Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A more substantial Goshawk

Surprise juvenile Goshawk, 14.viii.17
I wouldn't quite say that the last two posts have been "scraping the barrel" of Goshawk sightings, but yes, they betray a certain desperation now that contact with a Goshawk has become so very very scarce.

Something more substantial a couple of days ago (14 Aug.) when a definite Goshawk was suddenly there, about 100 metres away and at modest height over the steep track ahead.  The bird soared a couple of turns, crossing the track, moved over the woods on the uphill side, then disappeared fast over the treetops, apparently heading along the ridge.

The confusing thing is that the bird had juvenile plumage.  It was in the heart of the local pair's territory and, like the bird mentioned in the previous post, was taking a course that I've previously seen the adult male follow; last year's juveniles also.  So how to explain its presence here if the pair's breeding attempt at the nest just a few hundred metres up the valley had failed, as I thought (post #25, on 23 June)?

(1)  The very simplest explanation is that I was wrong to conclude the pair had failed, and they had in fact produced at least one offspring.  But I find that hard to accept for several reasons: the decline and then cessation over late May and early June of all the usual calling between male and female associated with food delivery; the decline and then cessation of visible flights by the male, presumed to be food deliveries; the lack of any typical juvenile food begging calls; the lack of first flight events by juveniles; and the lack of any signs of a juvenile's presence in the area when I visited the nest site after accepting that breeding had failed.  The only evidence in favour is that I had thought a few weak 'weeoo'  calls back in early June sounded a little like juvenile calls and not robust like the typical adult female versions.  Perhaps only a single chick survived to fledge and it takes at least two to generate all the usual excited shrieking over food and their first flights above the canopy?  But having fledgling food calls in early June and fully independent flying now would have required eggs to have been laid by late March, almost three weeks earlier than I calculate is the usual date.

The juvenile Goshawk, colour and pattern are
diagnostic (in Europe); note prominent beak.
N Apennines, 14.viii.2017
(2)  The next possible explanation is that it is a juvenile from another pair's nest somewhere in the area, perhaps several kilometres distant.  But assuming that at least one of the local pair is still in the area, one might expect a strange juvenile to be challenged and excluded.  Perhaps territoriality is at its lowest ebb in August or might both adults have moved away?

(3)  A third and more elaborate possibility is that this bird is a 2nd calendar year bird still in its first plumage.  Perhaps it is one of last year's brood, perhaps it was even one half of the pair whose breeding attempt failed, possibly because of inexperience.  But while the images are not adequate to show accurate rendition of fine detail they do not show obvious feather wear or fading, which is consistent with this bird being a fresh juvenile rather than a 2cy.

Goshawk from 7 Aug. now seen to be
juvenile (note buff body colour
and darker blotches).
PS: I have looked again at the very poor images from the Gos sighting on 7 August (see previous post).  I did wonder briefly about the slightly buff body colour but thought it was just some artefactual blurring of an adult's fine barring. I should have looked more closely; I now see some dark spots or streaks, so that bird was a juvenile Goshawk.  In fact there's every chance it was the same individual seen on the 14th!  Its presence in the valley perhaps gives some credence to the idea that the pair did produce a juvenile?  That would be great but I still find it hard to believe!

Friday, 11 August 2017

Looking in the right direction for once

Goshawk, probably the local male.
Distant, but note long wings, depth of beak,
deep belly, undertail coverts not visible.
As the last post demonstrated, I was not quite correct when I thought, pessimistically, that after the failure of their breeding attempt back in June the likelihood of seeing a Goshawk in flight during the rest of the summer was about the same as "a snowball's chance in hell".  But that single distant glimpse while waiting for Honey-buzzards to appear, recorded in the last post, does not amount to much considering the amount of time spent in the field.  Now the recent record has improved by a massive 100%: in other words, I've had one more Goshawk sighting, making two in all after the breeding failure.  This one lasted perhaps three or four seconds and the bird was a bit closer than before, around 100 metres at first and over 200 when it disappeared.

