Nature Notes

Blood on the Apple Blossom.

IMG_1015On my way to the kettle at 6.30am, the racket from the garden birds alerted me to the presence of a predator – I didn’t have to look far – the sparrowhawk had already made a kill and was straddling its victim on the grass beneath the apple trees, plucking out soft, downy breast feathers.

We have witnessed sparrowhawk kills several times before in our garden and it’s fascinating – but never easy to watch. I have seen the small male sparrowhawk miss many times, but I have also seen it catch a sparrow in one talon, lose it in a tussle on the ground and then grab a starling on the rebound – that was the worst. The sparrowhawk stood on its breast and ate it alive, eyeball to horrifying eyeball. I suspect this latest meal may be a female blackbird. Mercifully, it appears to be dead.

The sparrowhawk has its back to the kitchen window at first, pausing every now and then to look sideways, skyward; its long, barred tail bobbing for balance as it dips to pull at the bird. And then it lifts in a deft hop, turning 180 degrees to face me, the bird grasped firmly in its talons.

It is a terrible, exciting, beautiful bird and I’ve a good, clear view of its slate blue-grey back, tail and wings, and cream breast, striped like a Breton jumper in fine orange knit. Its long yellow legs knead the little bird’s body, hauling out longer feathers and entrails now as it pauses to flick sticky feathers, and flash me a stare, fierce as the sun.

All the while, the commotion and scolding of little birds never lets up and their boldness, while this predator is occupied, is quite astonishing. A wren, robin and a pair of blue tits chitter and pish angrily from the apple tree and, somewhat to my relief (it isn’t them!) the two pairs of garden blackbirds have joined in on the ground and on the garden gate, the hen birds having come off their nests. The males display raised crowns and make bold, low, aggressive runs towards the sparrowhawk.

And then, perhaps deciding it has eaten enough, the hawk takes off with its kill to fly off through the farm, where I suspect its mate is sitting on eggs.

The garden quietens. Under the apple blossom is a small heap of soft grey breast feathers from the initial kill and beside them, longer dusky brown feathers. Among these are gobbets of shaken flesh and two rejected earthworms, which must have been hard won on the baked, unyielding lawn and possibly too much of a distraction: one is still alive.

It has made for tough viewing, but the sparrowhawk’s presence as a top predator is evidence enough that there are enough small birds here to support such a thing. It has its place in the scheme of things and likely, young of its own.

I ponder the feathers and find some, tiny as my little fingernail, that are ochre tipped with black – the heart and dart breast feathers of a song thrush. A few pink and white petals from the apple blossom shaken off by the efforts of the other songbirds have fallen onto the tortoiseshell feathers. Some are flecked with blood.

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