Country diary: Never have I seen a sparrowhawk so long or so well | Mark Cocker

Holt, Norfolk: After 50 years of glimpses, I thought I knew how they looked. Then one arrived at a friend’s bird table

Anyone who feeds garden birds will know that it takes time to habituate local populations to the supplies. My friend owns a wood with a raised bird table the size of most urban lawns. Adjacent is a hide with one-way glass, and the action unfolds at what seems touching distance.

To lure in his most prized visitor involved the kind of patience that only the most gifted photographers possess. Getting tits or woodpeckers to your nuts takes a matter of weeks, but to entice sparrowhawks to feed at the same spot involved three years of trial and error.

The results are astonishing. When the customary female materialised on her perch it was as if she’d arrived in Captain Kirk’s transporter, atoms accumulating around her exquisite hawk form until I was finally transfixed by two livid yellow eyes. I should add that the idea of immateriality, or at least, mutability, was a central revelation of the whole hour. Or it was a recognition that I’d never seen a sparrowhawk so long or so well.

A sparrowhawk stares ahead.
During her entire stay she never once stopped peering hard into the trees. Photograph: Mark Cocker

Nor had I appreciated how the hen could be so beautiful. Impressions derived from glimpses scattered over 50 years had led me to a stock idea that she would be brown above and brown-barred buff below. Yet her crown and thick-ruffed neck were dove grey. The 30 transverse pencil lines from her thighs to throat were edged with warm sepia, like old beech leaves, and in direct sunlight they turned ginger or orange. Even her eyes changed: yellow at rest but, as she hauled the viscera out of her partridge meal, they burned orange.

The other takeaway was her fearfulness. She arrived under a cloak of intense alarm notes from the tits and thrushes. During her entire stay she never once stopped peering hard into the trees. As her head stooped down to pluck and feed, she relentlessly scanned the skies overhead. She left instantaneously, like a puff of weightless atoms. It was as if she’d climbed back into the transporter, set it to dematerialise, and in the time you might have pronounced the name of all her kind – “hawk” – she could have been on another planet.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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