A Phantom Above the Forest

by | 2 Feb, 2023 | Nature, Wildlife | 0 comments

I cannot settle. The low, heavy-bellied clouds that were here this morning have given way to a bright, sunny day. The wind has dropped, and I can’t shake the feeling that staying inside will mean I’ll miss something I’ve promised myself I’ll try to see.

At midday, I throw in the towel and head out on my bike. I haven’t got too far to travel, but my old bike is rickety and makes cycling hard. It also needs new brake pads, which makes riding downhill swing from feeling mildly disconcerting to throughly alarming.  

At the final hill, a long slog which curves between flailed, rectangular hedgerows, I lock my bike to a fence and walk the rest of the way through fields which skirt a pond. Burgundy Alder catkins stand out against the blue sky, and the clear, urgent teacher teacher teacher calls of a Great Tit fill the air.

Out of the breeze on the leeward side of the hill, I sit down on my coat and feel the heat of sun on the back of my neck. A Rabbit watches from above, where Oak and Silver birch trees grow amid clumps of Bramble. For a while, all is quiet. The plantation forest of Sika Spruce below me passes in and out of shadow as clouds float above. A small flock of Starlings flit over, and Gnats dance round my head. It’s now 1pm, and I wonder if I’m too late. Everything I’ve read said this was a morning spectacle, not something to watch for in the afternoon.

Alarm calls from a flock of Long-tailed Tits signal the arrival of a male Sparrowhawk. Flying low, he glides across the grass, disguised within a cloud shadow, before banking upwards, sharply, into the branches of a Blackthorn tree. In its dense, thorny canopy, he swiftly vanishes from view.  

A pair of Buzzards begin to spiral upwards on a thermal near the forest, their euphonious calls carrying far. I’ve always loved their sound. For me, their mewing is synonymous with a sense of freedom this earth-bound biped can only dream of. Presently, one of the pair folds its wings and rushes downwards, before thrusting them outwards to rise in an effortless, drawn-out arc. They are displaying, sky-dancing together above the forest. 

A few minutes later, one of the pair leaves, heading southwards. The remaining bird is joined by another bird of prey. They are about half a mile away, but even from this distance I can see a notable difference. This new bird lacks the ragged, finger-like primaries of the Buzzard. It’s also slightly smaller, but not by much. Looking through my camera viewfinder, I detect splayed white covert feathers under its tail, and a brown back which is duller than the ruddy brown of the Buzzard.

Displaying female Goshawk

I keep watching, hooked on this new addition to the scene. The two birds continue to spiral on the thermal, moving steadily closer to each other until suddenly they almost touch. The Buzzard, clearly unimpressed by this interruption, thrusts out its talons in defence. The other bird immediately twists out of reach and then, in a heartbeat, it begins to fall. Pitching towards the forest at great speed, it makes a sudden dive at an unsuspecting Wood Pigeon, but misses, before putting another flock up. As they scatter across the farmland the bird hurtles into the forest and is lost from view. 

Buzzard and Goshawk

Through my camera, I tracked the bird as it descended and tried, without much success, to photograph it. But its behaviour and size have convinced me. This is the bird I came here to see, the elusive phantom of the forest. A Goshawk, and a large female at that, advertising her territory by soaring above it with her under tail covert feathers on show. Sparrowhawks have a similar routine; a male and female once displayed in the field next to our house just like it, white petticoats obvious under their tails, but they are noticeably smaller and, I think, lack the stocky appearance of a Goshawk.

I’m thrilled. I have suspected there are Goshawks using this plantation for a long while, and I’ve been hoping they’ll breed here again this year. A female advertising like this must be a good sign. I’ll leave it a few weeks then make my way up there again to see how things are going. If I pick the right day and get lucky, I might catch her sky-dancing with a male.