It was 10.30 on a hot morning (7 August), I'd just been straining eyes and neck trying (without success) to locate the Honey-buzzard that had just called, apparently from very high behind me, and turned back around to see a raptor not very high over the steep meadow in front.  It was positioned as if it had just emerged from the woods at the far side of the meadow.  With a few deep flexible wingbeats it was up the slope and disappearing behind the treetops on the ridge crest ahead.  Unusually both my camera and I were quick enough to record a few images of the distant bird.

Note long-winged appearance. The bird is not soaring in the right-hand image,
these are from a sequence of shots while the hawk was in active
flight away over the ridge crest. 

So why was it a Goshawk?

A couple of features stood out when looking at the bird: the long-winged appearance relative to Sparrowhawk, and the distinctly slower pace of wingbeats compared with Sparrowhawk (but comparable, possibly greater, flight speed).  It did not give the impression of rather stiff wings that Sparrowhawks often show in active flight.  It was also clearly larger than a Sparrowhawk would have been, assessed in relation to familiar trees and bushes at this site, but I'd suspect it was the local male rather than a larger female.  One of the images shows well the rather deep body and prominent beak, also the barring apparently restricted to the outer primaries.  The absence of visible white undertail coverts is notable; these seem to be more or less permanently flared out in the actively breeding male.  A couple of white patches are just visible dorsally at the root of the tail.

Another reason I'm happy to call this a Goshawk, although not an identification feature in itself, is that I have often seen the male from the local site (only a few hundred metres from the meadow) take a very similar course when leaving the nest area on a new foraging trip.  Typically he will leave fast at treetop height down the valley centre then turn to his left (sometimes right) and move directly up the slope before flying along the ridge crest toward higher woods.

Surprise encounter

However, the recent record probably stands at three encounters. Back on 21 July, about 9am, I was labouring up the ridge track toward the local mountain and had reached a particularly attractive section where the wooded slopes fall away steeply on one side and rise steeply on the other, and the trees overhang the stony trackway to form a high tunnel-like corridor.  I'm pretty sure the Goshawk favour this area for hunting; one evening a couple of years back I saw (from the back) what must have been a Goshawk perched on a bough overlooking the path, and I've several times heard kek-kek calls in the area.  This section is just a couple of hundred metres further up the ridge from where the bird this morning was headed.  This morning the first conscious information I had that a bird was approaching was when there was a sudden flash of pale whitish underwings about 25 metres ahead, low to the ground and just on the cusp of a bend.  The flash came as a hawk, having seen me in his path before I saw him, braked and turned an instant right angle and shot away between tree trunks into the shadows up the rising slope to my right.  No specific identification marks registered, but it was a hawk and I judged significantly larger than any Sparrowhawk: "probably" a Goshawk.

Curiously, I once had a very similar experience walking along a hedged drove at home in Cambridgeshire when a male Sparrowhawk appeared and did a cartoon-like crash stop almost in my face, barred tail and pale striped wings all outspread, before streaking away through the hedge.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Tiny and far away, but it is a Goshawk!

Distant and out of focus but it's the male Goshawk out foraging, 2.vii.2017.
At my usual watchpoint again (2nd July), up at the top of the high landslip scar where the elevation and lack of woodland cover allow relatively good views across a wide sector of the side valley where the Goshawk nest is located, and, turning the corner made by a buttress of shattered rock,  part of the southern slopes of the main valley.

Now that this year's breeding attempt by the local Goshawks has failed (see previous post), the woods feel impoverished, as if an entire dimension of the experience of being out in the Apennine hills has vanished.  It has been a shock to realise quite how much I'd come to count on their wild cries around the side valley, and the occasional sight of the male rushing away over the woods on another hunt.  I guessed they would still be around their territory, but pretty much impossible to see, with no calls and no nest to focus their activity.  Happily, in compensation the Honey-buzzards have begun to show a little more often, and around mid-morning I'd been fortunate to catch a short encounter between three of the local birds high over 'my' side valley.  Although they were inconveniently high, I managed to get images of each that were just about adequate to see which of the local birds they were.

