Note: This is an archived article from the previous Bird Watching website.
To see a Goshawk in the UK is a rare and privileged event, and we consider them to be a species mainly of coniferous forests. How different is the perception of the bird in the rest of Europe. A visit to Berlin will reveal this magnificent raptor to be equally at home in an urban environment, preying on rodents, corvids and feral pigeons. When I visited Berlin to gain a better understanding of this strange city inhabitant, my tour of known Goshawk territories in tiny cemeteries culminated in a late afternoon visit to a small swing park, of all places. Here, I came face to face with a first-year female Gos, devouring a hooded crow, 30 feet above us in an oak. Her gaze cut through me, her image burned onto my own retinas. Here she was, right in front of me, the bird we in the UK cannot see…
Her mate screamed into the park, snatched a cache of prey from an old nest in a neighbouring tree, and had his supper on a street light, also just feet above the passers-by. The female, crop bulging, then set off on a ‘lap of honour’. She flew with stiff, exaggerated wing beats, almost owl-like, as though too big for this restricted, enclosed setting. She manoeuvred almost awkwardly between the still leafless trees. Her manner and proportions reminded me of something totally unexpected: an insect. I know it sounds bizarre, but those rigid, flicking wings, that protruding head and crop, and that heavy undercarriage of an abdomen all suggested some huge, slow motion, physics-defying bug.
Robert Kenward, author of the Poyser monograph on Goshawk, offers the following: ‘Some observers believe that courtship flights within the woods, with or without chasing, are much more common than those which take place above the canopy and are therefore most easily seen by humans.’ Goshawks, perhaps inevitably, are full of surprises.Dusk settled, with this pair of Goshawks noisily asserting their bond, and their ownership of this little park, between the trees and lampposts. I could barely believe what I was witnessing.
We caught her the following day, Goshawk research Rainer Altenkamp of Berlin University and I. She made us wait, stamping our feet in the piercing cold, and when she finally hit our trap she did it by flying off in the opposite direction from her perch high in a tree, then doubling back and attacking at ground level with such beatless stealth and speed we didn’t even see her, till the trap tumbled under her steely grip. Within seconds, the air around us was filled with a dozen bouncing crows, from nowhere, all yelling manically. Passers-by were stopped in their tracks by this hyper-real, Hitchcockian scene.
With my own bloodless, trembling hands I held our captive’s fearsome talons (think killing claws an inch long) as Rainer took her weights and measures. She endured all this with great dignity and unexpected (for me) passivity, and those ever-flaring eyes. And she flew off with a derisive snort when we set her down. I was delighted to learn later that by late summer she had raised four young in the huge stick nest in the crown of an oak, high above the children’s swings.
Duly initiated, in a sense I gorged on Goshawk for those few days exploring the city on a bicycle, finding Goshawks and their nests in other city centre locations, trying to absorb how the birds move, what they sound like, what they look like perched. I was making up for lost time. Cramming. You might say that this Berlin Gos binge was something of an epiphany. My understanding of the species and its needs had been shattered. My sense of what it looks like, based on the literature, had also been challenged. I began to wonder if any of us really know this bird at all. How many of those ID guides have been written from first-hand experience? And how soon will it be before we have Goshawks around the UK to really give us that experience?
How to identify a Goshawk
Get better at identifying Goshawks – and describing what you’ve seen! The data will prove useful in tracking the progress of the bird on our islands. So, how do you know when you’ve seen a Goshawk? Richard Porter, co-author of the seminal Flight Identification of European Raptors (Poyser, 1976), gives a few pointers:
‘As a crude rule, if you look at an Accipiter in the UK and wonder if it is a Goshawk then you are almost certainly looking at a female Sparrowhawk!’
Whilst Goshawk is a larger beast than Sparrowhawk, size can sometimes be difficult to judge so my quick 'check-list' pointers for Gos are:
- Well-protruding head and neck
- Broad, rounded tail (shorter than Sparrowhawk, which has square-cut tail)
- Deep, broad belly
- More pointed wing tips (compared to Sparrowhawk)
‘The protruding head and neck is noticeable even at a distance, whereas a far-off, soaring Sparrowhawk often looks 'headless'. The more pointed wings and well-protruding head can remind you of a large falcon. In fact once you get to know a Goshawk you rarely think of Sparrowhawk.’