A return visit by Belfast and Down Ringing Group (BDRG) to Jack Kelly‘s conservation award-winning farm on Saturday 21 March was a golden experience. The weather was fair and we were soaked in sunshine, which was just as well as we had an early start, arriving on the farm for 7am. The trees surrounding the yard were garlanded with yellowhammers and sparrows, and their calls, and those of a medley of tits, dunnock, blackbird, mistle thrush, wren and robin serenaded us over the next seven hours or so. The nets were gradually erected and, by early afternoon, we had had an excellent catch of around 40 birds in total, including 10 yellowhammers (see the canary brightness of one male above), and a goggle-eyed goldcrest, the smallest species native to these isles, dwarfed even by the wren. Ours weighed in at a mere 5g, barely a fifth of the weight of the sparrow-sized yellowhammer.
But the big excitement came in the early afternoon when Jack himself, who had been tractoring around our interrupting presence, suddenly called that there was a sparrowhawk in the net in his garden! Suddenly we were all rushing like predators ourselves to make sure the hawk didn’t tear or roll its way out of the net. It nearly did but with great tenderness to avoid those needle-sharp talons and that surprisingly stubby hooked beak, the bird was free from the net and bagged.
On our way back to the processing table, we debated who should ring the bird, a first for many of us. Eventually it was agreed, and the ringer nervously brought the sparrowhawk back into the light. The immediate thing were those eyes, the intensity of their yellow, which spread beyond the sclera, leaking into a defining ring. The colour was reflected in the gracile legs and feet, their long grasping toes. The hawk made no sound but it turned its sculpted head, those fierce forward-facing eyes following every movement of ours. Anybody getting close was warned by an opening of the beak.
The bird was identified as male from his wing-length, weighed and, very cautiously, ringed. Then he was released. I ducked as he flew past me, instinctively flinching at a raptor’s shadow.
Yellowhammer: original by Kez Armstrong.
Sparrowhawk: still from a video by Declan Clarke