Monday, 5 November 2018

FANCY DAN THE SPARROW HAWK MAN

it's disconcerting to be ignored by a hawk that is just eight feet from me - only this once did he pay me any attention
Many special events have happened in our wooded wildlife friendly garden but few come close to this summer when a pair of sparrow hawks decided to nest in the heart of our patch in sunny Dorset.

they are long gone now but the nest was up in the birch tree on the left
a Scottish nest photographed from a forty foot scaffold hide carefully assembled over three weeks to minimise disturbance
I have filmed them in several wilder places around the country and if one character epitomises them it is shyness, so to have a pair that decided we were harmless and allowed us to carry on gardening while they sat watching was remarkable. I write a lot about the privilege of living close to wildlife but this was as good as it gets.

our tame male at his fast food retaurant

Over the years we've seen sparrow hawks fairly regularly around the garden but the first time I noticed something ‘different’ was on the 16th January. A male was perched above the bird feeders in our magnolia in what I guessed he considered a fast food restaurant.

I took a happy snap or two from the office window, then crept downstairs to get closer to the target. Pics through double-glazing are never going to be that clever so I carefully opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, even when I stepped outside. He stayed for twenty minutes, looking around and preening, seemingly without a care in the world.

the female was almost as confiding as our male

He was back on the 31st, perching above the feeders close to the side of the cottage, I say ‘he’ but when I came to download the pics the eye colour was yellow instead of orange, so this was a female and tame too.

no wonder we named him 'Fancy Dan' - he was always preening his colourful feathers
He was back by the feeders on the 4th March and I decided to be bold, stepped outside and ever so slowly stalked to within a few metres. It was exciting being so close but he didn’t even bat an eyelid and stayed there for an hour.

the female was calling her mate as we dug the garden below

On the 24th the female was in a tall birch above us, calling to what had become her mate in the wood. 


Next day he was back by the feeders but I had to creep right around our wild flower meadow to get a clear shot and then ever so slowly stalked to within eight feet. It was a moment of magic. There is so much beauty in nature, usually at a distance but for once I could admire his colourful plumage intimately. Isn't he a little cracker!




I love this pic, the only sharp bit being his claw. I need a faster camera! 
It was disconcerting that he almost completely ignored me for half an hour, only glaring at me forcefully once and flying close to my head when he left to join his mate. He was good at providing food for her too.
our female eating a blackbird on the giant oak outside my office window

I left them undisturbed when they were mating for fear of putting them off

In early April I missed photographing them mating but the next few weeks I saw them do so several times and spent hours in the wood watching them collect sticks for the nest and building up the structure in a birch tree that we could see from our bed. The whole episode was quite remarkable.




they built the nest in a tall birch in the middle of our woodland walk

it was exciting seeing her breaking off twigs for the nest - the male helped a bit too.

she placed the twigs carefully on the base of the nest
building took more than three weeks as the leaf cover for the nest increased
They had decided our garden was home and nothing was going to convince them otherwise but we decided to be cautious so that they could lay eggs undisturbed and started to avoid walking under the nest. However, they seemed completely bomb proof and would happily sit around in the branches while we sat watching close by.
he was so cool he slept even when we sat a few feet away - quite remarkable

her tail just visible as she formed the cup for her eggs
By the end of April they had completed the nest and were paying a lot of attention to the cup, fiddling with little twigs and wriggling down to make it comfortable. By early May the female was laying and with a telescope I could watch her tail rising and falling as she forced the egg out.

Over the next three weeks the male brought food to her regularly and it was amusing to see them both chasing away any intruders to the area. They all got energetically pursued, wood pigeons, crows, magpies, jackdaws, jays, even grey squirrels. I imagined they quite enjoyed putting the fear of god up their visitors asses!

he would sit happily on the tree tops soaking up the sunrise while she incubated their eggs - it's a man's world

By early June we watched the female feeding small young and by now we had nicknamed the male ‘Fancy Dan’. He would regularly go and bath in the stream close to the nest, then spend hours preening in the sunshine. Who’s a pretty boy!

Fancy Dan at his morning shower. His mate would bathe in the afternoon while he did his duty on the nest   © Mike Read
A great friend of ours Mike Read came round to take a few pics. He’s a professional photographer with proper gear, [I just had a Panasonic ‘bridge’ camera with small zoom], so we were really grateful that Mike could take delightful pictures that did Fancy Dan justice.
he loved having a thorough soak in the shallow pools, spending many minutes at his ablutions   © Mike Read

his bathng became a daily routine so no wonder we called him Fancy Dan   © Mike Read
a different female eating a kill close to our nest - quite a surprise    © Jane Adams 
On another day we had a great friend round, Jane Adams, who hoped to see the chick being fed and Mum duly obliged. However, we were looking at Sue’s veg plot when a sparrow hawk zoomed across and landed with its’ prey in the nearby weeping willow. I assumed it was Fancy Dan with another kill but it was another female, only fifty metres from the nest where our female was feeding the chicks, surely a most unusual happening.

Fancy Dan would pluck some of the feathers off his prey before presenting it to his mate    © Mike Read
the food pass usually took place close to the nest   © Mike Read
our precious cuddly bundle would soon turn into a fast flying killing machine that are not always popular with bird lovers
Fancy Dan seemed to be providing plenty of food for the chicks but by early July there was only one survivor in the nest. Perhaps the tropical heat of our wonderful summer had taken its’ toll? However, the chick successfully fledged and within a few days the show was over, the birds dispersing into the surrounding woods. We were sad to see them go but were now free to walk under the nest again.  We had made a self-imposed curfew to avoid disturbing them too much.

We still see Fancy Dan occasionally as he sits quietly on one of his favorite perches or zooms past in pursuit of some intended victim and we’re hoping that they return next year to try to raise a family in our presence once again. It was a remarkable privilege for which we will always be grateful.

If you would like to see more of Mike Read's splendid pictures then please visit : www.mikeread.co.uk

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