Magpies fending off Sparrowhawk - previously reported
As is our wont, we sat in front of our picture window having lunch, viewing the various comings and goings on the Estuary – mostly wader activity, when, similarly as I reported in a previous blog, a female Sparrowhawk came scorching by two or three yards away. Again it had a Magpie in pursuit – obviously looking for a little gladiatorial diversion - but super raptor had other fish to fry: this time she was looking for lunch. The Magpie shortly returned to strutting its stuff on the front lawn, reasonably satisfied with itself.
We continued with our meal. No sooner had coffee been served than disconcertingly the phone rang! “Oh, No! Not another unsolicited cold call” I said with quiet irony to Judith. It actually turned out to be Joe, my neighbour, saying, “ Would we be interested in seeing a dead Sparrowhawk?”, as one had just crashed into his lounge window in front of him whilst he was quietly listening to a spot of Sibelius. Disconcerting to say the least! Rather ruined his enjoyment of the 2nd Symphony though.
We hastened round, having grabbed my Collins softback, inspite of the steadily pouring rain. To our great sadness there lay this beautiful bird beneath Joe’s window. We quickly procured a tape measure and with reference to Collin’s length and wing measurements, we quickly established that it was, indeed, a mature female Sparrowhawk.
The speculation now began! How in heaven’s name could a bird so familiar with the environs of the hamlet – with its various walls, gateways, outhouses and trees: this master of the surprise ambush and attack; the deadly approach around the garden wall; the jink round a gateway; the scimitar-like approach using the rose bed for cover – make such an error of judgement? Joe’s window did not depict a through-room which could be mistaken for a flight path - it was more a dark perfect mirror. Could it be that as she crossed the patio, at goodness knows what speed, intent on the feeding troop of Tree Sparrows, she had glimpsed, momentarily, a flicker of her own reflection and turned on instinct – distracted by the heavy rain, and met an instantaneous end. As the old Indian warrior braves would have put it, “This was a good death” – not the prolonged suffering of disease or starvation but a fitting end to a noble hunter.
As we wandered sadly back home we speculated on the possibility of, maybe, a nest of young Sparrowhawks now facing a long cold demise without their mother – or would the male continue to care for them? We felt here, maybe, some doubt on this point. We also wondered how many hundreds of nestlings this super raptor had deprived of their parents, leaving them to die a long lingering cold wet death – waiting for that meal that never came?
This philosophising, though, was of little comfort as it pointed up the great contradiction that we all as conservationists face. These avian predators we view with respect and great admiration. Noble creatures: magnificent in their independence, beauty and power, but who take such a terrible toll on the rest of the community. Indeed, the intensive feeding of small birds in our gardens merely ‘spreadeth a table before them’ which is why, in our particular hamlet, placed as we are in the centre of the RSPB Campfield Marsh Reserve - we have more than our fair share of various raptors, the majority of which we can see many times a week. Yet we fiercely protect any interference with these majestic birds. We have quite draconian laws in this country to underline the care that society feels. We can mourn the death of a Sparrowhawk just as easily as when we sadly sometimes observe a young Chaffinch fall after colliding with the living room window – a small life extinguished before it had scarcely begun!
But there was a moment of light as we walked back. We saw a flash amongst the sycamores of the greyish brown wings of another female Sparrowhawk – almost certainly her daughter – awaiting a parent who would never return but, yet, who appeared mature enough to, maybe, survive on her own … the genes assured for the next generation!
We shall be watching carefully for the next few weeks.
Dead Sparrowhawk ( topside), 23rd August 2010
Dead Sparrowhawk (underside), 23 August 2010
Here we are: August; well past the Solstice; the days are detectably shorter; there’s a distinct crispness in the air in the morning; the robin is singing its winter song; the dog-days of Summer are passing; no warblers are singing. Birds are silent, busily feeding their young – bulking up their fat reserves necessary for winter or the long migration journey south. The mighty avian pendulum is truly swinging!
