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Wildlife Diary: April 2011 - Sparrowhawk a pitless hunter

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Sparrowhawk: Arrival of the pitless Hunter

Sparrowhawk: Arrival of the pitless Hunter

Wolds wildlife artist Robert Fuller finds his garden is a killing field. The Yorkshire Post April 16, 2011. Click here to see article on the Yorkshire Post website

LOOKING out of my kitchen window one day, I saw something flash past. At the same time all the birds feeding at my bird table disappeared into the safety of the hawthorn hedge. I knew it could only have been one thing: a sparrowhawk. I have mixed emotions about the hawks that visit my garden. I can't help but admire their skill and agility, but their visits often have such sinister consequences that I also find it distressing.

It has taken me years to build up my population of garden birds to what it is today, so I suppose it is inevitable that it is also attractive to birds of prey. I've come to terms with the dilemma by including the birds of prey as legitimate garden visitors and now keep a freezer full of road kill and trapped mice especially for them. And, of course, they make perfect subjects to paint so it is more convenient to have them visit me at home than photographing them in the field.

Over the past few months I have seen at least three different sparrowhawks in my garden, but one mature male stands out. I see him every day, sometimes several times a day, and he has a real thing for blackbirds. I have actually seen him catch several - in one week he caught five.

After seeing the sparrowhawk zip past my kitchen window, I went round the corner to find this male standing on a fresh kill, right underneath the bird table. On spotting me, he took flight with the blackbird, remarkably, in his talons. He flew with it over the hedge and into our back garden. As I followed him to see how far he had got carrying such a large kill, he took flight again, this time without the blackbird.

He left it under the hedge. I was keen to get some photographs of him and I knew he would be back so I had to work fast. I tied the blackbird carcass to a nearby log with some cable ties and then rushed back inside to get my camera. I chose my newly-purchased, yet to be used, camera trap which takes photographs with a motion sensor, and put it in position just a couple of metres away from the blackbird kill.

I did not return until night fall when I noticed that the carcass had been stripped bare.The camera had taken over 400 photographs and, after a quick trawl through the images, I could see that the hawk had returned to the kill three times that day. Unfortunately whilst the photographs provided a good record of the event, they were not the quality that I could get with an SLR camera. Wondering if I could get the sparrowhawk feeding there again, I had a look in my freezer - after all if this sparrowhawk was going to kill my birds then I'm entitled to get a good photograph of him.

I chose a starling and defrosted it over night. Then I placed it alongside the blackbird carcass before dawn. Sure enough that morning the hawk was back. It set about tucking into the starling right away. At lunch time I went to check up on it and found it with a new blackbird under the bird table. This time the hawk flew off without the blackbird, which was still alive. The poor blackbird limped across to the hedge to try to escape but it was clearly injured. I caught it, but sadly it died in my hands.

Again I tied the carcass to a nearby log but this time I got my SLR camera and tripod and a large pile of camouflage netting. I leant against the kitchen wall with the camouflage flung over me and, after keeping completely still for what seemed like forever, but realistically was only about 25 minutes, I heard a blue tit alarm call. I listened as the sparrows and all the other garden birds joined in. Without moving a muscle, I peeked through a small hole in the camouflage netting. I saw the silhouette of the hawk in a cherry tree in the corner of our garden.

He surveyed the area, checking to see if the coast was clear, before flying down onto the blackbird carcass. He tried flying off with it, but luckily I had tied it down securely so that, when he realised he couldn't make off with it, he settled down to pluck and eat it where he was. It's no wonder sparrowhawks are unwelcome visitors to most gardens; this one had eaten two blackbirds and a starling in two days.

I managed to get some great shots. It was amazing to think the sparrowhawk is one of the most wary and alert of birds, and yet I was just nine metres away with nothing but a piece of camouflage netting thrown over my head and camera to disguise me.

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