The really sharp-eyed forager will sometimes be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this dashing woodland hunter on an early-morning foray . . .
We are so used to depressing wildlife declines that it is refreshing to find a species not only holding its own, but positively thriving in modern Britain. Take the goshawk: extinct only half a century ago, yet now to be found almost anywhere.
Thanks to its shy nature, however, most people are unaware of their proximity and have never caught a glimpse of this impressive woodland hunter. Immature birds have a drab brown plumage and glaring yellow irises, but as adults they turn a beautiful slate grey, with a barred chest and distinctive white eyebrow. The eyes deepen in colour too, slowly turning first orange and then red as the bird matures.
Such detailed views are rare, however, and most sightings are fleeting glimpses of a fast-moving hawk. Then it can be difficult to distinguish the smaller male from a female sparrowhawk. When soaring they can also resemble a buzzard, although a closer look reveals a longer tail and narrower, slightly tapered, wings.
The sexes also display big size variations. Females can be bigger than a buzzard, while the males are only a little larger than a sparrowhawk. This ‘reverse sexual dimorphism’ allows the pair to maximise on the available food. The more agile male concentrates on pigeons and crows, while females take squirrels, rabbits and large birds (the name comes from ‘goose hawk’).
Their speed and hunting skill explains why they have been favourites with falconers for four millennia (Attila the Hun rode into battle with a goshawk on his helmet). The same rapaciousness proved the bird’s undoing, however. Goshawks and intensive game preservation do not mix and the birds were exterminated 150 years ago. Modern falconers came to their rescue, however, with both deliberate and accidental releases. Breeding was confirmed in the 1960s in isolated pockets such as the New Forest, Peak District and South Wales, but they have since spread to cover most of mainland Britain.
This is a rare example of a creature that loves modern land management. Not only are there far fewer gamekeepers, but the Forestry Commission has more than doubled woodland cover.
Goshawks are most at home in large conifer blocks and readily take to a diet of grey squirrel, rabbit, pigeon and crow. As a result numbers have soared and officially there are now 500 pairs – and this is probably a serious underestimate.
The coming months provide the best spotting opportunities as they give roller-coasting ‘sky-dances’ above their nest. This is a huge platform up to five feet across, usually located in a large block of conifers. A close search of the area will normally reveal the male’s plucking post – often a stump – on which he prepares prey before presenting it to his mate or young. Goshawks may be currently tricky to spot, but this may well change. In the absence of persecution, its instinctive shyness is likely to abate. Our towns are full of pigeons, seagulls, squirrels and rats and as densities build up, this all-rounder will almost certainly follow the peregrine and sparrowhawk into urban areas. If so, the sight of a glaring goshawk pluming an unfortunate pigeon could become a common sight in our parks and gardens.