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