Sunday, 22 July 2018

Another Goshawk - Honey-buzzard encounter

Honey-buzzard above, Goshawk below,
showing general spatial relationship
during flight. 17.vii.18. N Apennines.
A few days ago (17 July 2018) I was sitting on a high rock up on the watershed ridge, about half a kilometre from my usual 'white scar' watchpoint, and a little higher, with a panoramic view over the main valley here.  I was looking primarily for Honey-buzzards in flight, in a period when breeding birds should be making food deliveries to their nest.  Goshawks were somewhat 'off the radar' because I had not seen or heard one, apart from the distant glimpse reported in the previous post, since late June.

Just after noon I spotted a distant raptor as it rose above the skyline, then a second close below it.  The first was certainly a Honey-buzzard, a very pale bird circling unusually briskly.  My impression of the second was of another medium-large raptor, dark above and pale below, and showing a large white area around the tail base which immediately suggested the  untertail coverts of a Goshawk, always so eye-catching when flared.  The distance, estimated between 1 and 1.5 km, did not allow me to see much detail through 8x binoculars (I don't use a scope), but the second bird was not moving as might be expected for a Goshawk and I realised it was carrying some substantial prey item, perhaps mainly white.  It soon moved back down below the skyline and flew fast but with laboured wingbeats as it descended out of sight into the head of one of the smaller side valleys.  The Honey-buzzard followed the same general course, keeping 50-100 metres above the second bird.

The narrative I immediately concocted in my head was that the second bird was a Goshawk that had snatched a recently hatched Honey-buzzard chick from the nest, and was carrying it back to its own young (Goshawks seem consistently to breed relatively late here, with young flying in late July).

This little story is entirely plausible, but I did not see the actual predation event, and the images I got of the distant birds behind heat haze certainly do not contain any useful details on the hawk's prey, so I'll never know for sure if my script is accurate.  Perhaps the proximity of first and second birds was just chance?  More prosaically, perhaps the Goshawk prey was someone's white chicken?

Nevertheless, I'm almost convinced: I have never seen a Honey-buzzard follow a Goshawk while flying in such an erratic and seemingly agitated way, surely (?) consistent with being a recently-deprived parent.

The Goshawk with prey, earliest image on far left; far right image shortly before descent to woods.  Dangling legs belong to prey.  Orange line added to images indicates level of the Goshawk tail (not always clear in these small images).  17.vii.2018. N Apennines.
The one secure inference to be made from these observations is that a pair of Northern Goshawks is breeding successfully not very far from the nest site of recent seasons (assuming that the hawk is unlikely to carry a large prey item far unless there is an active nest to provision).  I could not tell for sure if the Goshawk went down into the upper part of what I've started to call 'Goshawk Valley', perhaps 250  metres or so further up from the more usual site, or the nearby upper part of the valley on the far side of its most prominent bounding ridge.  And so far as I know there is no potential watchpoint, elevated and unwooded, from which to observe either location!

(this incident also outlined at )

Friday, 6 July 2018

Following a Honey-buzzard, found a Goshawk

Adult male Northern Goshawk,; wingtips look
atypical because of regrowing inner primaries.
Several recent visits to my usual watchpoints here in this quiet side valley in the North Apennines have been 'no show' for the Goshawk.  But the overall ratio of eight sightings in 20 prolonged site visits this year is not too bad (a couple of visits produced double sightings but are just scored once).  And on a couple of visits I've heard one or two fairly subdued kek-kek-kek calls from surrounding woods without seeing the bird during the visit.

But today was very unusual, unique in my experience, limited as that is.  I had been trying to make more observations on a particular local female Honey-buzzard.  She's been showing quite often recently and seems prone to 'butterfly' display and to rushing a kilometre or two across country to confront some errant Honey in a place she seems to think it shouldn't be. 

Leaving that aside, mid-morning on July 3rd she appeared over the woods along the top edge of 'white scar' (an old high landslip scar I use as a watchpoint).  I was thrilled at first because she started heading quite low in my direction and I was hoping to record more details of her ventral patterning, but for no reason apparent to me, she abruptly changed direction and flew fast and direct across what I've started calling Gos Valley, just as shorthand in my notebook.  Looking that way, I could make out two distant specks in the sky, one was a pale-bellied Honey-buzzard, and the other looked like it could be a Goshawk. 

