Wild Pembrokeshire with David Gardner: the Sparrowhawk
We have a bird-feeding station outside our lounge picture window. It is constantly busy with visitors that gather in the nearby bushes to queue, preen and squabble before launching onto the seed, nut and fatball holders. Many species including house sparrows, dunnocks, tits, robins, finches, pigeons, starlings, rooks, doves, jackdaws and occasional woodpeckers provide us with constant enjoyment as they go about their busy lives in full view, but they are always ready to take flight if danger threatens.
A few days ago, my partner was watching a collared dove picking up seed from the ground under the feeders. Just as she was commenting on how beautiful it was, it rose from the ground in a flurry of wings and flew into the window as a brown and grey torpedo flew round the corner of the house, banked and grabbed the unfortunate dove as it was falling back to the ground. A few feathers fluttered in the air as both birds disappeared back round the corner. We both dashed outside expecting to see the sparrowhawk in the next-door garden, mantling over its prey and starting to feed, but a search of the area failed to find any trace of either bird and no trail of feathers. We both secretly hoped that the dove had escaped.
Sparrowhawks have been increasingly common visitors to our garden in Trefin as the summer has progressed, but the usual sighting is a quick scattering of small birds and a grey/brown streak as the hawk hedge-hops to try to ambush a straggler. I suspect that there has been a nest in woodland near the village during this summer and the parents have been active visiting fields and gardens to feed their growing youngsters. It is likely that the young birds are now also hunting in the same areas before having to find new territories for themselves.
This sighting brought to mind a walk I took earlier in the year to a local campsite where I had heard that there was a nest with young birds making a lot of noise and causing mixed reactions from campers. The suspicion was that it was a family of sparrowhawks. As I approached in the warm glow of the early morning sunshine, I soon heard the confirming piercing ke-ke-ke-ke calls of two young sparrowhawks echoing through the stand of trees behind one of the pitches. I crept quietly and slowly into the tangle of vegetation and, as I approached a small clearing, a shape launched itself from the shadows of a nearby alder and jinked swiftly through the branches and out of sight. It was one of the adults. I settled down on the damp ground behind a fallen trunk and focused my attention on a horizontal branch that was bathed in sunlight about 20ft away. I was hoping that the adult would return to sit in this natural spotlight for long enough for me to grab a few shots and I focused my telephoto lens on the branch in readiness. As I sat, the young birds started to call for the adults from trees on either side of the clear area but they stayed out of sight.
After sitting still for over half an hour, I was rewarded by a sudden vibration in the air, a twist of light between branches, and there, as if by magic, was the adult female perched on a branch off to my left. I held my breath willing her to fly onto the stage I was focused on, and suddenly she was there. After a period of preening, during which a small snowstorm of down feathers were left on the branch, she was joined by one of the young birds, a male, who sat alongside her and continued to beg call for food and attention. They stayed there long enough for me to marvel at their wild beauty, their piercing yellow eyes and their sharp talons at the end of long, yellow legs before they were off, melting into the undergrowth with a rustle and a flick of primaries. Standing and stretching my stiff limbs, I quietly left the scene feeling privileged that, in the middle of a small campsite in Wales, I had had an experience as wild, free and engaging as any that I could have had in an exotic rainforest. I even had a few shots in the bag!
I started this piece with an attack and a possible death. The birds clustering round my bird table for food are in constant danger of being the next meal of a local sparrowhawk. So should we hate the hawk and what it does, or should we respect and admire it as being a spectacular and essential part of the local countryside? While I feel my feelings about the death of a beautiful dove or a cheeky sparrow, the power and beauty of a sparrowhawk are undeniable, and the beneficial work that they do in taking out the weak and sick and balancing populations is essential for the health and wellbeing of the local environment. We need the predators in Wales as much as Yellowstone needs its wolves and Africa needs its lions. Next time you see a sparrowhawk flip over a hedge in your garden or fly ahead of your car along a narrow lane, please feel the thrill and wish it well.
Please note that all the images displayed here are protected by copyright and we have David’s kind permission to use them. David Gardner has a background in the environmental and conservation fields having been, inter alia, a salmon and trout farm manager, fisheries and conservation manager with the National Rivers Authority and chairman of the Wildlife Trust S&W Wales. He is also a dealer in art and antiques, which must go some way to explaining what a great eye he has for creating beautiful images of the world around us. He can supply high-quality prints of these and other images to order, and he is happy to accept commissions if you have special subjects in mind.
Contact him at David4Rugs@aol.com
Or on his Facebook pages https://www.facebook.com/Piscesenvironmentalservices/