Woodcock and Sparrowhawks

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Not my picture, but what a cracker

For some unknown and perhaps unknowable reason, I sat up one morning in 2014 and went for a run. Having lived an active but unathletic life for over thirty years, I still can’t put my finger on what came over me, but for eighteen months I’ve been running almost every day, sometimes as far as eight or nine miles. I’m surprised to find that I really enjoy it, and it’s a great way of clearing my head on days when I’m stuck in the office, but there are other bonuses.

Running along country lanes and quiet roads gives me a unique perspective on the birds and wildlife all around me. I see things that I would not have seen from the car and that I would be unlikely to find if I was walking and had the dog at my heel. I don’t run very quickly, but I move just fast enough to gently stir animals out of hiding, and I often come back from a loop of the hill with notes to make. Yesterday was a particularly good example as I set off in the scorching sunshine for a loop of around four miles on a track through birch scrub, white hill and lambing fields.

The first and most obvious discovery was the hen sparrowhawk which crashed out of the laurels above me with a noisy clatter. Great tits kicked off a trilling fury as the brown predator looped over the road and circled on a slight uplift, and I watched her as she spiralled up and away on slightly back-swept palms. I see from my notes in previous years that the last week in February and the first in March is the best time of the year to see sparrowhawks. True to form, this year I have seen at least one every day for five days in a row. Usually they would be a scarce and chancy find, but while I’ve followed them in every month of the year, this early spring fortnight represents a burst of conspicuousness.

A friend who knows far more about sparrowhawks than I do tells me that they are hunting hard during these lengthening days and are more visible as they build up weight and condition prior to breeding. He says that woodcock are a particular favourite of hen sparrowhawks as they come to mating, and my notes recall seeing a woodcock killed on March 2nd 2012 below my old house on the loch side. “The w[ood]cock was scarcely off the ground before it was smashed to the moss like a ninepin. Yellow fists worked the breasts and the wader gazed sadly upwards, feeling nothing, eyes blinking”. This was almost at my feet and the hawk dragged the woodcock a few feet before eating it as I crouched in the dribbling leaf litter. Given how keenly sparrowhawks hunt them at this time of year, it’s no wonder the woodcock wait until the last spark of daylight before heading out to feed in the evenings. And even then they aren’t safe, as I also recall a goshawk plucking a woodcock out of thin, cold air one morning before the stars were even gone.

The seasonal connection between woodcock and sparrowhawks was still in my mind as I started a slow pull uphill through a fresh young birch wood. Young rabbits skittered away noisily over the twigs and I slowed down to peer after them, amazed to find that they were not mammals at all. Three woodcock had been standing together by the verge of the track and the unusual pattern of my running steps had unnerved them sufficiently to break cover. They looked back at me with curiosity, and one flicked in a little hop with its tail half spread like a capercaillie cock. Then all three rose vertically up together through the whippy birches and away over the lambing fields.

I had interrupted some obscure moment of communion or conversation between them, and finding them in broad daylight on a hot afternoon felt strangely incongruous. This is a wood where roding is a constant drone throughout the long summer’s evenings, so perhaps they were making plans for their own breeding activities. Lambs bawled and a cluster of fresh young daffodils nodded in the verge. The strange spectacle provided food for thought as I plodded on beneath a squeaky chain of long tailed tits.

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