Then I turned the corner of the rock exposure in order to scan the main valley airspace for more Honey activity, feeling unreasonably greedy to expect more sightings.  Not long after, I was electrified by a distant but unmistakeable 'kek-kek-kek' call from somewhere in the side valley, out of sight to my left and lower down.  Goshawk!!  I rushed back around the rock corner just in time to see a grey-brown streak burst out of the patch of woods down beyond the bottom of the landslip scar and 100 metres or so upstream of the nest site, rocket low down the valley between the treetops, and disappear behind a hill spur below.  Got to be the male Goshawk, that patch of woods is where he used to call from to initiate a food delivery.

Today's call was quite strident, with an edge of excitement to it, unlike the often quite gentle and discreet k-k-k call preceding a food delivery.  I recall the same tone of call being heard earlier in the season, apparently when he just takes off after the area has been quiet for some time.  Today I also remembered a couple of sightings in past years: while standing in the meadows below the woods I'd seen him come fast down the side valley, turn across and over the bottom of the woods to his right, then making a wide hairpin turn, power away uphill again, back toward the crest of the southern slopes and theoretically within sight of where I'd just been looking for Honey-buzzards.  Well, nothing to lose by rushing back around the rock to look down the main valley, just in case - and there he was, distant already, in active flight toward the ridge crest as if heading for the woods on the far side!!  No physical identification features, but his behaviour means I'm sure it was the male Goshawk.  So what? Well, just that it is not impossible to see him post-nesting!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Despondent as breeding fails

It's taken a while for the penny to drop but I've finally realised that the somewhat atypical behaviour of this pair that I noticed in June was indicative of real problems at the nest, and I'm now sure as I can be that this year's breeding attempt has failed.  "Devastated" is perhaps a little too strong, but in fact it describes very well my feelings when I realised the silence around the nest site is the new normal for this summer.  My wife tells me to shut up and just be grateful for contact up to now.  It's a valid point of view, and one I'll strive to adopt wholeheartedly.  It's true, I've been able to listen to their calls, occasionally see the male in flight, and in previous summers experience the joy of those glorious few days when the wild shrieking young first fly above the woods in their valley.  But I was counting on doing it all again this summer ("don't count your chickens..."), and I've probably got a snowball's chance in hell of catching sight of either adult out of the woods until late in the year.

Not this year: one of last year's juveniles in first week
 of flying above the woods,  29.vii.2016
Still, these things happen.  The pair using this nest have added juveniles to the Goshawk population of the Apennines for at least the last three seasons, and that's the really important fact.  I fervently hope these or other adult Goshawks will get things together next winter.

Adult vocalisations around food delivery decline to silence

The last post (4 June) mentioned the many many hours of observation I had put in for little return.  Few spells of calling as anticipated around food delivery, and even fewer sightings of the provisioning male leaving the nest valley.  On several days I'd be in the area for five or six hours with no evidence for nest provisioning at all.  Not unheard of normally, but not day after day, and not at a time when advanced chicks might be expected in a successful nest.  I originally put this down to the pair simply being naturally quiet, perhaps with a different male showing different flight habits.

In fact the events (of 3 June) outlined in that last post turn out to have been the last calling sequence that seemed largely as expected: since then I have rarely glimpsed the male, there have been no 'normal' exchanges of k-k-k and wee-oo calling by male and female of the pair, and in the last few days (writing this paragraph on 15th June) almost all vocalisations have ceased, apart from some occasional quiet k-k-k calls, mainly from a part of the woods 100 metres or so uphill from the nest tree.  This is normally a patch from where the male first calls when bringing food, but between 10-15 June when I've heard some k-k-k calls from there, there has been little or nothing in response from around the nest tree.

It was all going so well.  The male back on 21 April 2017
The last robust and excited female wee-oo call I have heard was on 5th June.  On a couple of days after that date I thought I heard an occasional thin and weak version of this general wee-oo call, which sounded a little like the early food-begging calls given by advanced fledglings; not only were the calls not typical of the adult female but on occasion they seemed to come from locations around the nest site, not the site itself, as if from branched and active young.  But I cannot believe that this pair could have been so far ahead of the typical schedule here (advanced fledglings calling by late June, flying free by late July) without me hearing definite evidence before now.