Four images to show Honey-buzzard/Goshawk encounter. Note left-hand image showing size of Gos, to rear, relative to Honey-buzzard, not far in front. Northern Apennines, 3.vii.2018.
I got the binoculars back on the female Honey and by the time she caught up with the distant birds, the pale-bellied bird had vanished so she swerved at the Goshawk and then pursued it several hundred metres until both were just thin profiles against the wooded skyline hills, and I lost them.

Was that wise thing to do?  The Gos didn't seem very bothered.  I'm pretty sure the hawk was 'my' adult male (he looks in an identical moult state, with a couple of inner primaries growing back to length, making the wingtip look a bit Sparrowhawk-like; see image at bottom of previous post for comparison with condition on 16 June).  Perhaps a larger female would have been less inclined to let it drop. 

Friday, 22 June 2018

Keeping in touch with the male Goshawk

Adult male Goshawk,, N Apennines.
Bulky body, broad hips, narrowed long hand, rounded tail end,
and bulky white undertail coverts (partly flared)
After the incredible Goshawk encounter back on the 3rd June, as outlined in the previous post, it seems increasingly unlikely to have any competition as Goshawk 'highlight of the year'.  I've been revisiting the half dozen best images quite often since!  But If later sightings have been brief and of more distant Goshawks, I am not complaining because I did not expect to see any at all in the valley this year after the apparent (but not absolutely certain) failure of breeding after its initial stages last year and the absence of any signs of breeding at the usual nest site this spring.

In my previous experience, the calls and flight behaviour associated with breeding seemed to provide the only realistic opportunity to contact Goshawk (here, either the provisioning male or the newly fledged juveniles in flight), even if such contact is irregular and unreliable.  However, I have now seen what I think is the local male Goshawk several times, but I don't know if he is breeding or not.

I have been back to the 'white scar' watchpoint several times since the 3rd but observation time has been severely limited by adverse weather at the start: frequent total cloud cover with rain falling or  thunderstorms imminent.  The past several days (writing on 22 June) have seen a return to more typical conditions with extended sunny and warm conditions (and still risk of afternoon thunderstorms).

The 'white scar' is an old landslip area in the chaotically faulted and unstable limestone and shale bedrock of the valley, steep and stony, with tumbled blocks the size of a car fragmenting into flakes the size of a 5 euro coin.  It is still relatively open but is reverting to woodland.  High up on one of the wooded slopes bordering the Goshawk valley, it gives a good view across the valley where the nest tree is located (the site itself  is not visible, hidden in the deepest part of the valley) and of the airspace above the next valley beyond.

An adult male around the old nest site

Adult male Goshawk,
Further sightings after the 3rd began to show that there was a male Goshawk resident in the area, and it frequents both the zone in the immediate vicinity of the nest site of past seasons and the wider hill and valley landscape beyond, where the breeding male has been seen in flight in the past.

About 08.40 on the 7th I just glimpsed the flash of a pale underwing against the green background of the far slopes of the nest valley, with a momentary second wing flash ahead of it.  The first bird was a Goshawk: not much to see at distance other than the size and brilliance of white undertail coverts and it was soon lost as it flew up the nest valley and so behind a descending spur of the nearer hillside.  Less than an hour later a Goshawk appeared over the edge of woodland encircling the upper rim of the scar area, doubtless the same bird, it circled as it moved along the wood edge, uttering one quiet k-k-k,  and then went out of sight over the immediate skyline.  Previously a Sparrowhawk came into view along the same wood edge and flew rapidly over the skyline: perhaps this could have made the brief wing flash that earlier drew my attention to the distant Goshawk.

Does food-carrying definitely mean breeding?

