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Female Sparrowhawk Caused A Commotion With Her Dawn Raid Hunting Exercise

A recent morning started with the local songbird and blackbird population creating a hullabaloo as a female sparrowhawk hunted the local trees, shrubs and hedgerows that abut our base here in Kent.

As the dawn light filtered through the office window and I was making my second cup of tea the local wild bird population kicked up a din in panic, lead by the distinctive “alarm rattle” distress call of blackbirds (Turdus merula), as a female sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) exploited the cover of local garden trees, shrubs and hedgerows whilst hunting prey.

The use of an ambush technique is most common with the sparrowhawk and I have often seen them from the vantage point of some of the higher ground flying fast and low over both hedgerow and spiny as I look over the green swathe of fields and woodland in the valley we have made our home and headquarters here in Mid Kent. Often the remains of successful kills can be found in the form of pigeon and collared dove feathers which have been strewn across the landscape by the wind and which have been plucked rather than chewed off by a fox.

The combined distress call of so many birds instantly piqued my interest and I carefully approached the French windows of our office that overlook our back garden. There on the lawn was a female sparrowhawk and what appeared to be a juvenile blackbird clasped in her talons. Female sparrowhawks, like many birds of prey, are larger than the males and this is known as reverse sexual dimorphism. This greatly affects the size of prey and prey species that the male and female are able to hunt but also enables a breeding pair to fully exploit the variation of prey species in their hunting grounds. Sparrowhawks exhibit one of the highest ratios of reverse sexual dimorphism with the female potentially 25% larger than the male. Locally speaking the prey of the male is often made up of tits, finches and the obvious sparrow, whilst the females often hunt blackbirds, thrushes, pigeon and collared doves.

I carefully retreated from my hidden vantage point to retrieve a camera, sadly my digital SLR was not accessible in time and I could only find a small pocket sized device that often accompanies me on some long country walks. I was only able to take several blurry pictures at full zoom through the glass of the French doors before realising that the camera was not really up to the task and that finding my larger camera was required if I wanted to achieve an image of decent quality, with this in mind I left my office "sit spot" to seek a better camera.

Sadly when I returned, digital SLR and lenses in hand, the female sparrowhawk had taken flight with her kill. The only traces of her garden visit and my brief but precious dawn encounter was a blurry picture, a clump of carefully plucked downy breast feathers from her victim and the continuing and haunting distress cries of the blackbirds, possibly lamenting the loss of one of their kin.


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