The rare sight of the secretive Goshawk is a real delight
AFTER A MORNING of heavy rain, an autumn sun was shining from a clear sky, casting long shadows over glistening fields. Late blackberries gleamed on a Bramble by the gate. Under the blueness of the wide East Anglian sky, grassland and arable fields sloped down to a lake in parkland of oak, Ash and spreading Sycamores. Nobody was about. The cornfield alongside the footpath had been ploughed and harrowed. In a dense cluster of trees, a majestic Cedar of Lebanon towered among mature Beeches and willows. I walked down to the bridge crossing the river that feeds into the lake, its water mirroring the sky between patches of bright green algae. Then, a flurry of activity as a flush of corvids and Woodpigeons scattered out of the trees. A Kestrel streamed across the bright sky, leaving me breathless. It was a salmon-backed torpedo flying past me, silver underwing catching the light, flapping and floating across the field in flight. It was the cry that gave them away, a call quite different from more familiar birds of prey. This was no Buzzard mewing or Red Kite calling. Over the distant treetops I saw a pair of large birds, rounder-winged than a Buzzard and bigger than a Sparrowhawk. With relaxed wingbeats, sinuous, the two raptors flapped and glided, short tails turning like rudders as they banked towards the Cedar of Lebanon. They were Goshawks. Holding my breath I watched, incredulous at my luck, for Goshawks are secretive birds and sightings are rare. I followed them through glasses as they wheeled and chased, floating down occasionally beyond the tree line before reappearing. I was gradually able to make out colouring and detail – dark-backed, brown and charcoal with streaked plumage on pale chest and belly. So, they were juveniles that I’d been watching.
The dark canopy, the pale streaked chest and underbelly, sailing on the wind, circling and hunting and calling. Turning in tandem, in silhouette against the light, the barring of the underwing gleamed silvery below the chestnut tinge on the shoulder.
The gamekeeper told me that Goshawks had recently been seen in these woods, and evidently a pair of young birds had found an ideal winter habitat, with all the food and water they needed in the protection of dense woodland. I watched until they disappeared, then continued walking through the park, down an avenue of limes and out again into pastureland where horses were grazing, and back towards the wood. I had heard that Goshawks will perch in a tree for hours on end and was imagining them poised, inscrutable, on a great branch high up in the trees. But to my excitement the two of them appeared again, flying out over the treetops, apparently enjoying the bright October sunshine – chieftains of the air prospecting for prey, lit by the lowering sun against a clear sky. The dark canopy, the pale streaked chest and underbelly, sailing on the wind, circling and hunting and calling. Turning in tandem, in silhouette against the light, the barring of the underwing gleamed silvery below the chestnut tinge on the shoulder. What struck me forcibly was the size of these birds and their awesome presence. You can’t help but notice the yellow eye and strong beak, and the intense, intent stare that author T.H. White describes in his nature writing classic, The Goshawk. The “mad marigold or dandelion eye ... an alert, concentrated, piercing look. Hawks are sensitive to the eye and do not like to be regarded. It is their prerogative to regard,” he wrote. The uncompromising downturn of the beak gives the Goshawk a fierce expression, borne out by its status of top predator. Pale at the nares (a wonderful word for the nostrils of a hawk), the black-tipped upper mandible is downcurved into a razor-sharp hook for tearing flesh. T.H. White aptly calls the Goshawk an ‘exquisite assassin’. Not many creatures will mess with Accipiter gentilis, including humans. Accumulating immense speed on impact, it can inflict severe flesh wounds with beak and claws. They flew close enough, and the afternoon light was good enough, to see the strong yellow legs, which make a Sparrowhawk’s look puny, and the enormous yellow claws, which make a Sparrowhawk’s look dainty in comparison. Rosamond Richardson is a freelance writer on wild flowers and birds. She is a regular contributor to The Countryman and is author of numerous books about the countryside. Follow her on Twitter: @rosa_rich