Birds on the Balcony: the hawk comes a-calling

It was over in an instant. It felt like a lifetime.

A sparrowhawk is sitting on the balcony railings.  A large bird, a female.  Facing us as we watch through the window, I can see she is brownish-grey and without the beautiful rufous colourings of the male.  Her eyes, bright yellow and steely, are alert and watching.

We have had previous balcony visits from sparrowhawks.  Last time was a male, much smaller and he came during the winter.  There seemed no reason for that visit.  This time is different.

Here she waits, sitting on the rail.  She is here for a purpose.

On the floor of the balcony is a ground feeder: the seed protected from larger birds by an ornamental dome.  Inside the dome, still as a statue, sits a single dunnock.  I have never seen a little bird motionless.  Small garden birds are always on the move: hopping, pecking, keeping watch.  This bird does not move a muscle.  I don’t notice it immediately, my attention is held by the hawk.  But hers is focused on the dunnock. 

There were almost certainly more birds here when she first approached.  Finches inside the dome; pigeons on the open floor; tits on the nut feeder.  It may have seemed rich pickings and her young at this time of year must be voraciously hungry and still dependent on their parents.

Now, just the single small bird remains.  What will she do?

The sparrowhawk moves a step or two to the right, a step or two to the left.  She tilts her head this way and that.  I find myself waiting for her to screw up her eyes, as we might when studying a problem from all angles.

She waits.  She considers.  She is patient.

Suddenly, the dunnock flies. 

It streams through the bars of the protective cage; it hurtles through the balcony railings.  Safety is perhaps twenty feet away. 

Was it a coincidence that the hawk was turned very slightly the opposite way when the dunnock made its bid for freedom? 

She was caught off balance.  As a female, she is less agile than the male; she was slow to move and took off awkwardly.   

She twists in the air, within a whisker of the railing and shoots, straight as an arrow, towards her fleeing prey.

It is over in a instant.  The dunnock reaches the sanctuary of the shrubs and trees; the sparrowhawk pulls up sharply as she reaches the outermost branches.   She cannot navigate between the dense greenery.  A flurry of activity, branches rustle, the hawk shies away with grace.  And then, quiet. 

This time, the dunnock is safe.  But the sparrowhawk is not done.  Her young must be fed.

She lands atop the bird feeder in the garden.

All garden birds have vanished.  The air remains – just for a moment or two – eerily quiet.

Then come the swallows.  I hear their chittering, look up to see a single sentinel circling high.  The chitter-chatter changes to the piercing two-note warning cry. 

Where the sky had been clear just seconds before, swallows are massing.  More and more are answering the summons, spiralling, high up and noisy.  They scold and call – where are they all coming from?  We have more swallows above us than I’ve ever seen before.

At first they pose no threat.  They are high above the resting hawk.  But shortly, when their numbers have sufficiently grown, the first one swoops, scything downward in a warning arc.  Another follows, from a different direction, a different angle.  Another and another.  The surging mass of swallows is lower now and reminds me of bees, angered.  They begin to swarm, close enough to her head that surely she could take one. 

But she rises.  Takes off parallel to the ground, keeping low, and heads away, the mob in pursuit, still bombing.  An escort, bold and strident. 

Her young will not be fed yet.   The dunnock will see another day.

It was over in an instant. It felt like a lifetime. To the hawk and the dunnock it was a life or a death. Nature functioning in absolutes.

Images courtesy of RSPB.org.uk

55 thoughts on “Birds on the Balcony: the hawk comes a-calling”

  1. Sandra, what a drama to witness at such close quarters. I love the way you have told the story to us. Thank you. We won’t get any more out of you this summer. You’ll be glued to your balcony.

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    1. I hope you’ll hear more from me but you know what I’m like – plenty planned but best laid plans and all that … 😉 Glad you liked it, Margaret; it was a good piece to write 🙂

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  2. I always think ‘phew’ when they get away, but then think about those starving youngsters. It is amazing the difference in the size between the male and female sparrowhawks, apparently so they aren’t competing for the same food.

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    1. Yes, Katrina, as I understand it the size difference in sparrowhawks is the greatest of all the birds of prey. Males take songbirds, females go for pigeons. I wondered if there had been pigeons strutting about when the hawk arrived – there usually are. It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it, between one species and another.

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    1. Swallows mob like this to defend their own young and frequently ‘bomb’ our cats who nonchalently continue on their way regardless! The swallows’ nests are on the other side of the house so there is no threat to them from the cats and there was no threat from the hawk. But clearly they have a territory which they patrol assiduously. It was a dramatic moment, Rose. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. More stories certainly, if I see something that grabs me and might work in words… 😊

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      1. If I was being fair I would add that I hope the hawk’s chicks are fed too, but not at the expense of the swallows.
        The cats sound as if they are full of personality (and full of themselves too!)
        I thought of your story this morning while I was out walking and saw the black swans at a nearby swamp with their two fluffy balls of feathers following them around. When I stopped to look at the cygnets the swans were very quick to herd the little ones into the spot between them.
        I’m looking forward to more of your stories already 🙂

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  3. I’m not sure whether I’m happy or sad after reading this! Glad the little dunnock lived another day but the poor sparrowhawk’s brood! Nature is pretty brutal, as I used to have to remind myself every time my previous cats – both superhunters – presented me with their prey.

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    1. I told myself that the sparrowhawk will have had success elsewhere later. As you say, FF, nature is a harsh mistress. Our cats are superhunters too, though mostly rodents and only occasionally birds. And the swallows mob the cats regularly. The cats (who are generally just walking along minding their own business) take not a scrap of notice of them!