Significance of the female "wee-oo" call

I use "k-k-k" and "wee-oo", or similar, as a kind of shorthand.  Penteriani (2001), and Schnell (1958) more thoroughly describe the range of calls, their occurrence over the year, and presumed function. The female "wee-oo" call is particularly significant as an indicator of events at the nest.  Schnell (1958), followed by Penteriani (2001) recognise variants of this call type: 'recognition scream' (when she sees the male return to the vicinity), 'transfer scream' (around transfer of prey, possibly to encourage transfer), and 'dismissal scream' (encouraging the male to leave the nest, presumably to continue hunting).

Sometimes I can fit what I hear with this classification but I have no visual contact with the birds so can only infer a very coarse picture of what may be happening.  Typically a more or less agitated exchange of calls, with the birds apparently coming into proximity from initial more separated positions, the female uttering a few wee-oo calls, sometimes loud and excited, after which the male can sometimes be seen as he leaves the nest site.

The decline in frequency of this female call type during June, and its apparent absence since the 11th, the last definite record in my notebook,  made me seriously concerned about the status of this season's breeding attempt.  Did absence of female calls associated with prey delivery by the male mean absence of the female, or absence of prey deliveries, or both?

Male leaving after food delivery, arrow
marks full crop, 7.vii.2017
The last date for which I have direct evidence for prey being brought to the nest area is 7th June, when the male's bulging crop could be seen as he left the area after a late morning delivery; this was preceeded by the usual quiet k-k-k call from his spot uphill from the nest.  Of course I do not know if any part of that prey item was taken by the female, who gave only a few weak wee-oo calls.  Despite the extreme dryness of the year so far, which I began to speculate might have affected hunting success in some way, there is still an abundance of blackbirds and jays which are high on the list of known prey species.

Nest apparently deserted

So on 15 June I decided to take a gamble on perhaps disturbing them by going further uphill on the track through the woods to where it curves around the top of the large concave slope in which the nest tree is located; there is a spot on that track (reconnoitred in winter) where, with a lucky breeze to move intervening foliage, it is sometimes possible to get a partial view of the nest (100 or 120 metres away downslope but not much above eye level) and check if there is an adult or chick near fledgling size visible or not.  There was not, nor were there alarm calls from any hawk that might have been on watch nearby, even though I stayed for some time (and would no doubt have been seen by any adult hawk in the vicinity) trying to sort out whether different patches of light were just light reflecting from leaves or perhaps a downy chick.  I could not exclude the possibility that a young bird might have been laying flat in the nest bowl, but thought it unlikely.  Despite everything apparently going well in May the nest now appeared deserted.  I returned over the next couple of days, just in case an adult had temporarily left the nest area when I viewed it on the 15th, but I neither heard nor saw any sign of occupation and concluded reluctantly that this year's breeding had failed.

It is not clear to me why the breeding attempt should have failed at this point.  The last time I'm aware of it happening was in mid-June 2013 after a sequence of days with torrential rain followed by a  massive and damaging hailstorm.  Is there some kind of milestone around the middle of June, perhaps to do with chicks attaining some critical size and vigour, that has to be passed for the brood to progress and fledge successfully?

I'm not aware of any disturbance around the nest site beyond the very occasional trail bike rider in the vicinity.  There has been no timber extraction in the vicinity over the breeding season.  Typically there will be a few people in the area looking for truffles and other fungi after periods of rain, but there has been virtually no rain.  Perhaps the most likely explanation is that either the male has not been able to keep up an adequate food supply to the nest (perhaps also connected with the extreme dryness), or one of the pair has met with an accident while away from the nest, or been overtaken by disease or old age. Perhaps the female was an inexperienced 2cy bird*.

Penteriani, V. 2001. The annual and diel cycles of Goshawk vocalizations at nest sites. J. Raptor Res. 35(1):24-30.
Schnell, J.H. 1958. Nesting behavior and food habits of goshawks in the Sierra Nevada of California. Condor 60:377-403.  Available online (accessed
*The feathers later recovered at the foot of the nest tree, see Postscript, suggest the female was an adult, at least 3cy.  This is based on the faded bars on the secondary (thanks to P.Sunesen), see BirdForum post HERE.

