Wild About Wildlife: Speed, surprise and sparrowhawk

Albert Nolan

Reporter:

Albert Nolan

Wild About Wildlife: Speed, surprise and sparrowhawk

Local photographer M.R.J Hine snapped this sparrowhawk last weekend. The birds are very active this time of year preparing for winter

Ifind that feeding the birds in my garden is one of the most enjoyable outdoor activities. No matter what the weather the feeders bring birds right into the heart of the household.

There is definitely a colder feel to the nights and mornings and recently fledged birds will need all the help they can get in fattening up for the winter.

The usual suspects appear first. Members of the tit family, shy dunnocks that feed on the ground, and occasionally a very special visitor makes a surprise visit.

I can usually tell when this visitor is approaching - all of the birds, as if guided by a sixth sense, go very quiet and start to give really low sharp calls. They can sense something but are not sure of what to do?

The more experienced birds are already on their way for cover but for some, like the very old and young, hesitation can be fatal.

In a flash a sparrowhawk darts over the hedgerow grabs a bird and disappears. The whole event is over in a matter of seconds, but I still get a thrill seeing a sparrowhawk hunting.

This is all part of the natural balance in my garden and the wider countryside. Over the years I have created a mini woodland edge and put up nest boxes so there is a good variety of birds around my house.

Sparrowhawks keep this population in natural check and destruction and removal of hedgerows, and the presence of cats, causes far more damage to bird populations.

Even for experienced sparrowhawks catching prey is not guaranteed. Around one in ten hunts are successful and this falls to one in 20 for young birds.

For first winter sparrowhawks, avoiding starvation is the first real challenge and if they can get through till next spring their skills will have sharpened and their odds of breeding increased.

With an estimated 11,000 breeding pairs sparrowhawks are one of our most common birds of prey and are resident all year round. During winter some migrants come into Ireland. Males have bluish grey upper parts with barring often tinged with orange. Females are grey above with brown barring below.

These hawks are birds of woodland but increasingly are found in mature urban gardens and parks with trees that mimic their lost natural habitats. They are also found in farmland and will use hedgerows to hunt along. Sometimes they will circle above woodland searching for prey.

Nesting takes place from early April to late May and they have only one brood each summer. The female lays four or five white eggs that sometimes have a touch of blue. The eggs are often flecked with reddish- purple or brown blotches or spots. They are laid over a few days and the first hatched chick is the largest, and he has a distinct advantage.

If prey is scarce he will take all the food and the smaller chicks will die. If the parents can find enough food all will fledge. For the first week the male does all the hunting, but when the chicks are able to keep themselves warm, mother sparrowhawk will join the male.

Females are larger than the males and can take larger prey even up to the size of a woodpigeon.

For More

albert.nolan@rocketmail.com or 089 4230502. Albert is also available to do walk/talks with schools, tidy towns, youth and community groups