Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 27th November 2020

on .

The game of pool is started by a player sending the cue ball into a pack of numbered balls in the hope that one of them might drop into a pocket.  In that respect, there is a marked degree of chance about the game at its beginning, if not subsequently.

It may seem a curious analogy but the antics of a sparrowhawk that I watched recently, appeared to exactly mirror that first break at pool when it suddenly launched itself at a substantial group of starlings which at the time, were perched in a black line along the electricity lines.  The starlings exploded in a total panic, birds scattering, it seemed to me, in every direction and accelerating outwards like a star burst. But on this occasion the sparrowhawk failed to secure its expected meal for not one starling obliged in presenting itself as a suitable target.  

In general, all that most of us see of a sparrowhawk in action is simply that brief glimpse of a grey bird hurtling through space.  It is usually gone in a couple of seconds but those readers, who regularly feed birds in their garden, may have had the opportunity of slightly closer observations.  Sparrowhawks are canny enough to have worked out that there are usually a lot of birds to be found in the vicinity of a well-stocked bird-table and therefore a steady supply of meals to be won.  In fact, I know that there are plenty of people who take umbrage at the intrusion of a sparrowhawk and complain that it is taking the very birds they are attempting to feed.  However, this is all part and parcel of the food chain, for in the spring those same small birds may eat the caterpillars of some of our most beautiful butterflies. And it is a fact that predation of this kind generally eliminates the weaker birds, even if we cannot see such weaknesses.  In this way, the stronger survive and thus the future stock of a species is itself strengthened.

In its hunting techniques, the sparrowhawk is covert.  It often literally ambushes its victims by lurking in the branches of a tree, perhaps on the edge of woodland, along some forest ride or close to a clearing, from which it can launch itself at a passing bird.  Sometimes it will also use its cunning to speed low along one side of a hedge to flush out small birds and then hop over the hedge to take them as they flee.

By any standards and in absolute contrast, the kestrel is overt in its hunting habits.  If there is one bird of prey most people have actually seen and witnessed going about its daily work, then surely that bird is the kestrel.  Curiously enough, although many people are indeed familiar with the hovering kestrel, for some obscure reason and I know not why, there is a tendency for kestrels to be thought of as sparrowhawks.

If you ask me, the sight – the glorious sight of a kestrel hovering on those trembling scimitar wings with its tail fanning this way and that to make minute corrections to ensure that, in spite of sometimes strong winds, the head stays rock still, is a sight of which I never tire. And while they are not slouches, kestrels are no match for sparrowhawks when it comes to speed and manoeuverability.  Yet in some cases, they have clearly mastered hawk-like techniques.

In more rural areas, another bird of prey, which is also relatively overt in it movements, is the buzzard.  Frequently seen slowly circling over woodland or across open fields and although lazy it might appear, believe me that those wonderfully sharp eyes will be searching ceaselessly for food opportunities.  Buzzards may well also turn their endeavours to a wide range of food sources from worms to carrion.  They are opportunists but their ability to extend themselves in terms of hunting should not be underestimated.  I well recall seeing a buzzard using the sparrowhawk modus operandi to snatch a blackbird in mid-air as it fled from a hedge.  And I have often watched in awe as a buzzard launched itself in a shallow dive at a rabbit.  No, buzzards should definitely not be underestimated!

I also once had the occasion to watch the stealthy hunting technique of a male hen harrier as it flopped its way across some fields, flying quite low and obviously at half throttle but ready to accelerate in a trice at the sight of potential prey – small birds or mammals.  Incidentally, hen harriers have always been accused of predation on grouse but recent research by Nature Scotland would indicate that grouse make up only eight or nine per cent of their diet thus disparaging the myth. In reality, the meadow pipit is the most frequent victim.

Generally, the hen harrier’s technique is to swoop on prey and strike with those lightning-fast feet, bringing the target immediately to ground.  There is also a distinctive grace and buoyancy about the flight of a harrier, a grace perhaps accentuated in the male by that handsome grey and white plumage.

In the harrier’s case, swift reflexes are the name of the game and I suppose the same might be said of the sparrowhawk.  However, speed over a short distance and an agility enabling the hawk to zig-zag through woodland are also essential.   But when it comes to speed - sheer speed – then one has to look to the higher places, to the haunts of the peregrine and the eagle. 

The redoubtable peregrine is the real speedster – its hunting technique relies on sheer speed and strength.  The falcon will drift about on up-currents or perch on some appropriately sited high rock waiting for suitable prey to pass below and then it will launch itself in a shallow, accelerating dive.  It is a sight that I have had the pleasure of witnessing on a number of occasions, and which in my own experience I have hardly known to fail. 

Various claims have been made as to the speed attained by a stooping peregrine but it is thought that it is possible for a peregrine to reach speeds of around 200 mph in ideal conditions which is phenomenal. I cannot begin to guess at the speed reached by any bird that I have watched except to say that it was certainly fast!  But then everything about the bird’s appearance seems to give the impression of a bird designed with speed in mind. 

In the case of the eagle, because of its comparative bulk, we do not perhaps recognise that this is also a bird of great speed.  However, experts tell me that a typical, unhurried soaring speed in golden eagles is 28-32 mph and when hunting or displaying, it is capable of very fast gliding at 120 mph. But when diving in the direction of prey or during territorial displays, the eagle holds its wings tight and partially closed against its body and the legs up against its tail and in this way, it can reach speeds of up to 150-200 mph.

Each bird has developed its own particular techniques to ensure success and survival.  Some are immediately recognisable, some more obvious, and it appears that some we like and some we don’t! But whether like or dislike is based upon the type of prey taken by each species - and of course there are considerable overlaps – or whether our judgement is clouded by practices we would alternatively describe as bold or cunning, I don’t know.  But what I do know is that each fills a necessary niche in the remarkable jigsaw that is nature.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods