Last year I had the great pleasure of discovering a Sparrowhawk nest in a park near my house, the pair had constructed a large platform of sticks in the crook of two branches in an oak. I was able to watch from a distance the five fluffy chicks grow into clumsy and ragged versions of the adults before fluttering from the nest and spending at least the next month screeching wildly around the park.
Since Sparrowhawks do not nest in the same place twice I had to search for this years nest all over the park, I had not seen the adults in a while but I hoped they would return to breed. Eventually I found what I presumed to be the female sitting on what I presumed to be eggs in a deep and untidy mess of sticks which was positioned quite high in an oak where the trunk diverged. This nest is rather tricky to see into but I managed to make out at least four well-developed chicks a little over a week ago, considering how much white down they still had I did not think they would fledge soon. But earlier this week I went over to the park with my dog in one hand and binoculars in the other to check on the hawks progress.
At first I could see nothing but flies, poop and a lot of feathers in the nest and the lack of any obvious activity had me worried for a moment – then quite unexpectedly the adult male swooped from nowhere and landed high in the canopy on an oak branch. Through my bins I could make out that he was clutching prey in his razor talons, he sat motionless watching me for a while during which time I could admire his splendid form. The male is a small thing compared to the female but he is more colourful, his breast is horizontally streaked with a russety red and his back and wings are a purplish-grey, combined with his streamlined shape, impressively hooked beak, long talons and a fierce eye this is an attractive bird. He got bored of looking at me so proceeded to pluck his prey, all the while the adult female was on a branch immediately above him watching and squealing at him – I only noticed her when I changed position to find out who was making the racket.
The male seemed absorbed in his work so I went back over to the nest to try and locate the juveniles that I now realised must have fledged already but which I knew would be close at hand – but locating an unmoving brown bird amongst thick, dark foliage is not easy. Then before I knew what was happening the male flew high above me and was met in the canopy by at least three other hawks, the juveniles, that had burst out of nothing and where making a right fuss. From what I could tell the male seemed to attempt to pass his prey onto one of the juveniles; who instantly dropped it, then two of them dived after it, trying to re-catch it in midair. One gave up but the other persisted and before my eyes dived vertically down after the falling prey and would have caught it if the ground had not suddenly reared up and stopped it in its tracks. The hawk pulled up at the last second and landed on the prey item with wings held out to jealously guard it, the bird then noticed me standing not more than ten meters away with my jaw on the floor.
Being a bit green the juvenile hawk decided to flap away into the trees without taking the prey with it, I went over to have a look and saw it was a chick; but considering that it had few feathers left and was also short of a head I could not tell which species. The dead chick had landed right in the middle of the path so I moved it onto the branch of a nearby tree in the hope that the hawks would re-find it and also so that my dog would not eat it whole. Feeling quite exhilarated and noticing that the hawks had melted back into the foliage after embarrassing themselves in front of their parents I decided to leave them to it and walked home very happy at such a fantastic close encounter with my own garden predators.