Panic in the air on late-spring afternoon on the Derwent, a pastel-yellow sun about to set behind kunanyi/Mt Wellington.
A marauding collared sparrowhawk has got among a flock of galahs and they are fleeing in all directions. Their screams shatter the peace of a gentle stroll along the waterfront at Long Beach in Lower Sandy Bay. It gets worse when a pair of sulphur-crested cockatoos join in.
I had been receiving treatment from a physiotherapist for a knee injury and a short walk afterwards was not supposed to be about bird-watching, but it seems my best avian moments always come about that way. Birds in my experience are all about the unexpected and the unpredictable.
The galahs had been wheeling in the sky above Sandown Park behind the beach, moving from one feeding spot to another. From the other direction, above Blinking Billy Point to the south, a bird of prey had emerged, first as a mere dot and then as the round-winged, long-tailed shape of a sparrowhawk.
The sparrowhawk was in nonchalant, unhurried flight, probably going to a roost somewhere after a successful hunting trip. And then it spotted the galahs and I can only surmise it decided at that moment on a spot of late-afternoon fun to round off its day.
The slow pace of the sparrowhawk’s flight suddenly picked up, it flapped harder now, climbing to rise above the galahs, who were still oblivious to its approach.
As it crossed the sky above me I could see the sparrowhawk was a male, considerably smaller and more slender than the female. Sparrowhawks, as their name implies, mainly ambush smaller birds and it was clear the bird in my sights did not have a meal in mind in its pursuit of the galahs. They would be too large to hunt down in the sky and it was clear this was more about demonstrating aerial prowess, sheer devilment, or being a bully.
It’s important for birds of prey, especially young ones, to flex their muscles from time to time, and hone hunting skills and the sparrowhawk display made a great sight. After soaring briefly on his approach, it dived among the galahs, weaving and banking, pursuing individual birds. It was like a scene from the Second World War films I saw growing up in Britain during the 1950s, of Spitfires getting among the Luftwaffe.
This sparrowhawk was entering the realm of the mighty peregrine falcon, the real master of the skies, the fastest creature known to nature. No doubt he had lofty ambitions terrorising the galahs but I feared at the same time a peregrine might be watching from the sidelines, as I was.
Chaos and panic in the skies often attracts peregrines, to see if they can profit from a situation not of their making. Galah or sparrowhawk, both would have made an easy target for a bird that sweeps in at more than 300 km/h without warning.
And a sparrowhawk, out for a little mischief, might have bitten off more than he could chew.