Tuesday 8 April 2014


It is pretty apparent from this blog and the photos on my various web pages, that I enjoy photographing birds of prey. Buzzards, kestrels, peregrines, red kites, marsh harriers and some owls are fairly easy to see, whereas species such as the mighty white-tailed eagle can be photographed from specialist boat trips, for example. Some folk (not me) seem to see sparrowhawks frequently in their gardens, and if you spend enough time on isles such as Mull, you'll get to see glorious golden eagles and occasionally hen harriers too.

There are some birds of prey though, that are a lot more difficult to photograph. I managed to spot a merlin last year in Mull, but despite several visits to the Forest Of Dean, to viewing sites such as New Fancy View and Symonds Yat, I'd not yet connected with a goshawk. Most recently, on a trip to Symonds Yat, I was informed by the RSPB guide that a pair of goshawks were displaying. I was just starting to get excited when he pointed them out. On the horizon, which from a raised viewing spot, is a long, long way off.

Most years, by the time I've decided to target something, the time to view them has passed, and being rather absent-minded I forget to target them the following year, but this time, I managed to remember to focus on one bird, the goshawk, and to put in a substantial amount of time at some more local sites. The site in mind is in Shropshire, and I'm being deliberately vague with the location for obvious reasons.

After reminding myself what to listen out for, and taking the time to read up on the birds and their habits, I headed to a spot out in the woods, and set myself up. It made a change to be out on a day when it wasn't raining or blowing a gale, and I found myself distracted by flocks of finches in the area. Getting shots of those wasn't easy as mostly they were above me, and that tends to yield photos that are, well a bit naff.

It was whilst scanning for finches at a lower level when I saw it. Between the branches, a glimpse of something big, circling the tree tops. My heart stopped. Almost giving myself two black-eyes from swinging my bins up too quickly, I desperately tried to focus on the bird as it appeared and vanished through the foliage. The white eye-stripes and that red eye. Goshawk. The camera was of course set up for the right conditions, but try as I might, it failed to lock on and seconds later the goshawk had gone from sight. No pictures, which was annoying, but I'd seen one, and pretty close too. Fab.

Moments later, I had relocated to a spot where I could see more sky, and I clocked a bird high up, circling. Initially, as it was so far up, I wondered if it was a peregrine, but took a pot-shot to zoom right in on. Not a 'grine. Goshawk. It stayed very high though, and soon disappeared. It was safe to say that my attention had been grabbed.

It was about midday and the skies were clearing nicely. I had nothing else to do that day so didn't mind waiting for another view. And waiting. And waiting. Part of the problem is that once a goshawk appears, everything else with any sense (counts me out) goes into hiding, or flees for its life from the area, so there really isn't much to point the camera at in the long periods between sightings. But thankfully I got another view, as after hearing one call, it sailed over the tree tops and without foliage to block it, I could get the camera locked on. At last, a goshawk photo.

They're awesome birds; powerful, purposeful and the combination of those red or orange eyes and the white eyebrow-stripes gives them a killer look.

No prizes for guessing where I was the next day. Only this time, instead of seeing the adult birds, I generally saw a juvenile, or first winter (male I believe) which was being very vocal in the area I was stood.

Flying down between the trees in front of me, I only just got it in the frame - they really shift!

And then it appeared over the tree tops, circled and vanished from sight.

But not before giving me some great side views of its markings.

Since that first weekend, I have been back several times. I won't detail all the hours stood staring at the sky and not seeing anything as you'd be as bored as I was. Problem is, you can't look away for a moment. I did, when I spotted a lizard basking in the sunshine. I dug out my appropriate lens, approached and took some pics, and just as I wandered back to the usual spot, a blue tit went beserk, I spun round and the juvenile goshawk hurtled past, no more than 5 feet from the ground and off into the trees of the valley below me.

Still, good to see a common lizard, I suppose...

Another instance that sticks in memory was when I glimpsed a large bird perch up in the trees across the valley from me. I couldn't see it where it had landed, but I got to see it fly off, powerfully, low and so quickly between the tree trunks, disappearing from view within seconds, and setting off all manner of alarm calls from birds in its path.

As expected, the juvenile bird was soon pushed from the area, and I tended to only see the adults thereafter. I got a brief view of a pair displaying, albeit at distance too, accompanied by lots of calling by both birds.

On one visit, I spotted a bird circling above, and lost in the excitement of it all, fired off lots of shots believing it was a goshawk. Something about it wasn't quite right, and when it had gone, I checked. Sparrowhawk! Swine had tricked me. Still, not to be sniffed at in such lovely light.

Just an hour later though, the real deal flew in, and gave me terrific views as it circled nearby.

With the sunlight catching that red eye, he looked amazing, and I grabbed as many shots as I could.

Maybe he was enjoying the sunshine, but he just circled for a short while, then dropped into the canopy.

Moments later, the female appeared, also circling in the same area.
What a treat!

And in some rare sunshine too.

They both landed in some trees near me, but I couldn't get a view, and didn't want to risk moving in case they broke cover and I wasn't ready. They did, with the female skimming the tree tops as she headed off, and the male not far behind, but choosing to take a path through the woods, not over them.

I was left grinning like an insane person.

However, to put that experience into context, I have been several times since, and only glimpsed them, usually one miles up in the clouds, or stood and seen nothing at all. So I guess that makes those few moments even more magical.

I have only one word for goshawks: awesome!