Postscript added 21 June 2017. 

The nest (circled): an adjacent Aspen has leaned over
and both have several dead upper branches,
the nest is much more exposed than before.
With a complete lack of calls around the site and no birds seen in flight, on the 18th I cautiously visited the nest tree itself.  No sign of any young at the nest or nearby, no sign of any adult in attendance.  Twigs with leaves had clearly been added around the rim some time ago but no fresh twigs with green leaves were visible; this need not be significant.  Nothing untoward was seen around the nest tree.  I picked up three feathers, presumably moulted by the female, and I believe this can be taken as confirmation that she had been incubating and sitting with young.  The moulted feathers appear to be an outer secondary or inner primary from the right wing and two outer tail feathers from the left side. The nest tree (an Aspen Populus tremula) appears to have deteriorated this year.  Several of the lesser branches around and above the fork supporting the nest look dead, and the leaf canopy over the nest looks less complete than in past seasons.  The year has been exceptionally dry so far and I'm wondering if this might have had some impact on tree health, and could the loss of some leaf cover have had a seriously adverse impact on conditions in the nest?  Still no sign of Goshawk presence in the immediate vicinity of the nest tree on 19th and 20th.

Secondary and tail feathers found under nest
Upper surface, left.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The male shows well at last

The male Goshawk, heading away from the
 nest site, presumably on a mission for more prey.
N Apennines, 21.iv.2017.
Unfortunately, it seems that the local Goshawk pair have not bothered to read the script I'd carefully prepared for them over the winter.  Sightings of the provisioning male, and sounds by both adults around the nest area, have been very infrequent instead of almost frequent and dependable.  It has been a salutary reminder that, here at least, the Goshawk is a secretive and strictly woodland species that lives primarily among the trees.

Based on past seasons (especially 2016) I had been anticipating lots of calling as the female receives food or prevents the male approaching the nest too closely (this picture of the context of calls is derived from literature, not from personal observations, because I do not observe the nest itself, only the airspace above the site, which is in a deeper part of the valley and invisible from the rock exposure I use as a watchpoint).  I had also been expecting the male to be in visible flight more frequently at this time as the food needs of growing young increase.

Wrong on both counts, although events took a turn for the better yesterday (3 June). I have been back in the Apennine valley since 23 May, around a week later than usual, and on each of the past twelve days I have spent up to six hours at watchpoints within earshot of the nest and heard very little calling.  And when the frequency and intensity of calling has indicated a food delivery, the male has often departed from the site within the woods or around treetop level where he cannot be seen from my position; strictly speaking, the notion that he has left is only an assumption if I have not seen him do so!  In some instances he might of course remain in the general area, probably at one of his two apparent favoured perching locations (hinted at by call location; much of the woodland is too dense to move through easily and I have never been able to locate a prey plucking tree or stump as described in standard literature).  I now wonder if the male of this pair is not the same as last year's, perhaps explaining the different flight habits.

Waiting for the call

Any phase of calling from the nest area, but especially if prolonged, at high or increasing intensity, and with both" k-k-k" and "wee-oo" calls, is exciting to hear and brings a period of high alertness: is the male about to appear above the canopy and fly off?

Occasionally he powers straight up from the vicinity of the nest tree (see composite image below) and, after some moments of soaring, usually quite rapid, tends to head off toward the shallow upper valley basin and ridges, all covered in woodland.  He might be in view for several seconds although typically far more distant than would be wished; exceptionally he might pass quite close overhead instead of disappearing promptly in some other compass direction.

