sparrowhawks have hatched

The big news is that sparrowhawk’s nest in the Sorrel Woods has chicks in it!

The reason we know this is because we’ve been watching the nest every day for the past weeks. We found a hiding spot behind a large sitka spruce far enough from the nest not to disturb the mother and yet with a good view of the nest.

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Every evening after work we revisited the “hide” and waited for ours looking through binoculars. The midges were always horrendous, but we saw some amazing stuff. We saw the female leave the nest, we’ve seen food passes, we’ve heard the musket call, but most importantly we’ve seen the female feed her young in the nest. The last time we could just make out two little fluffy white chick heads peaking from the depth of the nest.

There are also droppings, or mutes, under the tree. Chicks even when young back out towards the edge of the nest to defecate. Their tiny bums produce tiny white drops on the ground and leaves below and they look like whitewash.

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We think that chicks are under ten days old, but we are not certain. Everywhere in the woods sparrowhawks are having their young. Parents time the arrival of the young with availability of fledgling birds such as blue tits. I found this feather on the plucking post possibly belonging to a blue tit.

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And this is a paper-thin skull of a blue tit I found under an old nest nearby. And of course more bones.

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Sparrowhawks are really amazing. The more I watch them the more I realise how complex their lives are. For example they are very vocal and they talk to each other a lot. In fact every interaction is accompanied by much calling, screaming, and fuss. When male comes back with food, he does’t just drop it in the nest. He calls and flies around for a while attracting the female’s attention. When he lands in a tree nearby he makes loud calls to the female. And the female then shifts in the nest and calls back gently. She might fly straight out of the nest and pick up the food left by the male on a plucking post but we’ve also seen long flights away to a food pick up spot. Nothing is straightforward.

The other day after feeding her young the female left the nest carrying a carcass of a large bird in her feet. Perhaps she was trying to dispose of it somewhere where it is unlikely to attract predators to the nest, maybe she was just taking it as a snack to her mate? Who knows?

I’ve done a few practice tree climbs.

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Can you see Ed below?

It’s scary – sitkas are tall, they move around in the wind, I need to saw off branches or negotiate my way over them as I climb… Also I cannot fail. I cannot panic or get a vertigo, I have to move fast, I have to be efficient. When I get up there I have to be alert and identify the female among tiny fluffy chicks by the size of their legs. Females have larger feet and thicker legs. Then I have to put it gently in a bag and lower it down slowly. Then I have to descend the tree in one piece. This is all rather overwhelming, but I feel more confident now that I’ve done a few climbs.

And we think we might be getting a chick in the next few days. Yes, this soon. It’s all happening and I can’t believe it. I have so many worries like what if there are only two chicks in the nest? The wild take license allows us to take a chick only if there is a minimum of three chicks in the nest. And what if they are too young? Or too old to take?

So much uncertainties and worries just to hang out with this beauty.

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Stay tuned.

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walking up a tree

The sparrowhawk nest we found a few weeks ago is about fifteen meters off the ground. It is a tightly woven conical shape structure made of sticks close to the trunk of a typical sitka spruce – the kind a tree surgeon friend calls a “pole”. The tree is so straight, so tall, and so covered in thin dead branches sticking out in all directions from the main trunk, that I just can’t get my head around how on earth I am going to climb it?

This is a rather blurry photo of me pointing my binoculars at the nest in horror.

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And this is what I can see through my binoculars – you can see clearly the nest is surrounded by lots and lots of sharp branches!

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Tree climbing isn’t on the list of my hobbies as I am terrified of heights to the point of panic, but for some reason we decided earlier on that it will be me climbing the tree to take a spar chick from the nest. I think we both thought it’ll be hilarious and will make good tape. Yes, I can just picture the drama – me hugging the tree paralysed with fear, unable to move up or down, in tears, terrified and begging to be rescued, and yet having to complete the mission.

But also deep inside I want to be the one climbing the tree and taking the chick. This is a good opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and face my phobia.

So yesterday I did a trial climb of a sitka spruce but in a different location to avoid disturbing the nesting spar. Our colleague and friend is a professional tree climber and has all the gear. He tried to talk me through the technical names but somehow it didn’t stick and all I can say is there is a harness, a rope, carabiners, and spikes for shoes.. But it is really amazing how few things one actually needs to climb a tree!

The idea is simple – you have spikes on your shoes and they help you grip to the tree but if you slip you won’t fall because you have a rope that wraps around the trunk and keeps you secure. You move the rope higher with your hands, then make small steps up the trunk with your feet and then move the rope higher again and so on.

Essentially you are slowly walking up a tree.

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So as I watched in slight panic and anticipation I had many disaster related thoughts, like what if a squirrel suddenly jumps out and startles me? What if I need to pee as I am half-way up?

But I’ve reached the point of no return, and unless I was prepared to face the shame of being another scared weakling, I just had to get on with it.

So here I was all geared up ready for that tree.

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Something amazing happened when I started my ascent – very quickly I fell in love with the process. It’s hard to describe how it feels to be so high off the ground, to be close to the mossy trunk, smelling resin in the moist folds of the tree. To be able to see the land and people below and to get that one long uninterrupted view from the height is just so precious. And I can see how tree climbing can become addictive.

My progress was slow, I didn’t climb very high, maybe only six meters. And I did have a few moments of doubt and fear, but they were quickly gone because I had to focus my thoughts on the immediate task of putting each foot higher and moving the rope.

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A very blurry photo of me smiling.