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  4. My heart is pumping! Nature in action and all its facets – I felt that we were with you every moment – what an epic post! Have you come across writer and conductor Lev Parikian? He has written an excellent book on birding – Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear, and has recently been doodling bird-related images. I have one of his tea towels, which is a perfect accompaniment to your story. A successful peregrine this time! https://levparikian.com/index.php/product/trajectories-tea-towel/

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    1. Liz, I was following Lev at one point but not at the moment. (Every so often I have to cut down or I get overwhelmed!) I’ve just peeked at the tea towel – yes, brilliant! I shall get back to him. (His book is somewhere on the ever-growing wish list.)

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  5. What a wonderful privilege to see this Sandra- amazing , and so thrillingly and sensitively portrayed. It’s good to be reminded that Nature is all about balance.
    We have seen gangs of corvids mobbing a kestrel over our field, and individual families of small birds seeing off the corvids in turn, but we seldom see sparrowhawks here- occasionally one on a fencepost. The sky here is the territory of the kites and their plaintive calls.xxx

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    1. Interest piqued when I started to write this post, Pat, I read a little on sparrowhawks and was surprised to learn that they too, had dwindled almost to extinction in the more eastern counties. Now they are our most common bird of prey. (Interesting facts here: https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/birds/facts-about-sparrowhawk/)
      We of course, do not have the kites – yet. Our equivalent is the buzzard, circling and mewing in the same way as the beautiful kites over your skies. I remember the kestrels, again we’ve seen very few here. But we have seen peregrines. Just occasionally and not right here but close by and from a distance. xxx

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  6. I love observing wild life and this is a perfect example of the small dramas nature presents us with. I too felt relief that the dunnock made it, but on the other hand, everybody has to eat, so perhaps that is a hypocritical thought?

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    1. I agree, Stargazer, that there are small dramas such as this everywhere if we look. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to be relieved. I have asked myself whether I would have written this had the hawk caught the dunnock; almost certainly not. I think we all root for the little guy! And I reminded myself that the sparrowhawk was undoubtedly successful in her hunt later. The dunnock survived, some other small bird probably didn’t. Nature is a harsh mistress.

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  7. What an amazing encounter Sandra. I was on the edge of my seat, thinking what would I have done, would I have gone out to the balcony to chase the sparrowhawk but then risk frightening the dunnock off too, or watched it play out….I try to appreciate that everyone needs to eat, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for the prey!

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    1. Andrea, it never occurred to me to intervene; I’m astonished as I realise that! I think mostly I was spellbound. It’s hard to see death in nature but it’s a necessity if others are to live. That said, I was so glad that the dunnock escaped!

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  8. Such drama to witness. We often see Magpies or Crows mobbing a buzzard in the air and once saw two Magpies attacking a female Sparrowhawk in the hedge. Fascinating to watch them. Nature can be very cruel. I have never seen any Swallows here. Nor Swifts this year – I wonder why that is? One or two House Martins or possibly Sand Martins – hard to tell the difference.

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    1. I’m astonished that you don’t have swallows, Jude. But we don’t get swifts or house martins or sand martins. Having the swallows is one of my great joys, living here 😊

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  9. It’s an absolute privilege for me to see these birds up close, and I can tell it’s the same for you; and you tell this incident so beautifully, so sensitively and so vividly. We had one on the terrace just outside our French windows not three metres away: it had caught one little brown jobbie (probably another dunnock) which was peeping very pathetically. The hawk was there, still, for a full minute before taking off, low, over the gate — much as I’d spotted another hedge hopping after snatching something from the bird feeder last year.

    Our greatest thrill was a young peregrine in Bristol about twenty years ago. I saw what at first seemed to be a strange-shaped pigeon on a telegraph pole, before it flew to the window sill where we were stood watching. Another full minute which seemed to be heading towards eternity.

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    1. Chris, I agree absolutely; it is a privilege. I never tired of seeing these birds and a close encounter such as this – when it was possible to look directly into the bird’s face – is a very special experience. I’ve long harboured a private dream to train and fly a hawk which I accept will never happen but it doesn’t stop me dreaming. I’ve flown them at conservation places which of course is not the same thing but it’s still a thrill as the bird approaches the glove. Magnificent creatures!

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  10. I once watched as a sparrow hawk shot down onto a greenfinch that was on my feeder; it never knew what hit it. Often see (as others have said) buzzards being mobbed by crows or gulls. Not many swallows in this part of Cornwall this year, but plenty of martins and swifts now. Green woodpeckers have taken to edging closer and screeching, but haven’t entered the garden yet. Great spotted visit quite often. And an occasional nuthatch. Greenfinches now scarce (word must have got around about the sparrow hawk)

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    1. I was surprised to hear of the lack of swallows from another Cornish blogger in the far west of the Duchy. But we in turn have no swifts or martins and I’ve not seen any in the 4 years we’ve been here. Lots of great spotteds but no greens. And never greenfinches or starlings. Fascinating to note the different populations.

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  11. What a beautiful piece of writing, Sandra. Your captivating descriptions had me completely absorbed from start to finish. Lucky you to have seen us: lucky us that you can describe it so eloquently.

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  12. The drama and tension is beautifully described Sandra. The high level of alertness that birds constantly need to have is perhaps something we tend to forget. The mutual awareness between the dunnock and the sparrowhawk, and then the gathering of the swallows in response to the presence of the hunting sparrowhawk show how their survival depends on such constant vigilance. I moved from feeling anxious for the dunnock to feeling anxious for the unsuccessful sparrowhawk being mobbed by the swallows …

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    1. What most surprised me in terms of my reactions as observer was the realisation that I’ve never really seen a small garden bird motionless. That constant movement being part of their survival mechanism of course – the need for vigilance and sustenance. And yet – when survival demands it – this little bird was able to remain absolutely still, the instinctive behaviours adjusted so significantly. The physiology is marvellous!

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