Updated: Oct 20, 2019
One early morning twilight, I was sitting at my kitchen table with my first cup of tea, gazing out of the window at the sparrows, tits and wrens picking the seed from the floor below the bird feeder. All of a sudden they scattered and a sparrow hawk landed where they had been. It seemed to look through the glass straight at me, then its eyes turned and it tipped its head on one side. I could tell from its stance that it knew there was still a bird somewhere among the undergrowth, and it slowly walked about, ear and eye to the ground, waiting for a movement - it was just like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park! Suddenly the prey gave itself away, the raptor snapped, and away it flew with a little wren in its hooked beak. I felt so sorry for the wren, one of my favourite birds, but it gave itself to a majestic creature, and to have witnessed that was a privilege.
That was all a few month's back but I was reminded of it today as on our way home from school, the kids and I came across a young sparrow hawk in the lane. It was not moving much and I feared it had been injured, but as we drew closer it hopped to the side of the road and perched itself on the fence. I wanted to give it space but at the same time wanted to make sure it was unhurt before we left, so I crept slowly towards it to try to see any damage. It appeared fine so I assumed it was just perhaps a week or so early out of its nest and hadn't quite mastered the flying yet. If it could get into the trees I doubt anything would have preyed on it here so I drew closer still to try to prompt it into flight. I was relieved when it managed to fly a safe distance and height away to the branch of a nearly ash tree. It sat there eyeing us for a while before we wished it well and moved off.
When we got home we pulled down The Reader's Digest Book of British Birds, with is wonderful illustrations by Raymond Harris Ching, to give us a bit of information on this beautiful bird. We were saddened that they have a hard time getting through their first year - apparently only a third surviving. They also seem to have a tough time from agricultural chemicals. But once mature, they do well. I have seen so many in gliding flight above the downs, sometimes appearing perfectly still in the wind like a kestrel, until they swoop and initiate their surprise attack. Their landing suddenly, as it by teleportation, among a group of shocked birds, as per the one in my garden, seemingly not uncommon.
Ted Hughes called this bird The Warrior, an apt name! He also called it 'a listener' - that is hauntingly appropriate as I picture the raptor, head tilted to one side, tuned in to the slightest sound from its prey.