunate victim, or is he lurking in the shrubs somewhere?

Sometimes he is sitting on the pergola, empty handed, listening to the cacophony of bird calls, just as he was when I first saw him, several years ago.

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