we found a nest!

The big news is that we found an active sparrowhawks’ nest.

It’s in a small pine woodland near a house and two people we know took a wild sparrowhawk chick from this very spot sixteen years ago under a license. On our previous visit there weeks ago we found feathers from many recent kills. Sparrowhawks who occupied the woods had a varied diet – magpies, water rail, smaller garden birds, and we even found feathers belonging to a long-eared owl! We knew we were going to return to this spot.

In the most recent episode of the Wild Take podcast Ed and I mention this particular spot which we call The Garden.

So two days ago we revisited The Garden to see if we can hear sparrowhawks. And we did pretty much as soon as we stepped out of the car. Their high pitch call stood out against the chorus of garden birds. When sparrowhawks call you know its not a blue tit or a black bird having a screaming match. A musket, a male spar, might call when he returns with food for his mate. He will scream a little and the female might call back indicating that she understands he’s got treats for her – the usual couply interactions. The calls can mean that the nest isn’t far.

So I went into the woods towards the area where we heard them in hope of sighting a nest. The ground was so dry and a wren angrily alarm called as I clumsily stumbled past her home in the bushes. Wrens are tiny birds but are terrifying when angry, no wonder they are called the King of Birds. The air was so still, I could hear my own heart beat.

Suddenly a sparrowhawk called and another replied as they came in to land very close. I was under a pine tree that had a nest we had spotted on our last visit. The nest didn’t impress us as being particularly “sparrowhawky” as it was only about ten meters off the ground and rather small.

But several seconds after the calls, and to my complete surprise and shock, a female sparrowhawk flew right above my head and landed in the nest. This was the most unexpected thing. I decided to lie down under the tree to get a good view of the nest and wait. This is the view, it’s difficult to see the nest itself but it’s a dark mass of twigs slightly below the centre of the photo.

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And this one is a close up, not as good quality but gives you an idea of what it looks like.

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I called Ed for advice but was too afraid to move so not to spook the bird who kept silent. Then about ten minutes later I heard another high pitch “ke-ke-ke-ke” call coming from a different tree nearby and a few seconds later I heard the sparrowhawk stir in the nest above. Perhaps the call was her mate saying he caught a tasty something for her, perhaps it as to let her know it was safe to fly, I really don’t know. But a second later I witnessed something very special.

The sparrowhawk jumped to the edge of the nest, spread her wings wide and then she simply glided down and away in a swift silent movement.

The words are not enough to say how it felt and what it meant. It was like being in the presence of a goddess. I cried, I wept actually. My tears were like a river bursting through a dam in a rush of emotions and happiness, completely uncontrollable and disarming.

I replay the image of her flying above my head in my mind trying to recall and memorise every little detail – her twig-thin feet as they gave her a powerful push from the nest, her light colour and barring under the wings and tail, her perfect feathers as they spread wide against the sky. I wish I could relive this moment over and over again.

I felt so peaceful afterwards, it was the most amazing moment ever.

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feather obsessed

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There is something very satisfying in finding feathers. Perhaps like foraging the practice of finding and making sense of an object appeals to my inner hunter-gatherer. Feathers are also beautiful and they smell lovely of everything old and comforting.

My husband Ed has been collecting feathers for years from various trips and countries we visited. When we began our search for sparrowhawk nests our collection has expanded to include some amazing examples. Hopefully the photos below convey how incredibly beautiful and fresh the feathers were when we found them.

Blue tit, most likely plucked by a musket, a male sparrowhawk:

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Water rail beak and feathers, most likely plucked by a female sparrowhawk. These were so fresh with bits of sinew still attached to the beak:

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Tree creeper, most likely plucked by a musket:

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Long-eared owl, maybe plucked by a female sparrowhawk:

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Magpie, possibly plucked by a female sparrowhawk (note broken ends):

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We don’t always take feathers with us, sometimes they are better left behind. But we always take feathers that we can’t identify. There is one particular book we use which is amazing if you would like to become a wildlife detective:

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Ever wondered which animal poops on the path where you walk your dog? Or wanted to identify a feather or wild tracks? This book is full of information and photographs to guide you.

Many birds will start their molt this time of year – a process when they shed old feathers and replace them with shiny new ones. It takes place over spring and summer months when food availability and daylight are at their optimum. This means that when you are in the woods you are bound to find feathers, even if it’s just pigeon fluff.

Look for mossy stumps in mixed woodland too and you might even find feathers of a sparrowhawk kill. It looks something like this:

But I have to warn you that finding feathers is addictive! Once you start you will never be able to walk in the woods without constantly looking under your feet for new finds.

I admire people who know trees and plants and especially who can identify birds and their different songs. To me it’s like being fluent in a language that most people cannot understand.

Our survival does not depend on being able to know the birds or on being able to read the landscape. On our way to work we don’t have to identify signs and landmarks to find our way back. We don’t need songlines to guide us. But I think it’s great to know who we share our gardens with and what they are up to.

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a trip to the coast

We live in Ireland’s Lake District near two enormous bodies of water – Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. There is also Lough Coolin a short hike from our house up Mount Gable. The mountain itself is a soggy giant covered in bell heather and bog. There is so much fresh water around, above and below and so little land to absorb it it seems.

But even though we are literally surrounded by water, there are days when I long to see the Ocean, the craggy and dramatic Atlantic coast.

