A strange thing happened on the way to work

Last Tuesday the kids were on school holiday and I was at home so we decided to go to the park to while away an hour playing on the swings. On the way back I just happened to glance upwards as a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) passed overhead. It then wheeled around and came back, circling, and we stood and watched it hunting for several minutes whilst I took a few photographs of it.

When we got home a few minutes later I had to dive into work for a short while so I set off in the car and as I turned the corner out of our road a dead blackbird was lying in the middle of the road. And just a few metres beyond it, also by the white lines in the middle of the road, was a male sparrowhawk, very probably the same one I had photographed just a few minutes earlier, it being only 2-300m away as the hawk flies. But unlike the blackbird he was very much alive.

When sparrowhawks catch a bird they kill it by kneading the body with long talons on the ground and while they’re doing that they spread their wings out to conceal the prey underneath, and that’s what this sparrowhawk looked to be doing. But it was a very strange place for that kind of activity, so I wondered if he had caught the blackbird, which is toward the top end of the size range for a male sparrowhawk, by the side of the road, and had struggled to gain height when he took off with it and had been struck a glancing blow by a passing car, causing him to drop his prey. The female sparrowhawk could easily take a blackbird as they are 25% bigger than the male, but the male is built for speed and agility and generally takes much smaller prey such as great tits

I fretted all the way into work that he may well have got run over, but when I got back from work the blackbird carcass had been placed on the verge at the side of the road but there was no sign of the hawk. So it looks like he didn’t get hit by another car and survived to hunt again. Much to my relief.

16 responses to “A strange thing happened on the way to work

  1. Your posts often make me think you’re part of nature, rather than just observing it from a human standpoint some way off. I love the way you connect everything that’s happening around you and take the wider view, i wish I did that myself. I watched the eagle clip – incredible!

    • Jolly nice comment Lorna, I do like to connect everything because I think everything is inherently connected… and we forget that at our peril.

      That eagle thing’s incredible isn’t it? I’ve never seen or heard of behaviour like that from an eagle. It was a dead nutria it was after, which is what the Americans call a coypu, and they can grow up to 10kg, so when it’s water logged it’s easy to see why the eagle couldn’t take off. Amazing stuff.

  2. Lovely to see those shots of the sparrowhawk, Finn. Your story reminded me of another raptor-related episode in this corner of the New World. Early one morning, my wife called me to the window, in alarm. There, about 12 ft. beyond the glass, a female (I think) Red-tailed Hawk had just swooped down on one of our Guinea Fowl. The guinea was on her back, flapping her last few flaps, and the red-tail standing on her, pinning her down. Given that her prey weighed almost as much as herself, she couldn’t fly away with it. So what did she do? She dragged it laboriously several yards across the grass, into the middle of a big cypress bush. There, presumably feeling protected, she let my wife approach her closely and take a few photographs (not digital, alas) as she mantled over her prey. For several hours the hawk remained there as she stripped and ate the guinea, eventually flapping away heavily. The next morning early, she returned and spent a few further hours finishing off the carcass. It clearly doesn’t apply to the blackbird you saw, but I wonder how common it is for hawks (i.e., shortwings) to take prey that they can’t actually carry.

    • That must have been fascinating to watch. It’s a good question, the hawk must have been confident that it could take such large prey without getting injured. Was it at the time of year when it would be needing enough food for a nest full of chicks too?

    • On the subject of hunting techniques of birds of prey have you seen this Youtube clip of an eagle hunting in Louisiana?

      I’ve never heard of this behaviour before

      • Like the Romantics, and Richard Mabey, amongst others, I’ve long felt that birds can feel something akin to joy. Now here’s further evidence that they can improvise and be inventive. A remarkable clip.

      • Amazing isn’t it. I’ve never seen any eagle actually swim before, not even an osprey or a sea eagle.

  3. Yeah but what about the poor blackbird – hehe!

    • The poor guy was way beyond any assistance I might have been able to offer, I think the hawk had done his job with his customary efficiency. I still have plenty of them in the garden though, often 3 or 4 at a time, so hopefully there are enough of them to take the hit 😉

  4. How good of you to follow up on the welfare of the wildlife that you observe–I’ve done the same so many times!

    • Thanks Gary, I can’t leave creatures to suffer when they’re down as a result of human activity. My next post is all about direct intervention in ensuring the welfare of a wild creature…

  5. Oh, the dramas we see…when we Look. Thank you, Finn. 🙂

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