Friend or foe

The garden in Wales is bulging with life, the hedgerow bristles with tiny green leaves, dunnocks and house sparrows scurry through its maze of branches. The borders brim with flowers and leaves of every colour. Grasses sway in the gentle breeze. It may have been a slow start but it seems spring really was in full swing. The grass in the fields beyond was thick, lush and green, scattered with brilliant yellow dandelions and delicate white daisies. Swallows dip low over the tops of the flowers and grass catching insects on the wing. The trees, bushes and air were alive with bird song. Close at hand great tit, chaffinch and robin sing from the garden, across the fields the distinctive song of a chiffchaff floats across the sunny sky.

The garden in full bloom, mist nets at the ready!

House sparrows continually flit back and forth from the nest boxes on the side of the house, stopping only briefly to feed their chicks before darting away to find more food. At the other end of the house in another box, a blue tit is snuggled into her nest of moss and feathers, warming her clutch of eggs. The calm before the frenzied storm of feeding nine tiny mouths.

While the number of birds coming to the feeders is a lot lower compared with winter, they still come to find food for themselves and for the hungry mouths of their broods.

Another bird visits the garden for the same reason, although this one may not be as popular due to its choice of dinner. It is a sparrowhawk. With a silent rush of wind and wing the hawk swoops over the fence, springing its attack on the small birds in the garden. Alarm calls replace the bird song. In many cases the sparrowhawk is unsuccessful, perching on a branch surveying the now empty garden with golden eyes, before heading off to search some other haunt. In some cases, of course, it is successful. It may be hard to take, but there is another set of mouths to feed.

A female sparrowhawk takes stock

To catch a sparrowhawk takes a lot of luck, and speed. The bird, so focused on catching dinner, does not usually notice a net, but often bounces out before you can get there, running like a loony down the garden with only one shoe on. Sometimes however the bird sticks long enough for you to get there.

Once you have a sparrowhawk in the hand you can only marvel at its beauty and design. Short, rounded wings and a long square-ended tail, designed for manoeuvring through confined spaces, perfect for chasing small birds through woodlands and gardens. Graceful long legs, that stretch from a tiny body, to grasp its prey with long, sharp talons. Today we caught a male. Small compared to the female, its bluish-grey back and wings only showing the faint reminders of a young bird in the brownish fringes to a few feathers. Its breast is barred with fine orangey-brown streaks. Its orange yellow eye watching your every move. It is simply a stunning bird.

The simply stunning male sparrowhawk

The recovery of sparrowhawk population and its preference for hunting small birds in gardens may not be welcomed by everyone. It is distressing to see a robin, goldfinch or even blackbird killed by a sparrowhawk but to me it is all a part of nature. Just as a blue tit will kill a caterpillar to feed its young, a sparrowhawk must kill a small bird in order to feed its own.


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