On the trail of an elusive yet beautiful killer

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The travails of a wildlife artist are never easy. In his latest column, artist Robert Fuller recounts his quest to catch sparrow hawks in the wild.

I have a love-hate relationship with the sparrow hawk that frequents my garden. I can’t help but admire its “shock and awe” ambushes, but my admiration can quickly turn sour when it hunts down a much-cherished song thrush or woodpecker.

They are also a tricky subject to study as sightings are often brief: Just a glimpse of them flying at speed across a field or winging it over the top of a hedgerow or in brief explosive attacks at my bird table.

So when I spotted one whilst on my way to watch some badgers one evening, I had to stop and take a look.

A sudden movement along the fence line had caught my eye and sure enough, just two yards away from my car taking off from the ground, was a female sparrow hawk.

A sparrow hawk is usually only on the ground if it is on a kill. I reversed up and spotted a partially-plucked partridge underneath a fence. I got out and went over to inspect the carcass. The sparrow hawk must have only just caught it, since, despite there being feathers everywhere, the skin was not yet broken.

It was getting dark and I wanted to enjoy what I hoped would be a great evening of badger watching, so I headed off. While I waited for the badgers to emerge that night, I hatched a plan to lure this female sparrow hawk to pose for a painting for me. With a big prey item like a partridge, the hawk was sure to return to it at first light. If I wanted to photograph her when she got there, I needed to put up a hide immediately.

After watching the badgers I set about erecting my hide. Despite working as quickly as I could in the dark, it was midnight before I got home. I set my alarm clock for a pre-dawn wake up call.

The landscape was startlingly beautiful as I drove down to the hide in the semi-darkness. Stark silhouettes of ash and sycamore trees rose up dramatically through a heavy white mist that hung in the valley bottom.

A crow’s raucous ‘caw-caw’ announced the arrival of dawn. Next came the loud chittering sound of a robin alarm calling. I got into the hide and set up my cameras ready for the sparrow hawk to turn up.

I poured myself a cup of tea from my flask as more birds began to sound out their alarm calls.

Before I had a chance to drink my tea, a sudden rush of wings announced the arrival of the sparrow hawk. It was still too dark to get any photographs so I sat back and watched.

The hawk couldn’t work out where the partridge was. I had moved it three feet away from where she had left it the night before and this completely baffled her.

As she landed on a fence post, she peered down into the grasses beneath with piercing yellow eyes. Then she flew to another post, then another, dropping into the grass every now and again for closer inspection.

Sparrow hawks hunt by movement and find it difficult to locate stationery prey. Eventually she dropped down on to the exact spot where the partridge had been and looked about her, utterly bemused. There were feathers spread out around her, but she couldn’t find the partridge. I watched as she picked at them and flung them aside in annoyance.

She was now only two feet away from the partridge, but was still none the wiser. She flew straight to me and landed on top of my hide – less than 18in from my nose.

I sat perfectly still and thankfully she didn’t notice me. I suspect she didn’t like the feel of my nylon-covered hide under her feet because she quickly flew to a fence post four feet away.

I could hear her ruffling her feathers and when I peered through a small hole in my hide I saw her preening and scratching her head.

There was one, quite disconcerting moment, when she looked straight at me with those penetratingly fierce eyes, but she didn’t actually see me at all.

Then, quite abruptly, she took off back to the other side of the field. My heart sank. I hoped that this wasn’t the end of my sighting.

I decided to change tack with this project. The pre-dawn mornings were beginning to wear me down since I was also busy finishing off some new paintings for my Christmas exhibition, which runs until November 24th at my gallery in Thixendale.

I decided to try the sparrow hawk’s other favourite perch – the swing seat. This time I just left a dead pigeon on top of the seat, high enough to be out of sight if my mother-in-law visited. A day went by and the carcass was ignored.

But the following day was windy and I could see one of the pigeon’s wings flapping. Then it vanished. I found it some 30 metres away in the hedge bottom, half eaten.

I couldn’t get a view of the carcass from the house so I set up a wireless camera connected to a screen which I could leave playing in my studio relaying live images.

I set up some camouflage netting over my camera and a screen of netting to disguise my approach across the patio.

The next day, as I painted at the easel, I checked the screen every few minutes for action. Eventually the hawk arrived and I rushed downstairs, grabbed my coat and crept out into position.

As I looked down the camera lens at the hawk, it glared at me menacingly. But luckily I was able to rattle off nearly 300 photographs.

Soon there was very little of the pigeon left. That night I put out another and when the hawk returned the next day she looked a bit surprised, as if to say – I thought I ate you!

Not wanting to pass up a free meal, she set about devouring it. This hawk has been visiting every day now for more than three weeks and I am getting some amazing pictures – even if they are a little gory to paint from as they are.

The good news is that the other birds are much more relaxed, now that the hawk is happily occupied and well fed.

Looking for the favourite spot

I think the same sparrow hawk visits my garden most days, harassing the birds at my feeders so I decided to try and study it from my studio.

I began to watch its coming and goings a little more closely.

I could see it from my studio window and quickly noticed that it had two favourite places on which to perch.

One of these was on top of a swing seat that my mother-in-law had given me the other was on the rung of a ladder propped against a bird feeding tower outside my studio.