The Sparrowhawk

Jim picked me up from work at The Old Forge yesterday and, as I loaded my tools into the car, told me that he’d almost driven over a sparrowhawk crouched on the lane leading up to the house.  Luckily, he had braked in time and the bird flew away, as did an injured pigeon it had caught.

Buzzards circling lazily overhead are now a common sight on the South Downs; but other than those and an almost tame host of wild rabbits eyeing this gardener with ill-concealed contempt, I hadn’t seen any wildlife of interest whilst working and felt a little peeved at missing an up-close bird of prey.

After locking up the outbuildings and casting a satisfied eye over the freshly mown lawns, I climbed into the car, ramped up the air-conditioning, took off my sun-hat and gratefully grabbed the proffered can of cold coke.  It had been a long, hot, tiring day’s mowing.

Sparrowhawk (1)

Pulling away through The Forge’s gate and onto the road, we were both excited to see that the sparrowhawk was back.  With its recaptured prey.

Sparrowhawk (2)

Jim cut the engine and we coasted to a slow halt feet from where the hawk tore at the freshly caught pigeon.

Feverishly, I fished about on the back seat for my camera bag: unzipped it, took out my Nikon, removed its case, unlocked the standard lens, placed it carefully on the dashboard, found my telephoto, took it out of its case, attached it to the camera, took off the lens-cap, turned on the camera, pressed buttons and swivelled dials, looked through the viewfinder, swivelled dials some more – all the while knowing that the hawk would be long gone by the time I was finally ready for my first shot.

Sparrowhawk (3)

But it wasn’t.  As their name suggests, sparrowhawks hunt small birds and it’s a little unusual for them to catch something as large as a pigeon.

Sparrowhawk (4)

This female wasn’t about to abandon her bounty to a couple of gawking bystanders.

Sparrowhawk (5)

I see sparrowhawks often, close up even, and only once when I had my camera in hand  but usually they’re up and away as soon as I stumble upon the scene.

Sparrowhawk (6)

Today though, our car served as a perfect bird-hide and this Accipiter nisus, unconcerned by a stationary silver box, continued feeding.  Messily.

Sparrowhawk (7)

So often when photographing chance wildlife, I have seconds in which to take a shot and  usually in poor light too.

Sparrowhawk (8)

But yesterday, the soft afternoon sunlight backlit the raptor beautifully and I couldn’t believe my luck – and the unexpected camouflage gifted by our shabby, old car.

Sparrowhawk (9)

But however thrilled we were by her gorgeous markings, her stature, her presence, her pantaloons; this was a gruesome scene with sharp beak tearing off chunks of flesh.  Especially gruesome because for overly long minutes, the pigeon was still alive.  This was no clean, quick kill.

After a while, and with the pigeon now mercifully dead, she grasped its body with her talons and flew down the lane, landing in front of a farm building.  Jim started the engine and we rolled after her, pulling up alongside.

Sparrowhawk (10)

It is always exciting to see a terrific wildlife scene worthy of a David Attenborough voice over;

Sparrowhawk (11)

if only on a quiet, Sussex byway – rather than the Serengeti or the Himalaya.  But watching that hawk eating her still-alive prey was pretty horrid and not a thing I needed to see.

Sparrowhawk (12)

My close relationship with the natural world is a marvellous bonus to gardening but occasionally it reminds me – vividly, starkly – of how indifferent to suffering that world truly is and just how precarious life is.  The sparrowhawk wasn’t being cruel in eating her quarry alive; she simply wasn’t aware, didn’t care.

The hawk’s feast and the pigeon’s demise was a bit of a conversation dampener on our short drive home.

oooOOOooo

Thursday’s encounter reminded me of two similar wildlife posts on my blog which you may not have seen: The Bedraggled Kestrel – about an even more intimate hawk encounter – and The Stoat and the Pigeon.  In the latter, and as you might guess, I’m afraid there is no happy ending for the pigeon.Save

41 thoughts on “The Sparrowhawk

  1. Amazing experience, Dave, even for someone surrounded by nature. It happens in the city too – I woke one morning to the cries of a pigeon caught by a cat and had to stop my young son looking out of the window for a good hour as the cat slowly set about eating it. That was a scene I don’t ever want to repeat (or the clearing up afterwards as it happened in my tiny garden!). Love the para where you frantically got your camera ready – happens to many of us I think but too often without the great shots that you got. Caro x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Caro, I wasn’t really rushing to get my camera ready – so sure was I that the hawk would fly off at any second. Glad you liked the photos. I doubt I would have bothered shooting your experience and would have drawn the curtains too. It doesn’t sound very photogenic at all, D

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  2. Great photographs! It is usually such a short glimpse one gets of a bird of prey and not long enough to soak in all the detail. As you say life goes on for the bird without messy emotions, just the instincts to fulfill and for you a shared moment of a different appreciation. Amelia

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    • Thanks Amelia. Those messy emotions do get in the way don’t they? But they are strong. I must have killed – by hand – a dozen rabbits or more because they had myxomatosis or they had been injured by a dog. But I still find it a deeply unpleasant experience. D

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  3. Great photos David; to think that this is an almost ordinary encounter for you on your commute home, for someone who lives and works in an urban environment, is odd. Also, speaking of great photography, I’ve somehow only just discovered, the gallery page on your blog ( is this a new feature or has it recently been revamped ? ), what a great portfolio, each is breathtaking ( although perhaps for slightly biased reasons my favourite is of Roseberry Topping – great shot, but they all are) I think I’m thinking of doing a gallery now. Cheers for sharing this David.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jack. What was particularly nice for me, in seeing the sparrowhawk, was how it immediately pulled me out of blogging lethargy. Great that a chance encounter with a beautiful animal can invigorate me so completely.