At about 09.30 on the 9th a bird suddenly came into view about 150 metres away, above the more distant downhill part of the wood along the higher edge of the scar.  I don't know if it had just come up from the wood floor nearby or had arrived from the higher slopes out of direct sight.  On size and wing length I immediately thought it was the Goshawk, although with more persistent wing-flapping than usual as if labouring very slightly to make height.  He headed away high across the upper part of his usual nesting valley but in the poor visibility I lost sight of him against the distant background trees, so got no significant clue to the possible whereabouts of an alternative nest site.

A quick look at the poor images of the distant bird (left) show it was carrying prey, probably the cause of slightly different flight action, but the apparently square-cornered tail made me wonder about the identification.  Had I got the ID wrong?  Well, I've since found several Gos images where the tail can look very square-cornered, especially in oblique or foreshortened views, so I'm sticking with my first impression (though to be honest that's a 'probable' identification rather than certain).  The ID in this case is important because I assume that if the bird is carrying prey, he must have a nest to supply?  Other possibilities are: 1) I misidentified the bird, 2) the bird was a Goshawk but a second bird, not the local male, 3) it was the local male and he was taking food for himself to some site away from his usual haunts.

When you've got to scratch an itch: composite from a flight sequence,
At a similar time the next day, 09.20 on the 10th June, a Goshawk appeared low over the woods running along the upper edge of the scar area.  With a few leisurely wing beats and a couple of soaring turns it moved fast along the wood edge toward the uppermost part of the scar, which from my position forms the skyline, then disappeared over the treetops.  Before he appeared I'd heard a couple of kek-kek-kek call sequences, apparently from points within his usual base area surrounding the nest site; these were not at the typical alarm intensity but I do not know what their context was.  When he first appeared, he seemed to pause and almost dive inelegantly into the wood edge, but distant images show he had an itchy 'chin' that had to be scratched (below)!

The male's core area? 

In the past couple of nesting seasons I have often heard evidence of Goshawk from woodland around the lower end of the scar area.  I strongly suspect the recent male has tended to base himself in that area when breeding, and probably brings prey there before calling the female; this, however, is only an inference from the pattern of male and female calling when breeding - I have never seen such interaction nor found evidence of a plucking site there.  This area is 150-200 metres from the recent watchpoint at the top of the scar, and the nest tree is hidden a further 150-200 metres downslope.

All sightings so far in 2018 have been in the same locations that I have seen the male in flight in past seasons, not just the same general area but particular routes and particular landscape features (eg. the wood edge along the upper and lower margin of the landslip scar.  That is essentially why I assume the same male individual is involved.  A counter argument might be that these are sites conveniently seen from my watchpoint; although I believe it is the same male I cannot prove it.

I saw him again on June 16th and 17th, but not (so far) after the latter date.  There was also a gap in sightings between the 10th and 16th.  On most days when I've seen him in flight I have also heard a subdued call or two, but I did hear a quiet k-k-k call immediately followed by a quiet wee-oo on a day that I never saw him.  I strongly suspect that he tends to shift his centre of activity and may well be a few kilometres away on most days when I've neither heard nor seen him.

Moult starting.  L: 10th June, R: 16th June, 2018.
The latest images (16th June ) I have show the bird is now actively moulting the inner primaries of the left wing.  The composite (right)  shows an image from this date with one from about a week earlier (10th); the arrows indicate the broken-off tip of primary 8 on the right wing, just to confirm these show the same bird.

Monday, 4 June 2018

It's just a bird, why the ecstasy?

Adult male Goshawk, N Apennines,
Long wings, distinct and narrow hand, 
faint primary barring, shortish tail
with well-rounded end.
As rather forlornly recounted in the previous post, during a short visit to the valley in the northern Apennines in mid-March this year I found no evidence of the presence of Goshawks around their usual nest site.  I arrived for a longer stay on 23 May.  Until yesterday (3 June) there had been no new evidence and I was trying to get accustomed to the absence of a nesting pair and apparently of any Goshawks at all.