More often, he evidently leaves the nest site at treetop level, glides downhill and gains height from a point lower down the valley (occasionally he appears from higher up instead).  Then one has to be both lucky, to be looking in the right direction, and wide awake, because a distant bird moving low against a wooded background can be almost impossible to see.  In these circumstances it has often been the eye-catching white undertail coverts, which, if flared, are visible even in dorsal view on each side of the tail, that give away its location.  Comically, I have often found my head swivelling around seeking a Goshawk because my peripheral vision has just picked up a flash of white that turns out to be a Wood Pigeon's wing, the white rump of a Eurasian Jay, or even a white butterfly.  One major difference from the male of previous seasons is that this year's male seems habitually to fly with his undertail coverts fully tucked away instead of flared; perhaps he is more relaxed or perhaps the white coverts are physically smaller?

The same male Goshawk, powering directly up from the nest site in the valley below, before circling and heading off over the wooded slopes above. N Apennines.
Some good fortune

Yesterday I was late to the watchpoint but at almost 9.00 exactly was just about to scramble up the rock exposure on which I perch when a clear "kek-kek-kek" call, not intense but not relaxed either, came from the wood below.  Very promising.  Then a quiet "weeoo" wail call, presumably from the female.  Then more of both calls, more intense, and signs that one or both birds were moving in the area around the nest tree.  Very very promising.  Then the male was up right over the site!  He powered upwards, turned in a few fast soaring arcs, moved down the valley and then turned back upslope toward the upper basin and then angled over the woods above the landslip scar behind me and set in a fast glide out of sight beyond the convex wooded slopes above.  So, one of few sightings so far (and still no glimpse of the female), but satisfying because he was in view for several seconds: enough to enjoy again the sight of a real live wild Goshawk over his home woods and to get a few reasonable photos.

Not very long afterwards, about 10.45, I started to hear occasional quiet and soft weeoo wails from the female.  These continued at intervals, with some very faint k-k-k calls between, without any obvious interaction between two adults, until 11.14 when by chance I picked up the male soaring above the opposite ridge way down the valley.  It was "by chance" because I had not been aware that he was back in the vicinity.  This time instead of that sense of urgency that seems to typify most of his actions, he was soaring slowly, in wide arcs, almost as relaxed as a Honey-buzzard (and not too dissimilar in shape, in fact I have confused the two in similar circumstances).  He continued moving upslope over the opposite ridge, then moved across and was lost to sight on almost the same course as earlier.  I could only speculate on events: perhaps he had already brought prey and both he and the female were too satiated to get worked up about insufficient food, or the male proximity to the nest, or whatever the usual cause of loud interaction may be?

The same male Goshawk: heavily cropped from images taken as he flew across the woods above my observation position, around 300 metres distant. N Apennines,
Apart from providing a couple of memorable episodes in open flight (yesterday, and 21 April - see previous post) this bird has reminded me that Goshawk are woodland birds: on one occasion I had no idea of his whereabouts, in the valley before me or miles away, when I caught a glimpse of him flying fast across the bottom of a sloping patch of meadow on the opposite valley side, from one wood edge to the other.  He had been either moving through the canopy and took a direct line across the intervening meadow, or he might have been using what is effectively a tunnel through the woods formed by over-arching trees flanking an old-established stony trackway that passes the meadow on its course up the valley.  Had it not been for that brief sight in the open I would have had no idea he was in the area: I could have been staring at the woods for another six hours and been none the wiser!

With enough time and patience the chance of more encounters should improve, given that the food needs of the chicks, that I assume are present, can only increase.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Four days,one unforgettable Goshawk sighting

Adult Goshawk Accipiter gentilis 
N Apennines, 21.04.2017
Olympus e-m1 (I), 75-300 II
The pale underside of a large bird glimpsed in fragments between leaves as it moved over the canopy, time interrupted in the instant it crossed a gap high overhead, big chest fine-barred: an adult Goshawk!  Actually that was just an imaginary Goshawk in a recurrent daydream (the mind tends to wander after a few hours scanning the wooded slopes on high alert for calls or a hawk in flight), but a real encounter during a recent mid-April visit to the valley in the northern Apennines was much better.

I had been sitting on a rock outcrop amid a high landslip scar in the wooded hills since mid-afternoon, the warmth on my face fading as the sun declined toward the distant hilltops, and the air getting colder as the freezing wind strengthened with evening.  Shadow covered the slopes opposite and the valley below filled with darkness.  For just the second time during the afternoon a distinct 'kek-kek-kek' call came from woods about a hundred metres up-valley from the nest site, then a stronger call from the nest area out of sight below.

