THE black duck was in panic, a loud quack becoming a sort of strained screech. She had gathered her tiny ducklings around her, tucking them under her wings, and was ready for war.
Minutes earlier I had seen the duck family merrily waddling down a culvert of the Sandy Bay Rivulet. First I had seen a single, downy chick not long out of the nest, scurrying ahead of the rest, the mother calling to it.
The mother and the other chicks came into view and when they saw me standing on a bridge spanning the rivulet they stopped and huddled together, the duck assessing the danger.
When she determined I was not a threat she led her family under the bridge and I watched them for a moment as they reached a spot where the rivulet coming off Mt Wellington levelled out and instead of tumbling, running water, rockpools had formed.
I thought how vulnerable the family looked, squeezed inside the sheer sandstone sides of the culvert with no means of escape if danger threatened. I was thinking at the time of a passing tiger snake, a reptile I had known to patrol the stream bed in summer, usually looking for frogs and birds nesting in the cavities in the rivulet’s walls.
Pressing on with my walk into the city, I suddenly heard the duck’s anguished calls and turned back.
In a flash, a large bird of prey swooped fast and low over the duck family, with talons outstretched. It swooped again, missed and tried to turn but the narrow confines of the culvert forced it higher. The ducks were lost to the raptor’s view for a second and it alighted on a branch.
I now had it in full view. It was a brown goshawk, a stunning male in perfect breeding plumage, the sort you see depicted in bird books before the rigours of summer take their toll.
Goshawks are generally hard to find because they tend to stay hidden in foliage, relying on ambush to strike their prey. Usually the alarm calls of their intended prey, who have spotted them, is the only indication that they are about and in my neighbourhood anguished piping from new holland honeyeaters reveals their location.
It may be called the brown goshawk, but the fine specimen I had in my sights along the rivulet showed russet in its plumage, matched with battleship grey. The russet is aligned with white stripes across the chest. The goshawk also has a russet colour that splits a grey head and back.
There are two similarly coloured raptors in Tasmania – both falling into the accipiter or sparrowhawk class of hawk – and care must be taken to identify them. The brown goshawk is the one most likely to be seen, but I have also seen the slightly smaller collared sparrowhawk hunting the rivulet where it hits suburbia at SandyBay. Along with size, what sets them apart is the tail feathers. The brown goshawk has a rounded tail, the sparrowhawk a square one.
I just caught a glimpse of the round tail of the brown goshawk, before it caught sight of me and was off. I lingered for a while expecting it to return but it stayed away. I assumed it had stolen a chick and was content to hide away somewhere to consume its meal.
The duck and family finally returned the way they had come and as they passed under the bridge I counted them. Initially I had counted seven chicks out, and now I counted seven in.
The goshawk had gone hungry, my presence sending it on its way.