Saturday, 8 June 2013

Queen of the Forest

My next post here (after a hiatus in which I was spending all my free time making a costume for London Expo!) was going to be about the Black Headed Gull colony I visited last week, but something so exciting happened to me yesterday that I had to write a post about it before anything else. I saw my first Goshawk!

(The New Forest has a thriving Goshawk population and this is commonly obtained information, plus its a very general area name, so I will say that the New Forest is where I saw my Goshawk, but I won't write the exact location as the nests and adult birds are still persecuted.)

I had planned to head up to the New Forest yesterday for a bit of raptor watching, seeing as it was my day off and the weather has been so warm and sunny, ideal for birds of prey that like to soar on thermals. I checked the weather for the area and it said sunny and sunny with clouds, all fine and awesome. And then I woke up that morning to find it raining heavily. But I thought 'it's fine, the forecast's good for the New Forest so I'll drive down anyway!' ...and of course once I arrived it was raining there too. I had planned to drive down relatively early as the morning is better than afternoon in terms of bird activity, but I ended up sitting in Costa in Lyndhurst for an hour waiting for the rain to ease off. And every time someone opened the door I could hear distant thunder and I'm feeling pretty miffed at the weatherman. BUT sure enough at about 11, it started to ease off and the sky was brightening. So I jumped in the car and drove down to the raptor watchpoint, and took my telescope and tripod to the top, and by that point the rain had indeed pretty much stopped. And what's more, it didn't return for the rest of the day. So I forgave the weatherman everything. :D

I had decided to spend about an hour on the watchpoint and then head on to another part of the forest, so I set up the scope on shortened tripod legs in the hope that I could look through it while sitting down. It didn't really work so I ended up squatting, which caused no end of pins and needles but it was all totally worth it! Because then along the treeline flew a long-tailed, pointed-winged bird, clearly a bird of prey, and I assumed a Hobby at first. I had been practising getting the telescope onto birds quickly by focusing on Woodpigeons and Stock Doves that were flying by (this isn't easy at first, but you can do it by finding a distinctive looking tree near the bird with the naked eye, and then finding it in the scope), so I got the bird in view without too much trouble. Looking at it more closely I could see it was far too big for a Hobby, and not just big but heavily built, with 'fingers' at the ends of its wings (meaning that you could see the separate feathers pointing out), and had a brown back, a whitish underside and no visible falcon-marks (what I have taken to calling the 'moustache' markings Peregrines and Hobbys have on their faces). I dared to hope it was a Goshawk. Sparrowhawks are the big confusion species (or should I say small, because they are much smaller than Goshawks, but size is a real pain to judge at a distance) but it didn't look or behave like any Sparrowhawk I'd ever seen before. Sparrowhawks don't spend a lot of time soaring around, whereas this bird was gliding over the trees, interjecting the gliding with several powerful flaps. I was pretty sure it was a Goshawk, but pretty sure isn't good enough when its your first ever time seeing a bird you have wanted to see since your interest in birds don't want a maybe then! Luckily I had a second opinion- I had just watched the hawk land in a dead tree, where it remained for a while, when the one other guy up on the watchpoint said to me: 'Did you see the Gos?' So there it was- if someone else thinks it looks like a Goshawk too then I know it's not just me being deluded! :D

Two more men arrived on the watchpoint and we were all watching when the Goshawk, who had dropped out of sight behind the trees, appeared again, and we were treated to extended views of this wonderful bird. While certainly not close to us by any means, it flew close enough that through the scope I could see the eyestripe marking on its face. Its back was a dark shade of warm brown, and the other watchers told me that means it's a first year bird- adults have grey backs. Large species of birds sometimes take at least a year to become old enough to breed, so I imagine this bird will be roaming for at least a year, learning to hunt well enough to support a chick and/or a mate, if it is a male. The more experienced people watching with me, who had all seen Goshawks before, were speculating about its gender and even wondering if the sightings involved two different birds, an male and a female. Female Goshawks are much larger than males, but size is very difficult to judge at a distance so it makes sense that they couldn't be sure. But they seemed to think it was probably a female we were watching. Hence the title of this post!

At one point while the hawk was in flight over the trees, a Stock Dove flew out of some foliage quite near it. It seemed to fly towards the hawk for a moment, before doing a double-take, turning around and flying as fast as possible in the opposite direction. But the Goshawk was on its tail! It chased the dove back and forth, as the dove kept making frantic turns as if trying to shake the hawk off. Sometimes it seemed like the dove would escape, as a quick maneuver would widen the distance between them, but always the Goshawk would narrow the distance in the blink of an eye and be close enough again to swipe at the dove with its talons. It was truly thrilling to watch. In the end they both dropped out of sight behind a tree, and the hawk did not reappear for a long while. I didn't see the moment its talons connected but I can make a guess that the hawk caught the dove, and spent the next hour or so plucking and eating it in privacy. The viewers on the hill had by now increased to at least 15, the numbers swelled by what was probably a birdwatching group, so the many observers made sure nothing was missed and everyone saw everything, including a distant Hobby, Buzzards, and Tree Pipits and Meadow Pipits doing their parachuting display flights all around us. The Goshawk was back in view about an hour later and was on the wing again. Just watching it fly was fascinating, this hawk is a master in the air. (You'd need to be to even attempt catching another bird in level flight! I never knew Goshawks did this and only thought the tiny, nippy Merlin could do so.)

So far this year I have been to this spot 3 times, in the hope of finding a Goshawk but never thinking there was any more than an outside chance, even though they live in the Forest. They are secretive and live deep in woodland, and are hard to tell from the smaller and much commoner Sparrowhawk, to the point that county recorders probably see more Sparrowhawk photos that someone hoped was a Goshawk than of any other bird. When it comes to illegal persecution by humans, the Goshawk is one of the most at risk, along with the Buzzard and Hen Harrier, because these species sometimes take gamebirds or their chicks as their prey. It was actually wiped out in Britain in the early 1900s, but had recolonised by the 60s, probably because of falconers birds escaping into the wild. It's like the reintroduction that conservationists would almost certainly have suggested anyway, as with the White Tailed Eagle, happened without them even trying! I love that. And the descendants of these escaped birds are certainly wild again now.

Finding a Goshawk for myself was a dream come true, and watching it for so long was just wonderful. I had never expected to spend almost 3 hours on that hill, but it was well worth it! And everyone I was watching with was so kind and knowledgeable. The birdwatching community can really be awesome. :)


A final note: I found a pair of Curlews later in a different part of the forest, and got to hear their wonderful call 'currrrrrrrr-LEW-cur-LEW-cur-LEW!) echoing across the heathland. I don't think I've ever seen Curlews so far from the coast before. They are a large wader with a long, curved beak that can be seen on coasts outside of the breeding season but breeds on heathland and moorland. I spotted them mobbing a crow from a distance and suspected their nest must be on the ground near where they were, so I gave them a wide berth in case I disturbed the nest. They still spotted me though and alarm called angrily as I passed. Their alarm call is like the bark of a small yappy dog!