I made an early start this morning in an effort to reconnoiter the black grouse situation after last night’s exciting discoveries on the moss. I paused the car several times along the hill road, expectantly hoping to hear that joyous wobbling note through the semi-darkness, but the ground was cold and even the curlews had wound their necks in.
One of the most promising sites for blackcock is by the roadside on the final approach to the farm, and I was quietly disappointed to find it empty this morning. As I slowed down to a stop, I looked up to the roadside telegraph pole and found its bare summit occupied by a buzzard and two crows. It’s sensible to adjust your radar settings to assume that all large, speckled raptors are buzzards, and I remember thinking quite clearly; “that buzzard looks very like a goshawk”. The hair stood up on my head as the brown bird turned and fixed me with a pair of glaring, spiteful eyes, then coursed away like a torpedo on stiff, clipped wingbeats. I was stunned – my experience of wild goshawks is based on half-seen flickers of movement and the distant speck of displaying birds – this was an up-close and personal encounter in which every quirk and fleck of plumage was almost within arm’s reach. I recalled the advice handed out to all new birdwatchers – although it’s tempting to assume that the bird standing on the top of the telegraph pole is an eagle or a goshawk, it is almost certainly a buzzard. This was the exception which baffled the rule, and it was immediately obvious why the blackcock were absent.
The two crows which had been sitting beside the hawk took off in brisk pursuit, and I questioned their sanity as they dive-bombed the retreating shape. Once or twice the hawk flicked over on its side to see off the crows, but they seemed to know that they weren’t in any real danger. This seemed to represent an odd quirk of animal behaviour which is often observed but seldom commented upon – prey species seem to know when their predators are “on duty”, and it’s bizarre to see rabbits grazing peacefully within easy reach of foxes when the hunters are simply passing by. I took some (by my standards) great photographs of a peregrine standing in an ocean of grazing wigeon last winter – the peregrine had missed his mark and was just idly passing a cold winter’s day on the grass, surrounded by his prey who hardly seemed to bat an eyelid.
The goshawk vanished into the distant forestry after a direct, brutally swift flight over open country, and the crows seemed to lose interest almost immediately, scarcely acknowledging the fact that they had been flying within inches of their angel of death.
It was a quiet morning on the hill, dominated by larks and pipits. Skeins of greylags flew low over the frosty moss, and I was thrilled to find a favourite old blackcock still displaying on his favourite stance by the calving fields. This bird has displayed on the same few acres of ground for the past four consecutive springs, and I had to admire his resilience and loyalty. I also couldn’t resist a quiet shudder at the prospect of this old boy coming head to head with a hawk. Even as I type this, a friend on social media has been in touch to tell me that the Russian name for the goshawk is ястреб-тетеревятник, (pronounced “yastreb-teterevyatnik”) which translates as ‘black grouse hawk’ – the link between the two species is strong all across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and there is no doubt that it is a fascinating connection – I just wish we had a few more black grouse to keep the relationship in balance.