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In a few days I will try climbing higher and hopefully will take better photos of how magical Irish woodland looks from above.

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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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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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rewilding

In previous blog posts I’ve written that we’ve been granted a license to take a wild sparrowhawk chick from a nest this spring for the purpose of falconry. Of course to take a chick you need a nest first and searching for a nest of one of the most illusive birds of prey in Europe is a difficult task. We’ve looked for signs and clues in several places, searching mostly mixed woodland around where we live and work.

Often when searching for the signs of sparrowhawks deep in the woods we find remains of plucked birds – their bones, beaks, and feathers.

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Sometimes we are lucky and we find a whole skull too.

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These trophies are hard won and every our outing is comparable to detective’s work – looking for small feathers on mossy ground in a large woodland isn’t an easy task. Feathers are usually arranged on a plucking post or several plucking posts – usually a stump of a fallen tree trunk where a musket, a male sparrowhawk, plucks small birds before taking them to feed his female.

Can you spot a plucking post here?

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Finding feathers, at least in theory, means there might be a nest nearby. But sparrowhawk’s rituals are complex, their habits are not rigid, they don’t obey the written text in the books about falconry.

But the act of searching has an enormous pleasure for me. The place comes into clear focus as I near the ground and as I observe the details up close.

I often end up crawling on my knees through densely planted sitka spruce to get to some beautiful clearing with promising stumps I’d spotted earlier. I scan every inch through my imaginary “feather goggles” as I go along. Sometimes I find spar’s castings, a mass of feathers that she regurgitates before she kills and plucks another blackbird.

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The intensity of search means it’s not always easy to mentally “come back” from the land of sparrowhawks, to fully “exit” the woods. I feel like part of me remains in the woods when I leave. A part of me goes wild.

But after every outing we also bring nature home indoors and into our human world – we return with feathers, skulls, bones, photographs, audio recordings, and of course stories which we document in the Wild Take podcast.

The boundaries between our human and non-human worlds become less pronounced as we progress in our search. “Rewilding… is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way”, writes George Monbiot in FeralI feel that nature has certainly found its way into our lives and our lives are becoming more connected to this illusive and almost mythical sparrowhawk we are seeking from the wild.

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findings

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On Wednesday we got a phone call from the National Parks & Wild Life Service saying that they have approved our Wild Take license. So now it’s official – we can take a wild sparrowhawk chick from a nest this summer.

That is if we can find a nest of course.

Nest searching is difficult this time of year simply because there are no nests to be found and there are no voices of the hungry young coming from the tree tops to help us locate it. What you can find are plucking posts from previous years where male plucked prey before he took it to feed the young and the mother.

A plucking post looks like a small mound or a tree stump covered in moss.

Something like this:

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It’s hard to see from this photograph because the quality is so bad, but spar’s plucking post usually contains feathers from prey such as blackbirds, pigeons, jackdaws etc.

Today we found not one but several plucking posts in a mixed woodland close to where we work. It was a great discovery because we found handfuls of damp feathers of several bird species spread around a large territory- a clear sign of plucking activity. We also found lower and upper mandibles of a jackdaw  which could be a substantial size prey even for a female spar. One stump contained a skeleton of a rat and we also found clean bones of a whole bird neatly arranged on another mound.

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We were so excited about these findings that we forgot to take good photographs. Next time we will certainly remember this small detail.

I don’t know if those fragments are remains of several meals or not, but finding them was like finding a treasure!

To me searching for plucking post is like doing archaeology. There is a sense of adventure and mystery. Finding fragments of someone’s meal a year ago, then finding more fragments nearby, then looking up and around, and through trees – trying to imagine what the set up would have been. Would this spot be a good place for a nest? Would sparrowhawk pluck his meal with this view in front? Would those fields in the clearing provide the necessary food for the clutch? There is so much room for imagination and so many opportunities to get your hands and knees muddy too!

I enjoy our outings in search of a nest and it’s a good thing because this will become a regular and important activity in the coming months in order to locate that one special nest containing a downy creature like this:

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new beginnings

 

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This time two years ago we packed our belongings, our books, and our tools and moved to the west of Ireland in search of a new life. There were no concrete plans, no connections, no jobs, just a sense of adventure and hopes, and a feeling that we might be just lucky. And we were. We were cradled with warmth and showered with love, we found our dream jobs, met fantastic people and created community around us. In short, Ireland has become our home.

I feel that by applying for a license to take a sparrowhawk from the wild we have committed ourselves to this land. Searching for this illusive raptor has given me reasons to roam around places where I would have not ventured otherwise. When I walk around the woods, I am not just strolling, not just passing by, I am really looking. Looking at each tree, the moss, the bumps and the ivy on the tree trunk, the ground and the rocks around it for signs and clues… I become a wild raptor, I think like a sparrowhawk.

Landscapes become meaningful when you are searching for something. A falconer standing on a remote bog watching her falcon above is intimately connected to the landscape. The bog becomes alive. She can read its signs, the place has a meaning. And beauty.

So to celebrate our connection to Ireland, we’ve started a podcast about falconry called Wild Take. It’ll be mostly about our adventures in falconry and, if we get a license to take a wild sparrowhawk, about us training it and hunting with the bird this summer. This is our first attempt in the podcast world and we are really excited which you’ll probably detect if you listen to the trailer here. You can subscribe to future episodes on iTunes and on Podcast addict.

Meanwhile here is me with my new toy —  a wool winder! This wool is being turned into a Warriston jumper. Yes, a sturdy wooly item is absolutely a must for our cold and wet summers here.

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