Weekly Nature Watch 14 June 2019
There can be little doubt of the natural instinct of a hunting osprey to mercilessly slay fish. Thus, it cruises menacingly over the loch, eyes down ready, primed, to launch its attack. There follows a denouement, which is as dramatic as they come, as the bird enters its death-defying dive before hitting the water feet first with a mighty splash. It may seem initially to momentarily struggle to lift its victim from the water but it is merely securing its grip on the slippery prey before rising in triumph, the fish slung below like some scaly torpedo.
Yet now, away from the loch, this accomplished killer is also to be seen in a very different light. This is the other side of the coin as, oh so gently, she picks flesh from the bones of the latest scaly prey and tenderly offers it her chicks. Suddenly, the image is not of a wanton killer but of a tender hearted parent devoted to the vital business of rearing her family. The main purpose of her existence is the perpetuation of her kind as she tends her brood atop her eyrie.
This is a familiar story when it comes to raptors, all of which, with the possible exception of the kestrel, clearly project the fact that unhesitatingly they are killers. It is the eyes that tell the story, for they always seem to glare with extreme hostility. Ospreys certainly do not deviate from this image. for when seen close up, their eyes glow balefully yellow. However, like all birds of prey, it is their ferocious looking talons that do the killing whilst the hooked beak is merely a tool to strip the meat from the bones.
That one possible exception to the rule, the kestrel, does portray a slightly less manacing image for its eyes are darker and less threatening. Yet kestrels, of course, also survive largely by the slaughter of wee creatures such as mice and voles. Perhaps that is why they are generally viewed more benignly, for as a rule they take the not-so-nice wee rodents rather than the 'nice' wee birds.
My choice of the kestrel as my favourite raptor may also have been influenced by experiences gleaned during boyhood days, when I would like on my back in a field and spend much of my prostrate time watching the majesty of kestrels hovering high above as only kestrels can. There may also be influence in the fact that some years ago I derived so much pleasure from flying a captive kestrel from the wrist and thus set up a very intimate rapport with the bird.
However, other raptors can indeed look incredibly menacing. The sparrowhawk, with its piercing yellow-eyed gaze, can never give the impression that it is anything other than an extremely efficient plunderer of small birds and in the case of the larger female, not so small birds, a raptor perhaps not viewed so benignly by garden bird watchers. If the kestrel bewitches us with its magnificent hovering - it is often know as the 'wind hover' - the hawk's approach is perhaps more dynamic, reliant on cunning, stealth and bursts of sheer speed.
However, there is another woodland dweller, once virtually extinct as a British breeding bird but now reclaiming some of its lost territory and very much a presence in this airt. The goshawk is arguably the most potent killer of them all and I'm sure that many readers will have had a feeling of discomfort when seeing shots of the goshawk on television's "Spring-Watch", the orange eyes of the male, especially, fairly simmering with hostility and menace.
This is indeed a bird which absolutely exudes hostility, leaving the viewer with the impression that it is not a bird to be messed with! Yet here again, we saw how tenderly the female goshawk attended to her young, once again demonstrating those two very different sides of the coin. However, the best description of this super raptor is perhaps to say it is not unlike a scaled-up version of the sparrowhawk. It explodes into action and then pounces with awesome speed and power, It even attacks and kills other raptors such as kestrels. I remember watching a kestrel hovering when in a flash, out of a clear blue sky erupted a goshawk. All that remained was a handful of feathers floating down to the ground! The female at almost buzzard size, is a lethal hunter!
But it was for its slaughter of game birds that the goshawk was so vigorously persecuted. I'm sure that they were very high on the list of those, who during the 'killing years' of the latter part of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, deliberately set out to kill as many birds with hooked beaks as possible. These birds represented the enemy to those charged with the responsibility of defending the precious game birds.
Such was the level of persecution that goshawks, due to their particularly fearsome reputation, were effectively sent into extinction. However, the high status of the goshawk as a hunter also enhanced its reputation among falconers. If the peregrine falcon was always regarded as the king of all falconry birds, which have escaped from their falconry masters and established themselves in the wild. For many years now, like all other raptors, goshawks have enjoyed the protection of the law. However, there are keepers of my ken who will simply not tolerate their presence!
The two-sided coin syndrome again struck me very forcibly this week but without, as it happens, any connection with raptors. Several broods of starlings have emerged during recent days and I have been highly amused by their antics as they literally harass their parents for food......very vigorously. What a rabble! It is in such situations that starlings reveal what can only be described as a total lack of discipline. Indeed, there are times when starlings tend to rule the roost around bird-tables, clearly bullying other birds and at times utterly commanding the food supply. At times. this rabble threatens to do just that - until the woodpeckers make their pitch, flying in directly and scattering the starlings to every point of the compass. Wisely, not many birds are prepared to challenge woodpeckers!
This aspect of behaviour constrast utterly with the astonishing displays of starlings when they come together, sometimes in their thousands, during the winter months and fly in such a disciplined manner in their fantastic murmurations. I also have a crow as a regular visitor. We often think of crows as 'Jack the Lads', pretty fearless and highly intelligent, yet there are other traits, which are slightly more unexpected.
He comes in to peck away at the detritus below the bird-table but is exceptionally wary, ready at any second to take flight and make himself scarce. So, beneath the brash exterior, there is clearly an extremely nervous disposition at work.. They are of course, sharp-witted and know only too well the antipathy of mankind towards them. There are indeed two sides to every avian coin! As for goshawks, if looks could kill....!