We went down to the Saltmarsh Pool in eager anticipation of possibly seeing wader activity. The tide was right; a coolish wind was blowing. Sure enough, there was a goodly collection in the pool and on the saltmarsh beyond. There were Golden Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit and some Ruff. Teal were now assembling on the pool, having come to the estuary from their nesting pools on the various Mosses round about. On the estuary flats beyond, large numbers of Oystercatcher were massing, having returned from the upland rivers and meadows with their young; as were the Curlew, coming from the Pennines or foothills of the Lake District and Scotland, and Dunlin from their upland moorland streams.
The Bar-tailed Godwit were already changing from their summer plumage: a mixture of rich red of summer to the pale greys and buffs of winter. The Ruffs appeared to be a couple of juveniles. A Green Sandpiper had just been reported on a smaller pool on the marsh,with its distinctive white and dark greenish plumage. Two Greenshank which been haunting the estuary sands had been sighted a couple of times by estuary observers. Black-tailed Godwit were now coming in in small parties, day on day – no mistaking these elegant slim birds. Although they bask in the same name as the Bar-tails, their slim elegance is unmistakable as is their synchronised feeding pattern when in a group on the incoming or outgoing tide.
In the lay-by overlooking Saltmarsh pool an’excitement’ of twitchers was rapidly gathering – I think that is the collective name for them- or is it an’enthusiast’? I forget! …all drawn by the same autumn spectacle out here on our wonderful Solway Estuary. The jungle drums were beating. A Stint-like bird, more than likely a Semipalmated Sandpiper, had been spotted further along the estuary. Apparently two members of the cognoscenti had been able to discern its web-like toes.
Clearly, a further invasion of enthusiasts was likely to see this rare vagrant. The list tickers would already be warming their engines, preparing for the long drive north to see this diminutive waif. Schedules would be being changed, family holidays disrupted, sick notes being handed in at work and many gallons of petrol purchased or should I say litres (new money!)
We birders are, indeed, a marvellous species!
Teal assembling on the Saltmarsh Pool 11 08 10
Ruff on Saltmarsh Pool, 5th August 2010
High tide roost on saltmarsh beyond, of mostly Oystercatchers - around 2000 in total, 11th August 2010
Waders on falling tide, Campfield Marsh - 14th August 2010
Dunlin and Ringed Plover flock flying up and down the estuary, 11th August 2010
Dunlin and Ringed Plover (close-up)
Dunlin and Ringed Plover coming in to land at Bowness-on-Solway, 11th August 2010
Dunlin and Ringed Plover on shoreline, Bowness-on-Solway - 11th August 2010
Curlew taking off from estuary meadows, 17th August 2010
Campfield Marsh Reserve noticeboard, 22nd August 2010
They call it ‘climate change’. They always have to have a nice neat title for things these days: everything pigeonholed and computerised. It’s an industry now. Universities have whole departments on the subject; people are making careers from it.
In the ‘old days’ we used to call it a ‘bad summer’. I can remember a few of those: families huddled in raincoats and sou’westers on the beach with a makeshift windbreak round them against a bitter north easterly – stinging wind, driven sand, hail, sea fret, six foot waves… and this was August school holidays. We were tough in those days though: had to get there on overcrowded trains; ram-jammed into charabancs; ‘Heaven forfend!’ some of us even cycled there – but we were happy, Oh Yes!
I digress! This year was a long cold dry Spring. July in Ireland was the dullest on record and that’s saying something. I think we got it here too! Then the weather turned wet. Now I can’t remember the days precisely, but I think they were about a fortnight ago, when we had two days of sunshine with a few butterflies and dragonflies flying. I think that must have been ‘Summer’ – but don’t quote me on this!
The weathermen can’t seem to acknowledge a ‘Summer’s day’ unless its at least 30°C in London; then they start whinging about putting sunblock on; protecting yourself from the heat; keeping yourself hydrated. In my day a handerkerchief, knotted at the four corners, on your head and a bottle of ‘pop’, was you for the day – off larking across the fields (rural) or on bombsites (urban). The newsmen terrorising us all by the talk of hospitals filling up with droves of heat exhausted people or tsunamis of jelly fish.
