January 19th   Leave a comment

I walked along the footpath from the Balcomie caravan park towards the airfield at lunchtime. The stubble field is still full of hundreds of skylarks and still at least one lapland bunting, calling somewhere from the middle of the flock as they all took off. They were with about hundred starling that also took off very rapidly, bunching up into a tight ball – a sure sign of a raptor attack. I scanned and finally saw a bird of prey chasing a straggler from the starling flock high up in a very rapid merlin like chase. Except it was a male sparrowhawk! Sparrowhawks hardly ever chase for long, hardly ever high up and usually give up straight away when the element of surprise is lost. But not this male.  It didn’t catch up with the starling although it closed the gap a bit. It turned from a bullet into a more normal slow, soaring sparrowhawk and glided down to the airfield below. The skylarks also drifted back down but the starlings kept going.

Sparrowhawk attacks seem to come in pairs. I was passing Roome Bay about 20 minutes later when I heard the shrill squeal of a redshank being attacked. This time I was onto the sparrowhawk straight away as it zoomed up from hitting a redshank just after the redshank had taken off from the tide edge about 30 meters out. There was a big puff of feathers as the sparrowhawk grabbed at and just failed to hold on to the fleeing redshank. The redshank continued flying and got away, I should think, with just fewer body feathers (and they have lot to lose) to show for it. The sparrowhawk continued onto the rocks in the middle of Roome Bay where it perched with an air of not quite believing it hadn’t succeeded. Its contemplation of its failure was short lived – a couple of crows flew straight in and started diving at it. If the sparrowhawk had caught the redshank, the crows may well have stolen it anyway. The crows may have been a pain for the sparrowhawk but for me they gave a good size reference: just a little bigger than the sparrowhawk making it a female (male sparrowhawks in contrast are much smaller being jackdaw size). The sparrowhawk cut its losses and flew off towards Pinkerton, gaining height from the updraught at the cliffs, still being persecuted by the crows. It is tough being a small bird with sparrowhawks around all the time, but sparrowhawks don’t really have it their own way. Most attacks they do end in failure and when they succeed there are often other larger raptors and crows ready to steal their prey from them. And peregrines will actually hunt and kill sparrowhawks if they have the chance, and where there are goshawks, sparrowhawks only exploit the densest woods because they will be targeted if they hunt in the open. Don’t begrudge a sparrowhawk the odd sparrow or finch from your bird table, they have a tough living to make and when you see them hunting it is a good as anything that you might see in a David Attenborough program.

A sparrowhawk "mantling" its prey (here a woodpigeon in John's garden) to prevent it being stolen by a couple of magpies off screen

A sparrowhawk “mantling” its prey (here a woodpigeon in John’s garden) to prevent it being stolen by a couple of magpies off screen

Most of the time the winter auks – mostly razorbills and guillemots – are lost in the waves out from the shore or flying rapidly past at distance. Sometime they do come close in and they are then revealed as very handsome birds in their winter plumage. The best place for a close up is Fife Ness, if you sit out right on the furthest rocks.

A close up winter guillemot

A winter guillemot close up


Posted January 19, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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