Monday, 11 January 2010

Sparrowhawk in the garden

This morning, while sitting reading on the veranda, I heard a chorus of alarm calls from the garden birds. So I went over and straight away found a male collared sparrowhawk sitting in the tree above the drinking pool I have built for the birds. In the photograph below he was right in the centre of the thick green foliage.

He was quite undisturbed by me, simply continuing to scan around with those big yellow eyes, watching the small birds which were still alarm-calling from the nearby bushes.

I never see sparrowhawks in the garden during the breeding season, yet every year they turn up to hunt around the drinking pool, feeding station and the chicken shed where sparrows are always present, scavenging for split corn. The sparrowhawks come into the garden from now, mid-summer, to late winter, and I have seen adult and young birds of both sexes hunting the same area at different times, sometimes in the same day.

The bird shown here is moulting new feathers to his tail. The two outer feathers are still short - less than half the full length and appear here as short dark and grey, not protruding farther than the wing feathers. Two fully-grown new tail feathers lie in the centre of the tail, and appear here fresh and bright with distinct barring and firm bottom edges. The feathers either side of these two are old, as seen by their faded colouring, indistinct barring and frayed bottom edges.

The conventional method of distinguishing collared sparrowhawks from the closely related and similarly plumaged brown goshawk, is to class the tail as rounded or square edged at the tip. If square it is a sparrowhawk, round a goshawk. Here, while the bird is in moult it is not such an obvious plumage characteristic, although the more sharply square edges of the two ingrowing outer feathers hint at a more typical shape soon to form. The species also differ in size, goshawks being the larger - about the size of a Eurasian sparrowhawk. This male was obviously a sparrowhawk by his small size. A large female goshawk would be equally obvious as such by her large size. Most ambiguity occurs between the male goshawk and female sparrowhawk which can be similar in size.

Another feature I like about this male was the way his breast feathers were all ruffled, not neat and tidy as usually portrayed in illustrations. A real bird!

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