      The Gallery has been up and running for a long time, but I’m afraid I haven’t updated it in yonks. One day, I’ll get round to revamping it. One day. But I’m pleased you liked it.

      Happy Sunday, D

      p.s. Who couldn’t love Roseberry Topping. What a name!

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      • Ah well that’s always a good thing. I can’t remember if I’ve already asked – are you going in for the gmg award again this year? Hope you are….Oh, I see ( I’ve probably seen it before in that case and just forgotten) I love the snowy ones – especially the one from under the little Hut – is that where you were when you said you were chopping fire wood the other day? I was right in saying it sounded cosy if so. Yes, have a good day! I’m Off to a local harvest festival; yum.

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        • Yep, that’s where I was in my wood-cutting hut – and, with my little digital radio playing, the domed roof booms out sound like the Hollywood Bowl (kinda). I’m annoyed that in the past few years we haven’t had enough snow to recreate that scene. That particular photo might just be most evocative yet of what The Priory means to me.

          As for the GMG. No, I haven’t re-entered since I was fortunate enough to win a couple of years ago. It seems gratuitous somehow to re-enter an award after winning it. Besides, I’ve published sod all this year!

          D

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          • Let’s not make any winter weather predictions this year – I feel I jinxed last years poor show (although it was markedly better – colder – than the year before) by saying it was gunna be a cold one early on. I’m guessing that image is from the winter of either 2009/10 or 2010/11 ? Both fantastic events although that level of snow is almost unimaginable now. A distant memory; although that satellite image of a white UK from 2009 sticks in my mind. Beautiful.

            And yes, I suppose your right David, I never thought of it from that perspective; haven’t entered my self, but I must admit I’m looking forward to finding out who wins it this year.

            Best Wishes,

            Jack.

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            • It’s actually Jan 2013, which is just about the last year we had any decent snow down here. I think Xmas 2013, I bought Jim a sledge and he’s not had a chance to use it yet.

              Always interesting to see who will win the GMGA – won’t be long now! D

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              • Ah yes, I tried to find the matching blog post ( if there was one) to see if I was right about the dates- now I see it! Can’t have had any here that year. Fingers crossed yous’ll be able to dust the sledge off soon!

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  4. Wow, these are such great photos. Sparrow hawks are such magnificent birds – the heart-shaped markings on her chest are beautiful. I’m sure it was uncomfortable to watch the pigeon being eaten but this probably happens more often than we realise. Grisly nature!

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  5. hi David. What great photos. We also have both buzzards and sparrowhawks. Although I see them frequently, usually the sparrowhawk is speeding through the garden to attack a song bird, I have never been able to pho them so close up.

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    • Hi Steve, well I despaired of ever getting a decent shot of a sparrowhawk, rather like my chances of a good photo of the Priory’s kingfishers. I’ve had similar close encounters with buzzards – almost close enough to touch but never with my camera ready. But you never know when circumstance plays out just right – hope you get a good shot. D p.s. a battered old Vauxhall Zafira as a hide helps enormously.

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  6. I watched a very similar scene in our garden a few years ago – in my case I think the sparrowhawk must have been feeding young because it plucked the pigeon clean, then flew off with its naked prey. What struck me most about the whole thing was just how nervous the sparrowhawk was throughout – between every beak full of plucked feathers it would look up, left, right – checking that no predators were coming for it presumably. Simultaneously hunter, and hunted. Must be a tough way to live a life.

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    • Hi Nick, yes this bird kept on looking about her as she ate but seemed curiously unconcerned by my sweaty head and big camera lens sticking out of a car window not twelve feet away. I once saw one standing thigh deep in a pond – hunting frogs, possibly? I guess they’ll take what they can find and are more intent on feeding their young and own bellies other than the consciousness or not of their prey.D

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  7. My brother sent me the link to a live-cam of an osprey nest near his house shortly after the nestlings had hatched. I happened to tune in right at feeding time. It was brutal and sobering—but still awe-inspiring (at least on an empty stomach). Wonderful photos, Dave. Glad you had your portable bird-hide (aka car) with you. xS

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    • Brutal and sobering sums it up. The sparrowhawk eating put me in mind of neolithic man and lions or tigers. As beautiful as The Priory and Old Forge are, most mornings there is a dead animal or two lying about reminding me that life in the garden isn’t all about pretty flowers and bumblebees (though I try to concentrate more on the latter). The portable bird-hide was a bit of a revelation, duly noted. Dx

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  8. Yes, a bit grisly, but remember, every time a pigeon dies, somewhere a statue is silently cheering. I’ve never seen a sparrowhawk or kestrel up close, except in a rescue center, these are terrific photos, fantastic eyes. I’m guessing he wishes he could sneeze, and get rid of that feather on his beak.

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