Yesterday I looked out into the garden and saw a female Sparrowhawk plucking a large kill on the patio, less than 5 metres away! At first I thought the kill was a Collared Dove but then identified it as a Woodpigeon. All the drama and movement of the kill had happened completely without me noticing. Worried about putting her off her kill, I very quietly crept away and went upstairs to my room, from where I could watch her, and sketch. All my sketches are from a slightly above angle because of being upstairs.
I wanted to look in detail at the Sparrowhawk's feathers. In this sketch you can see that the tail has a thick band of darker grey at the end (with a very thin stripe of white right at the end, but my sketch isn’t that detailed!) and 3 bars across the middle of the tail. The white ‘eyebrows’ over her big yellow eyes curve round to meet at the back.
The female plucked her kill busily for a while, though she never stopped flicking her head this way and that to check for danger in between beakfuls of feathers. Then suddenly a male Sparrowhawk seemed to appear out of nowhere, about a metre and a half away from me on the roof of our garage. This bird has been a regular visitor to our garden for the past week (the female was a newcomer), and he’s a particularly colourful bird with deep orange eyes, red cheeks and red barring on his breast, and even his tail feathers seemed to have an orange glow in the sun. As soon as the female saw him, she opened her wings and spread her tail to mantle her kill so as to hide it from him, and glared at him with a terrible, yellow stare.
While fixing him with her gaze she was very still so I was able to get a sketch, which you can see in the top left of this page. It was quite something to see. The male was absolutely not going to get any closer. A little male hawk about the size of a Collared Dove was not going to approach the big broad female, bigger than the Woodpigeon she was eating. He didn’t stay long, flying away in the direction he came, and she kept mantling for a little while before digging her talons into the kill and flutter-jumping onto the lawn, moving the kill a few metres away from where she plucked it. Perhaps she worried the male would come back and attempt to steal some of the kill.
On the left you can see her mantling using her spread tail. Then after moving the kill she sat for a while on it before starting to eat it. She appeared to be bracing her tail on the ground while standing on the kill, which was interesting to see, not sure why but maybe it helps her keep her balance while she eats?
On the right of this page I was trying to get the beak right. The head of the bird is flat and there’s a tiny ‘forehead’ before it dips down to the beak. There’s a yellow patch of skin around the beak which extends up the forehead in a thin line, and the main body of the beak is grey with the nostrils at the base. The beak was easily the hardest thing to get right on these sketches, it’s so small and the shape was hard to see without my binoculars which meant every time I drew it I had to do it one handed. Consequently I missed it out of a few sketches!
She stayed still for so long that I was able to draw the formation of feathers on her wings. Natural History illustrators who draw and paint birds show every feather on the plumage, and I want to be able to do that too, so I resolved to look more carefully at birds whenever I have the chance to draw one that’s so close, particularly a larger bird where it’s easier to see the feathers.
As she began to eat the pigeon, shifting her talons around to get a better grip, I was able to draw them. Compared to the size of the bird, the yellow talons are quite slim, but you can see the strength in them when the hawk has a grip on something, and the black claws are long compared with the length of the toes. One of my favourite things about Sparrowhawks are their extremely fluffy, barred ‘trousers’ that extend halfway down the legs, so I’ve paid particularly attention to them on the right of the above page.
After eating a bit of the kill, the hawk showed signs of wanting to move it again, but this time to take off with it properly. I’ve seen Sparrowhawks eating their kill in trees before, so maybe that was what she wanted to do. When she was plucking and eating she never stopped warily looking out for danger, and it goes to show that just because an animal is a predator that doesn’t mean it has nothing to worry about. A ground predator like a cat or fox could attack her while she was on the ground for so long, or steal her kill, and even if the male Sparrowhawk was too small to try this, a bigger bird of prey might have been the next to try for all she knew! In the wild, no animal is ever completely safe from attack.
She hooked her talons securely into it and tried to take off but it didn’t work, instead she fell over, wings and tail flailing everywhere. It was clear the kill was still too heavy for her to carry, so she gave up and kept eating on the lawn.
On the left is a sketch of her pulling the meat off the carcass in long strips. On the right you can see how wide apart her legs had to be to let her head bend low enough to tear the carcass, and though I didn’t capture it well in the sketch, she was bending her head at what looked like awkward angles to get the meat. I tried to show the head markings in the sketch in the bottom right, there's a grey patch of feathers behind the eye of a female Sparrowhawk, and the thin yellow plate above the beak going up the forehead and bordered by grey feathers on each side. The white eyebrow is quite visible but it’s not clearly defined at the edges, with grey streaking going into it.
After eating for a while she tried to move the kill again, but despite having eaten some more of it she could still only flail about, so she gave up and after a couple of seconds flew away without it. I went out and had a look, there wasn't all that much left and the head of the kill was completely gone. I watched her for about 45 minutes overall. It was fascinating, and the best view of a Sparrowhawk I’ve ever had.