Dear Readers, there is a feeling of urgency in the autumn that differs from the tumult of the spring. In autumn, it’s all about fattening up, putting on the layers of insulation that will fuel a migration, or get a small, inexperienced fledgling through the winter. The feeders are busy from first light, with half a dozen collared doves queued up on the branches of the whitebeam while the woodpigeons hog the feeder. And then, earlier this week, I looked out of my upstairs window and there was not a single bird in sight. Except one, on the roof ridge of the houses opposite.
Sparrowhawk. What boldness it takes to just sit there, in full view. Those yellow feet look so tiny from this distance, but I know from a previous encounter with a bird very like this one how her talons are used to hold down and pierce her prey while her curved beak plucks out the feathers and rips into the flesh. No wonder the garden was so quiet.
I have noticed that the appearance of a predator sends a certain ripple through the ether. In India, you could track the tiger through the forest by the chorus of barks and squeals as each deer and each langur spotted him, the sound getting louder and louder as he got nearer. Like the sparrowhawk he was utterly unconcerned, walking out onto the path, turning to look at us and then spraying urine on to a nearby tree as if to say ‘that’s what I think of you lot’. And then he sashayed away up the path at his own pace, and he never looked at us again.
I imagine the birds buried deep in the shrubs. Do mothers teach their nestlings to stay silent when that shadow is seen against the skyline? I notice no alarm calls. No one wants to draw attention to themselves.
I am remembering a few things that separately made no sense. A few weeks ago I noticed the soft dusty impression of a bird the glass of my writing-room window. There were lots of feathers on the ground, under my kitchen window. Had a panicked bird crashed into the pane and stunned itself, making it easier for the sparrowhawk?
The hunter looks around. She seems to have all the time in the world. No hawklings in the nest at this time of year – she is hunting for herself.
What is stirring? What tiny motion alerts her? We know that birds of prey have eyes that are alert to the smallest rustling and excellent hearing. Maybe she is not even hunting, but just scanning her territory. I watch her for a while through the binoculars. The wind ruffles her feathers a little. I raise the camera to take a few photos, though I don’t hope for much through my dirty windows (well, I can’t get the window cleaner in until the spiders have moved on).
And then, two things happen.
A feral pigeon flies at the window out of nowhere, and swerves at the very last second to avoid the glass.
And the sparrowhawk swoops.