It seemed that nothing more would develop and, with eyes streaming in the cold, I decided enough was enough and started to head down.  I had just paused to stand in the clearing at the base of my rock, enjoying the silence and the clear blue sky overhead, when there were suddenly two urgent 'wee-oo' calls from the nest area.  Immediately, through the treetops circling the patch of open ground, I saw the dark profile of a large bird powering up from the slopes below.  Camera and binoculars were just packed away for the steep track downhill  but I knew it was a Goshawk, probably the male, and as it flew low around the edge of the landslip scar and out of sight behind higher trees I cursed for giving up my vigil at the worst time possible.  Once or twice in the past I'd seen hawks flying along the wood edge around the open ground and decided to wait just in case it reappeared (meanwhile trying not to panic as I scrabbled to extract my camera).  And, as if by magic, it came into view from over the higher woods above the landslip zone, soared at speed in widening arcs almost directly overhead, then moved higher and across until it must have been over the patch of woods whence the first kek-kek-kek call came.  Soon more distant, it set into a fast gliding descent out of sight beyond the higher ground above.

Adult Goshawk Accipiter gentilis 
N Apennines, 21.04.2017
The bird was overhead, at only moderate height, for at least twenty seconds and in sight but more distant for about a minute.  While closer it was dramatically sidelit by the last rays of sunlight, soon to leave even the higher treetops on this side of the valley but still filling the blue sky above.  Probably the most sustained view of an adult Goshawk I'd experienced, and certainly in the best lighting!

So that was one great Goshawk sighting for an investment of about 24 hours of observation time over four days, and much serious discomfort from the cold of early morning or late afternoon.  Light-headed with the thrill of the encounter, that seemed like an excellent outcome, and I skipped down through the darkening woods without even trying to restrain what must have looked like a mindless grin on my face.  Less intensely exciting, but certainly more significant, was the fact that rare calls over the four days demonstrated that two Goshawk were still present in the nesting valley and apparently centred on the same nest site (as suspected back in March, see previous post).

Any lessons?

OK, never mind the romance, what has been learnt?  Next year, despite that stroke of good fortune, I probably will not plan a visit in April.  It seemed to me that the male restricted almost all his activity to the woodland proper, but of course he may have appeared above the canopy when I was not on lookout (eg. at dawn, when I have to admit the cold deterred my ageing bones).  If sightings are exceptional, audible calling was also very infrequent, in marked contrast to the month before and the month following.  In March, pairing, mating and nest preparation involve much activity and lots of excited calling.  In May, assuming chicks are present, the male should be in active flight for hunting more often, and vocal communication between the pair becomes vigorous around prey delivery; later on there can be high-intensity calling as the female ensures the male keeps his distance from the nest.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Mist, mud, and Goshawks nesting again!

Male Goshawk, 24.iii.2017
(for basic background information on the locality, click on the separate page tabs above: 'Location' and 'Nesting site')

The 23rd of March 2017.  For my first visit to the site since autumn 2016, I went up to one of my usual watchpoints, a high and open former landslip scar that gives a useful view over the valley woodland, including the airspace above the nest site, itself deeper in the valley centre, hidden by the slope and by the trees edging the landslip.  Calls from the nesting woods can easily be heard, and hawks in flight can sometimes be seen if above the canopy.

Sitting out in the rain on an Apennine hillside, hunched up under a not quite waterproof cape  was not exactly the scenario I'd imagined while struggling to endure  the dull cold Cambridgeshire winter.

The steep track up was difficult in parts; slippery stones and glutinous mud where a tractor had recently been labouring up to a small patch of hillside cultivation. Grey cloud off the cold Ligurian Sea streamed over the mountains to the west, grey cloud crept up the valley from the Po plains to the east, and the very air seemed made of water, misting the landscape of leafless grey-brown woods (photo left).  But the wind was gentle and the damp air was mild.  Soon an occasional relaxed ke-ke-ke call, or quiet wee-oo wail, came up from the unseen valley woods in front of me to confirm the happy fact that at least one Goshawk was present near the old nest site.

