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October 2011: Sparrowhawks: Playing hide and seek

Sparrowhawks: Playing hide and seek with wildlife wonders

Sparrowhawks: Playing hide and seek with wildlife wonders

Wolds wildlife artist Robert E Fuller watches sparrowhawks at their nest site as featured in the Gazette & Herald October 2011.

LASTmonth I noticed a roe deer couple courting in a hay meadow. The buck had a good head of antlers on him and would have made a beautiful subject to paint so I decided to put up a hide on the edge of the field to watch them. As I was doing so, I heard a wren in a nearby wood. Despite being tiny birds, wrens complain very loudly, making a continuous 'clicking' noise, if there is a bird of prey in the vicinity.

I followed the sound to see what all the commotion was about. As I neared, I heard a sparrowhawk call out. I recognised the sound as the one the male makes when calling the female so that he can give her his prey to feed to their chicks. As I approached the spot that the noise was coming from, it stopped abruptly. The sparrowhawk must have seen me approach. I waited a short while before I imitated his call and then heard his chicks call back.
I found them in a nest in a nearby larch tree. I returned that evening to put up another hide so that I could also watch this.

As I arrived with my ladder and hide, I heard a deep bark. It was the roe buck alerting the female to my presence. I saw him as he disappeared into the top corner of the meadow. He turned back to look at me and then barked again before turning and running up the bank and out of sight. I headed to the sparrowhawk nest. In the nest there were three well grown chicks and a wood pigeon carcass that had been picked clean.

The chicks were well feathered which meant that it wouldn't be long before they fledged. Not wanting to waste any time, I returned the following morning at 5.30am -since most wildlife action always happens early. I settled into my hide and had just got my cameras set up when I heard the male sparrowhawk calling. The male very rarely visits the nest. Instead he calls the female to a nearby tree where they do a fast-action food pass and she returns to the nest with the prey to feed the chicks.

It's quite handy having him calling before feeding time as it gives me a chance to check out my camera settings and get ready for her arrival. I heard the call reach a crescendo just as she grabbed the prey from him. Moments later she was in the tree, just eight feet away from my hide.
I watched her through the camouflage netting. It was a tense moment as her piercing yellow eye glared into my hide. Gripped in her talons she held a plucked blackbird. I kept completely still whilst she contemplated my hide, clearly wondering what to make of it, but the chicks were calling frantically for their meal and the sound distracted her.

She looked at the chicks, glanced back at the hide momentarily, and then decided to go and feed them on the nest. I held off photographing her for a few moments and let her settle down. The three chicks made short work of the blackbird. After making sure everyone had an equal share, the female flew off. But after 40 minutes I heard her call out to the chicks again. Her call was easy to identify as it is much deeper than the male's.

I looked out to see her arrive with a young wood pigeon in her talons. The chick was so young it must have been taken from its nest - which surprised me since sparrowhawks hunt by detecting movement and chicks usually sit very still on their nests. The female sparrowhawk quickly set about sharing it out amongst her chicks. It was quite a large meal and she must have considered her chicks well fed because it was some time before she reappeared again.
As I waited I heard a crashing through the branches below me and the rasping breathing of the roe buck as it chased after the doe. The noise stopped as abruptly as it had started and I was back on the hawk watch.

There were no warning calls at the next visit. Just a sudden clatter as the female landed on the nest. Before I had a chance to realise what was happening a wood pigeon suddenly flew down, knocked into the hawk and landed on the nest as well. The chicks looked up in alarm. The female hawk flashed her wings up in the air in a threatening posture and the pigeon backed off. But not for long. She mobbed the sparrowhawk nest once more before settling on a branch just two feet away.

When I looked in the hawk's talons I saw why - she was clutching a 10 day-old wood pigeon chick. I had been right, the sparrowhawk had been raiding pigeon nests. I have studied sparrowhawks at close quarters and this was the fifth nest site I have watched, but I have never seen one use this hunting technique before. Normally a formidable hunter, a sparrowhawk relies on its incredible speed to surprise its prey.

By the look of her plumage, this sparrowhawk was only about a year old and she no doubt was capable of being a fearsome hunter but had developed a somewhat lazy approach to the process. The wood pigeon soon gave up and went back to its remaining chick and I waited until the sparrowhawk chicks had fledged before taking down my hide and returning to my studio with some incredible photographs of sparrowhawks, rather than roe deer, to paint from.



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