Yesterday we went to my favourite village of Roundstone. It’s one of those places that has the best of everything. My favourite pub, O’Dowd’s, serves the best lobster and mussels I’ve ever tried. These come fresh from the tiny cute harbour opposite, which itself is a treat for the eye with its colourful nets, ropes, lobster pots, and electric pink sea boyes. 

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Errisbeg hill towers above the village and stunning beaches of Gorteen and Dog’s Bay. 

The beaches are pure white sand punctuated by turquoise ocean on one side and muirbheach or machair, a smooth carpet of grass kept trimmed by grazing, based on densely compacted sand, on the other.

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As you walk on the beach you are unaware that you are strolling the length of a vast necropolis of dead organisms. Tim Robinson in Connemara describes that the sand at Gorteen and Dog’s Bay consists of shards of mollusc shells and exoskeletons of the single-celled sea-creatures called foraminifera.

Foraminifera, or forams, when alive build a unique shell and under the microscope they look just amazing. Of course forams are only visible under a microscope, but each one would have had its own life-history, defined by its DNA. 

West of Ireland has so many types of sand. A few weeks ago we went to Corral beach near a small settlement of An Cheathrú Rua to the west of Galway city. Here the beach was covered in tiny multicoloured coral fragments. When picked up they felt like bones or something entirely edible like a crunchy breakfast cereal.

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The wind-swept Gorteen beach was dramatic and wild. The waves made amazing patterns in the sand that looked like stepping stones above tiny rivers that hurried back to the ocean. 

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There were some unexpected finds too.

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After our walk we ate scones with butter and drank orange juice at a picnic table in the carpark. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but later I recalled reading in Connemara about “soot blackened ‘soil horizons’” in the sand banks above the beach. What Tim Robinson refers to are blackish layers of coal and shell middens – periwinkles, dogwhelks, mussels and limpets in the dunes above the beach. These are remains of meals from Neolithic people who gathered here to enjoy fruits of the sea together, a veritable “kitchen refuse” as he calls it in the book.

It really is amazing, I think, that there we were sitting, eating our scones enjoying the views, unaware that thousand of years ago humans just like us did exactly the same, only their lunches were more interesting, something Bear Grylls would have loved to sample.

These layers in the dunes above Gorteen beach have sadly eroded from winter storms and constant stream of beach goers like myself, but I still remember them being visible during our last visit in the summer of 2015.

Tim Robinson also writes that there is evidence that in Ireland dogwhelk (Nucella lapillus) were used as a source of dye similar to the way Murex shell was a source of famous Tyrian purple in the past. Large concentrations of dogwhelk shell found in dune systems in the west of Ireland may suggest a whole dogwhelk dye industry in the early Christian times. This is what the tiny things look like:

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Of course it would be unimaginable to sacrifice thousands of dogwhelks for a drop of dye these days. But molluscs are not the only source of colour on the coast. There is also colourful plastic items and some blend in rather well, they almost look beautiful.

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Groteen is anglicised for Irish Goirtín, meaning ‘small field’, which perhaps refers to the original use of machair near the ocean as grazing commonage and for growing potatoes. You can still see potato ridges from pre-famine Ireland.

As I walked on the beach it was easy to forget the past, all these thousands of years of human impact on this short stretch of coast were buried or will be buried eventually under the sand. Rain swept across sandunes and wind drove tiny sanderlings away from water, the whole scene felt untamed and unaffected by our presence. This is probably why I love coming here – to clear my head and to refocus my attention on what is under my feet.

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wild food

There is a brilliant book by Richard Mabey called Food For FreeIt’s an absolute treasure if you like foraging and eating wild food. It inspires me to look under my feet when I am out and about in the woods and there is so much edible stuff around.

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Wild garlic is in abundance this time of year. It’s hard to miss large colonies of this tasty herb in the woods. The smell is unmissable as you approach the area and get your nose closer to the ground.

Wild garlic can be used raw or cooked and has a mild taste when raw. I add it to everything I eat. It also makes a delicious pesto.

And sometimes conventional food items can go wild when cooked or consumed outdoors. For example take bananas and chocolate buttons, add to burning logs in a splendid clearing in the woods on a sunny day and voilà – you have a bananachocolatebuttons gone wild and out of control tasty. 

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This was our breakfast a few days ago when we spent the night bivvying in the local woods. As chocolate melted and bananas got softer the whole thing turned into a gooey sweet delicious mess. It tasted absolutely divine.

Growing food can also turn wild when you have a full-time job and little time or energy to look after the plants. They just grow while rain and sun look after them and what looks like neglect can be also labeled as some kind of fancy unintentional experimental gardening.

For four years I’ve had various plants growing in small containers with a different degree of success. I’ve grown tomatoes, salads, peas, beans…

This year I am planning a proper serious garden with plenty of space to experiment thanks to my diy-savvy husband Ed who put together four beautiful raised beds.

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My friend Magda helped me fill one of them with last year’s compost and it’s ready to receive tenants. Those pretty Sungold and Tumbing Tiger tomato plants will be moving in as soon as they are tall and strong to battle through the rainy Irish weather.

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We shall see how this year’s experimental gardening turns out and whether I will retain a degree of control over the unruly plants or whether my garden will continue to be a little bit wild.

Happy foraging and experimenting!

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