a female in the nest

One thing I love about living in Ireland is how everything turns green almost overnight. One day trees look bare and wet and the next day they are covered in greenest new leaves that scream “Summer!”. Everything changes so suddenly that it’s hard to recognise the woods we’ve roamed in search of nests.

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A few weeks ago I wrote that we have found three sparrowhawk nesting sites. We called them the Garden, Sorrel Woods, and Mossy Woods. Finding actual nests is really exciting. All those hours of searching for signs and clues on the ground have paid off and this is a big landmark in our Wild Take adventure.

This means that I can now stop focusing on the feathers under my feet and put all my attention towards the tree tops – towards where sparrowhawks nest. So a few days ago we revisited the Sorrel Woods hoping to see sparrowhawks coming and leaving the nest.

Sorrel Woods is one I like the most because it’s just gorgeous. The nicely spaced trees allow sunlight to trickle down to illuminate velvety leaves of wood sorrel that covers the ground. This woodland is so clean, and it feels enchanted and just lovely.

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The other reason I like this spot is because we came across is randomly – by following a musket who swiftly flew in front of our bicycles as we were on our way elsewhere. It felt almost as if this little male lead us towards this place and the nest.

We brought our bivvy bags, oatcakes, and binoculars in preparation for a long stakeout. We found a tree to rest against with a good view of the nest and waited. The midges were horrific. They are vicious little flies that won’t leave you in peace until you move location.

This is Ed waiting patiently but what you can’t see on this photo is that he is being eaten alive by midges.

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After a few moments of looking through my binoculars and fidgeting as more and more tiny jaws tucked into my thigh I could no longer stand the midges and decided to walk around to see what I can find. At one point I directed my binoculars upwards towards the canopy. Then I stopped and gasped – there was another nest! How did we miss it last time? I don’t know. But it was a solid built thing about 15 meters up high. It looked new too.

Here is a photo I took through my binoculars.

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Almost immediately I noticed that something was sticking out form the nest. It was a tail – a sparrowhawk was right there in the nest!

On this photograph Ed took through binoculars you will see a roundish clump of twigs and just to the right from the middle of this clump there is an upright oval/rectangular shape – this is the tail.

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The photographs do not do justice but the tail had barring and it was unmistakably her sitting in the nest. Whether she was on eggs of not we couldn’t tell. She sat very still for a long time and then suddenly she called in a very faint voice. She shifted, got up and starred directly at us. It’s amazing to be starring in the eyes of such a wild thing. But she didn’t fly away maybe because she was incubating eggs or maybe because she was heavy and was about to lay. Once she called, her partner came out of nowhere and darted past us in panic making it clear we were intruding on their privacy. It was time to leave them in peace.

We will return sometime in the next few weeks to check on this nest discretely. Meanwhile here are some treasures we found in the Mossy Woods on the same day.

A molted feather of a sparrowhawk. It looked very healthy with no hunger marks or signs of damage.

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Plucked bird – feathers in sheaths.

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Gorgeous feathers from multiple recent kills.

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A rat skull?

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wild food: beware of hemlock

We camped out on an island on Lough Corrib the other day. There is a myth that Lough Corrib has 365 islands – one for each day of the year, but in reality there are probably over 1000 islands. Some are homes to huge heronries in spring and if you are lucky you might see something like this peaking at you from a nest:

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This is a young black-crowned night heron from the BBC Wildlife magazine spring issue. Ireland has grey herons but they look just as scary as babies.

Islands are magical places especially on a rain-free spring evening.

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While on this island I quickly tried to identify plants around me. I found nettles and water mint and then another plant that looked and smelled like celery or parsley. I had my Food for Free guide and I identified it as Alexanders – an edible herb similar to parsley. I was very close to tasting it, but then decided to research more. When we got home the following day I did a quick search and discovered that in fact I was close to eating the deadliest plant in Ireland -Hemlock Water Dropwort. A tiny amount can kill you in a few hours.

Apparently this plant was used in the ritual killings of elderly in the Phoenician Sardinia. People who were too old and could no longer take care of themselves “were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death”. Fun fun fun. The plant is called “sardonic” because one of its side effect is so-called “sardonic grin” as it paralises face muscles. Oh dear…

And this case study describes how eight young adults on holiday in Scotland cooked a curry that included water dropwort roots. Of course it was all party time after a few hours when one in the group experienced a “grand mal seizure”, whatever that felt like. Pure evil. 

So for now, I will stick to wild garlic and water mint because they are easy to identify.

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I’ve also gathered a lot of nettles to make nettle wine.

I used store-bought yeast this time, but wild fermentation works really well too if you want things to progress more naturally. One of my favourite books Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is fantastic if you feel creative and would like to experiment a bit, make unusual but tasty food and rewild your gut.

At the moment I have mead, blackberry/apple, and banana/coffee wines during various stages of fermentation.

 

Safe foraging to you!

 

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more nests more bones

We found two more sparrowhawk nests since my last post!

The first one we discovered accidentally by following a sparrowhawk who flew across a woodland track in front of our bicycles. The woods there are absolutely stunning – nicely spaced sitka spruce, moss, and wood sorrel everywhere.

We called this Sorrel Woods.

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We heard sparrowhawks calling almost immediately after entering the woods and also it didn’t take long to find several plucking posts.

Some contained fresh fathers.

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The Sorrel Woods Spars liked rodents too! Sparrowhawks do not frequently eat ground mammals, but in this woodland we found a plucked vole and even its fresh guts on a mossy stump. Very exciting indeed.

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We found woodcock bones and feathers which were clearly broken or pulled off. Perhaps it was a fox, or perhaps it was a female sparrowhawk?

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And of course we found multiple old tiny skulls and bones – possibly a blue tit?

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The nest itself is nicely built, perhaps you can spot it on this photo. Draw a straight line down from X towards the middle of the photograph. You will see a small round mass to the right of the line and almost in the middle of the photo.

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It’s is a little higher than the nest in The Garden and will require climbing gear, which will be an adventure! We have not seen any activity there, but we are planning to revisit this spot early in the morning soon. Females will be laying eggs in May and we might see a tail sticking out of the nest or a male flying in with food.

The other nest is located in the Mossy Woods – everything here is padded with greenest moss.

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A few weeks ago we found feathers of a tree creeper.

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Then we were told that a sparrowhawk was heard calling and so we revisited and this time we found a foot of a freshly killed blackbird.

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And most amazingly we found a half-plucked and eaten thrush! Something must have spooked the sparrowhawk to leave so much meat behind.

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We also found an old egg shell belonging to a medium size bird. A sparrohawk perhaps?

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I didn’t take a photo of this last nest but it’s a solid platform made of small sticks two-thirds way up a tall pine, close to the trunk, and partially hidden by ivy – similar kind of structure as the other two nests we found.

We will revisit The Garden, Sorrel Woods, and Mossy Woods soon and will hopefully spot a female on eggs!

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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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