I received a phone call from the Mercury during the late summer asking me if I could identify a young bird that had been photographed by staff photographer Sam Rosewarne.
When the image arrived I could not only name the species positively but the precise location where the picture was taken. It just so happened that I had been monitoring the very nest that had produced the youngster.
I had to confess that if I hadn’t seen the chick in question grow from a grey, downy nestling into a splendid bird of prey just about to flex muscles, talons and wing to hunt for the first time I would not have had a clue as to its identity.
Identifying birds of prey can be difficult enough, let along their mottled, speckled off-spring which, beyond the obvious fearsome, hooked beak, rarely resemble the mature, adult birds.
The juvenile bird in question was a collared sparrowhawk and it belonged to a nest well known to bird of prey experts. It is now known to an observant Sam Rosewarne, because the nest is close to his own home in the Hobart suburbs.
The sparrowhawk family have in fact found a happy home in suburbia, thanks to a little help from their human friends.
The female sparrowhawk returned once again this breeding season to the nest after surviving a drama last year when two of her three young fell from the structure, possibly during a storm.
First one and then another chick was found below the nest. They were handed to a veterinary surgeon who in turn passed them on to a carer with experience in handling birds of prey.
When raptor expert Nick Mooney heard about the sparrowhawks he suggested that perhaps they might be returned to the nest. They had not been imprinted by humans at this early stage, and there was every chance the female might continue to feed them. After all, she still had a young male chick in the nest. The retrieved birds were females.
The chicks were placed in the tree holding the nest and Mooney says the female sparrowhawk gave them a curious look, as if to say: “And where have you been?”
She was off immediately to catch them food.
Mooney informed me in late spring that the female had returned to the nest for a second year and I decided to check it out. I soon found it high in a tree and was excited to be able to study these elusive raptors first hand.
I rarely see sparrowhawks, more often seeing a larger close relative, the brown goshawk, which often menaces the new holland honeyeaters in my garden.
The sparrowhawk was obscured by the high and twiggy sides of the stick nest but when I first visited I caught sight of her wild yellow eye, and could identify her from the brown goshawk by this. The brown goshawk as an eyebrow, which is lacking in the sparrowhawk. And the sparrowhawk, when seen on the wing and perched, is noticeably smaller and has a square instead of a rounded tail. Another closely related species found in Tasmania, the grey goshawk, has an all-white plumage and is known here as the white goshawk.
The sparrowhawks and goshawks – which generally hunt smaller birds by ambush instead of soaring in search of prey – fall into the accipiter group within the large hawk and eagle family.
The breeding sparrowhawks once again prove how birds, and animals, can make a home in the suburbs if shown a little tolerance, especially in the case of birds of prey which in past times were shot for raiding chicken runs.
The sparrowhawk takes small prey like sparrows and starlings which can be both a garden and agricultural pest, so they are of great benefit to gardeners and farmers. In this way they can return the favour shown to them by their human friends.