From my notes

24 March 2017. Saw high accipiter, possible Goshawk, from stream crossing ca 11.30.  12.15 heard calls around white edge area.  Ca. 13.00 k-k-k and wee-oo calls near site, then together from above and below site, ie. definitely 2 birds present.  Soon two birds calling at same time, loud and fast, "weooweeoo", probable mating; then occasional k-k-k and wee-oo calls. More sporadic over next half hour.

13.25 couple more weeoo calls, louder, apparently higher in canopy and so suggesting imminent flight, then bird up from patch above nest site; fast direct powered flight downstream, just above treetops, passed near white edge watchpoint, then around uphill toward principal ridge above C., out of sight behind higher ground.  Now 13.33.

14.25 Sparrowhawk across old landslip scar: instant impression small and fluttery, marked contrast to Goshawk just seen (adjective 'moth like' came to mind at the time but not an exact resemblance).

Goshawk, probably adult male. Not much colour visible in the dull conditions but some typical structural features can be seen. 1: head and neck prominent, 2: bill distinct, looking deep at base, 3: wing appearing relatively long, tapering hand, 4: body somewhat bulky, deep at belly. 24.iii.2017, N Apennines.

25 March 2017.  08.55 weeoo call heard near fork to white edge watchpoint. Continued uphill through scrub at base of landslip scar.  More calling with some apparent changes in bird's position.  Then 2 birds together, then bit quiet, then slight increase in frequency and volume, bird promptly up.  Circled down valley just above trees, past white edge area then across valley and back upstream along opposite slope and then lost, apparently down among trees.  10.37 high raptor over, probable Peregrine?  11.00 2 x Common Buzzard around peak at top of valley.  Occasional quiet k-k uphill from site.  11.40 Gos crossing lower valley apparently from area where earlier bird lost, Sparrowhawk following apparently encouraging Gos to keep moving, Gos gliding on as if unconcerned (very obviously larger, bigger mass of flared white undertail coverts).

Goshawk, adult male, probably same bird as above.  Note prominent white supercilium, broader posteriorly, also bulky body and distinct white undertail coverts (not flared out).  Exposure in some images emphasises contrast of wing barring although wings appear largely pale grey to white in live view. 25.iii.2017, N Apennines.
So, - wonderfully - everything looks good for another nesting attempt!  Same nest, two birds, lots of vocalisation, apparent mating, same flight movements as last year.  I don't know if the hawks are the same individuals as last year, and never will know for sure, but because they are based at the usual nesting patch it seems likely that one or both of the pair has used the nest site in previous seasons.  In some populations, breeding pairs rarely use the same nest in succeeding seasons, but may use alternative nests in the same territory (see Kenward, 2006); however, at this location the same nest seems to be used more often than not (but I cannot confirm the same birds are involved).  This has been vital in allowing me to gain a little more experience with the species, because although I have walked extensively through the hill woodland in this area I have not yet succeeded in locating another Goshawk nest site.  My guess is that there are very few nearby areas with the preferred slope, aspect, degree of disturbance, and open structure, ie. tall trees and clear flight channels.   Whatever the ecology, it really is so exciting to know that, potentially, another season of being close to Goshawks lies ahead.

I had been watching webcam images of the urban pair in Riga (Latvia) visiting their previous nest from early January, sometimes bringing twigs or rearranging those already present, and listening to mating events in March, apparently all on nearby trees, not on the nest itself (ie. off camera).  The live stream is HERE, and an active message board is HERE.  Four eggs have now been laid, between 24 March and 1st April.  One salutary lesson from this webcam has been that adult birds can be at the nest, if only briefly, or in its immediate surroundings, from mid-winter onward whereas, in my ignorance,  I had assumed from the lack of evidence at my few short winter visits that "my" nest area is usually deserted until spring.

Kenward, R. 2006. The Goshawk. T & A D Poyser, London. (reprinted 2007).
(Links referenced above were verified on 4 April 2017).