It shows a certain lack of character and imagination to be keen on raptors, but I can’t help it. I love them anyway. Even the whistling kites and white-bellied sea eagles I clock every single weekend out in my boat on the Hawkesbury give me enough of a thrill to clog up my computer’s hard drive with a thousand pictures of them in every conceivable posture and mood.
So two years ago, when I caught this beauty in my backyard, I was beside myself with excitement. It’s a collared sparrowhawk, one of three species of Acciper found in Australia, along with the very similar brown goshawk and the hauntingly beautiful grey goshawk. So beautiful that on my one and only encounter with one (whilst pegging out the washing) my camera fainted and so in its barely conscious state was only capable of producing a groggy quasi-mystical image of the world’s only pure white raptor.
I know our beautiful visitor in 2015 was a sparrowhawk and not the very similar looking brown goshawk, having been schooled on the key differences. Brown goshawks are slightly grumpier and more threatening looking, with a beetle brow and chunkier legs. Both species, it is said, waggle their tail on landing, but the sparrowhawk does it a tiny bit more rapidly. As my brother, a much more expert bird watcher than I am, points out, this has to be the most arcane and pointless advice for distinguishing two very similar looking birds. “Sorry lads, the video of your tail waggling was slightly out of focus. Can you just circle round and land side by side on that branch again?”
Collared sparrowhawks also have another feature – the absurdly long middle toe of the collared sparrowhawk, used to grip its prey while it systematically plucks them (starting at the vent) and then devours them. It’s moments like these you’re grateful not to be a sparrow or a silvereye, isn’t it?
But is that enough to tell the difference between a goshawk and a sparrowhawk? Both apparently have these long middle toes – the sparrowhawks’ toes are just longer and more delicate.
There are other differences too. Goshawks have a rounded tail, and a smaller eye. So is it welcome back stranger… or good to see you, lifer?
Both the collared sparrowhawk and the brown goshawk are widespread through their range in Australia and New Guinea – they can be found in arid areas as well as woodlands and suburbia. They are one of the few raptors that will perch and hunt in gardens, as I saw today. The fact that they’re partial to a snack on introduced birds like sparrows, starlings and newly hatched chickens (gulp!) may be one reason why they’re considered “of least concern” to people who worry about the current mass extinction event.
But still, they’re not exactly common. Numbers declined from the 1940s through to the 1980s thanks to DDT, although the effect of this insecticide – thinning the shells of eggs – seems to have been less dramatic for them than peregrines and some other raptors. Loss of habitat for the small birds that sparrowhawks like to eat and competition from pied currawongs that will (somewhat implausibly to my mind) attack both adults and chicks are other threats.
It’s been a long couple of years since that last wonderful visit.
But over the last few days there’s been a new sound from the decrepit pine trees that stand (or should I say lean) between our place and our neighbours’. At first I thought it was a whiny juvenile wattlebird begging for a feed – the call was a kind of feeble high pitched kik-kik-kik-kik. And then I saw a creamy coloured bird with wide striped wings and a blunt head, superficially like the “green” satin bowerbirds that hang around here all year round scrounging off my chilli bushes and demolishing my bean plants.
But there’s something distinct and decisive about the way raptors fly. I eventually got a good look as the bird chilled out in the trees, waiting to ambush passing little passerines, which they catch on the wing. I’m really hoping they have a taste for noisy miners.
These really are very low-key birds. “Often lives unnoticed in mature-treed suburban parks and gardens” one ornithology site comments about sparrowhawks… “easily overlooked”. Having spent quite a bit of today staring slightly hopelessly into the naked branches for an immobile, unconcerned and well camoflaged bird of prey I can confirm this. “Trusting and approachable“, the Peregrine Trust’s turn of phrase for a collared sparrowhawk, seems like a slightly embarrassing description for a predator.
The grumpy reputation of Brown Goshawk is apparently not just a consequence of their Resting Bitch Face. They’re also apparently quite aggro around the nest. True to form, sparrowhawks are said to be calmer.
Perhaps this parental behaviour will be the solution to my ID problem. There’s a nest made of sticks high in the neighbour’s pine tree, a spot I saw the sparrowhawk returning to several times today. If there’s anything better than grown up raptors in your backyard, it’s a clutch of baby raptors.