Yesterday - a blissful day - I got really impossibly lucky.  I was in the right place at the right time for a close encounter with an adult male Goshawk.  On my way up to the high landslip scar watchpoint, past the nesting woods, I heard a short call that had a certain Goshawk flavour but which I dismissed as perhaps a Jay mimic or conceivably a Sparrowhawk or even a misheard alarming blackbird.  I didn't dare hope there was a Gos in the area!  About mid-morning, after just a couple of hours scanning the sky and ridgelines,  I looked up from putting something away in my pack and there was a large hawk climbing straight towards me from the woods below and already close.  Big.  Beautiful close-barred grey breast.  Glaring white undertail coverts like jet trails.  Moving fast with little effort.  Surely a Goshawk?  The bird circled over my position, apparently without seeing me directly below, then circled close around the open rocks of the upper scar area, then over the woods along the higher edge, and, quite distant now, after several more soaring circles it vanished behind trees and rocks at my back.

A stunning and ecstatic encounter, perhaps even more dramatic than the meeting related in the post on 27 April last year.   For sure an adult male Goshawk, and possibly the very male that has nested here in recent seasons.  About half an hour later a Goshawk floated low and close overhead from somewhere behind me, crossed the top of the open landslip area, and after a couple of slow deep wingbeats glided toward the trees that run along the highest edge of the scar.  Closer rocks and trees again hid my view of exactly where it went but I was waiting patiently for a possible further flight view when I half turned to my left and saw a Goshawk sitting on a high bare branch!  The movement I made to raise my binoculars must have alarmed him because when I looked through them toward the branch he was gone.

Adult male Goshawk, N Apennines,
Slowly coming down from the high of the morning events, it took me a while to start wondering if my first assumption - that the male is not breeding this season but simply resident in his usual territory - was correct.  This assumption is based largely on the complete absence of any of the usual calling between nesting adults, associated with food provisioning or nest security.  I've heard no such vocalisations from the specific nest woods or from anywhere else in the valley within earshot.  His seemingly 'relaxed' demeanour yesterday, lacking the urgency that often characterises flights during nest-provisioning (and I have never seen a Gos perched high in an exposed treetop before), was consistent with this assumption.  But  the startling semi-flared white undertail coverts made me wonder if he has an alternative nest location somewhere in the valley.  For some reason, and I'm not at all sure if this is well-founded, I had the notion that the male only showed prominent coverts when breeding.  Today, his were not flared out to the maximum extent but were not tucked away either.  Perhaps more clues will emerge if I'm lucky enough to have further close contact.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Mid-March 2018: no sign of Goshawk at nest valley

The Goshawk nest site in sloping Beech-Aspen woodland, northern Apennines, Piacenza Province, 16.iii.2018.  The nest is prominent against the sky just right of centre (and see image below).
Made a short visit to my usual site in the north Apennine hills between 15 and 19 March, partly to check on the house plumbing after the winter and a recent period of intense cold (temperatures down to minus 15 deg C for several days), and partly to check for signs of Goshawk activity around their traditional nest, or perhaps elsewhere in the valley.  All good for the former, but sadly no evidence of Goshawk presence at all.  No sightings, no calls, nothing encouraging.  Ah, well, that's not quite correct: the woods in which the nest is situated have not been cut, the nest and the nest tree are still in position, and not further exposed by nearby tree fall.  So that much is positive - just no signs of Goshawk!

The Goshawk nest structure, 16.iii.2018,
high in an Aspen Populus tremula.
I'm pretty sure that if an active potential breeding pair was present in this small valley I would at least have heard some early morning calling.  Silence was in complete contrast to the noisy and exciting  early interchanges between the pair last year (see post on 4 April 2017, "Mist, mud, and Goshawks nesting again!").  But bearing in mind that the early promise of last year turned again to silence in early summer, strongly suggesting failure of the breeding attempt (see post of 23 June 2017, "Despondent as breeding fails"), I was already half expecting no pair to be in residence this year.

Trying very hard to be positive, I guess it's possible that resident hawks dispersed during the recent hard weather and have not yet returned.  Perhaps if one half of last year's pair is in the area he or she will find another mate; perhaps they or another pair will settle at the nest; perhaps I'll manage to locate another nest site within the wider valley system.  That's three "perhaps" in one sentence.  We'll see.

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.