Stop me someone! I had meant to talk about the paucity this year of certain butterflies, the cold Spring, volcanic dust and the Credit Crunch – leading neatly up to the fact that I have only seen two Swifts this summer and not a single House Martin, Sand Martin or Spotted Flycatcher… that is, until yesterday when I saw, hawking above the first Pool on the Reserve, a goodly crowd of them - amongst which I detected some Sand and House Martins. This looked like a pre-winter gathering, before sloping off to warmer climes. Treacherous animals! Why don’t they stay on and suffer winter here like the rest of us? Might toughen them up a bit then they wouldn’t have to be so bloomin rare! Serves them right, wasting their time and energy flying off to Africa (would cut down on air-miles too!): flogging their way passed the nets and guns of the Mediterranean hunters and the other nameless horrors of drought stricken sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps a bit of ‘global warming’ up here in the North might encourage them to stay with us for the winter. That’s a good idea! Think I could make this the subject of a dissertation - if I could manage to get into one of our over-subscribed universities first!
If you look carefully you’ll be able to see the swallows hawking over the trees in sunnier climes
This article has been censored: the expletives have been removed – this is a family show
The Magpie family in the garden have been giving us trouble lately - two parents, two young. They have had the absolute run of the place this last two weeks Always on the birdtable and even on the nut and fat hangers… super acrobats, these, but getting too big for their boots, by far.
Magpies making free with the birdtable.
The two young Magpies scavenging under the peanut hanger.
Anyway, just before lunch, Judith said, “Those blooming magpies, again!” I comfortingly replied, “I reckon they are going to make Sparrowhawk bait shortly” – bit of a throwaway comment this, as I settled down to my soup and bread roll.
Watching magpies disporting themselves on the lawn – blow me, what the…? The Sparrowhawk came diving down, past the picture window, with young magpie in close pursuit – real Biggin Hill stuff this. “This should be good!” I remarked to Judith. At which moment Sparrowhawk did a nifty turn – they have good engines these Sparrowhawks, far outclass the ‘Merlin’ for strength and reliability – pity Rolls Royce didn’t make this model!
Young Magpie was about to receive it’s first lesson in RESPECT. Sensibly it turned tail immediately and headed back to the main defensive group: 3 Magpies and 2 garden Crows with nicknames like ‘Biggles’, ‘Bader’ and ‘Richtofen’- very experienced battle-hardened group this. I yelled to our ‘Pathe News’ photographer,”Get the camera rolling” – and then it started. Big aerial dogfight right over the garden: screaming turns; banking rolls; power dives; engines at full revs. What a spectacle!
One would have thought this defense would have driven off the most hardy of combat veterans…but the garden is Sparrowhawks dining table and this was an important fight. So, the wheeling and diving continued, with Sparrowhawk, pressing home it’s attack again and again; joined now by a hail of small garden birds; having their say too; not to mention the hirundine. They joined in, just for fun – secure in their superior turn of speed.
We watched open-mouthed at this display. Hard stuff to shoot, but our intrepid ‘Pathe News’ photographer got it all in the can.
Rapid response by Magpies to Sparrowhawk's overflight.
Sparrowhawk returns to attack.
Magpies' full threat display.
Sparrowhawk teaches Magpies 'respect'
Little birds join in general skirmish.
Sparrowhawk's last triumphal fly-past..."I'll be back!"
As a finale to all this, Kestrel slopes along the front of the marsh, hoping for a part of the action but it got no takers. It was only ‘small potatoes’ really – no Messerschmitt this one; and had to be content with it’s usual tasty vole from the marsh driftline…sensible bird, this!
Kestrel arrives on the scene.
Kestrel him 'small potatoes' - but vole hunter extraordinaire.
Peace once more reigns in the garden – honour having been satisfied all round; that is, until the next time…
Magpie takes over the birdtable once more.
Tree Sparrow family resume their normal feeding activity.
Goldfinch are back on the niger seed feeder.
Great Spotted Woodpecker returns to nut hanger.