Thursday, 18 September 2014

'A Sparrowhawk’s Lament' book review by Zac Hinchcliffe

Birds of Prey are like the premiership footballers of the bird world. Whilst anyone who doesn't even like football knows who David Beckham is, non-birdwatchers know of and have some form of interest in birds of prey. I know of countless people who say, "I don’t really like birds, but I like owls". This could be because of their predatory persona being associated with the more exciting things in human existence, for example fighter jets and sports teams (granted both of these primarily feature in America). I do believe however it is because there is a certain awe-inspiring emotion a person is overtaken by when seeing a bird of prey, whether that be a hunting falcon or a soaring eagle.

A migrating Osprey for example is something I have witnessed many times during spring and unlike many other migrants, every single time I get that first confirming glimpse of the shallow ‘M’ wings and pied plumage, I get a surge of adrenaline and am overtaken with excitement. As a bird ringer, I have been lucky enough to handle several species of raptor, including Osprey, and witness their predatory adaptations and complex plumage up close. These birds are truly majestic and incredibly beautiful. Even when holding a seemingly placid chick, you can feel the power lurking within like a coiled snake. I believe this ‘va va voom’ surrounding birds of prey is why David Cobham has spent a lifetime filming and observing this group of birds.
When I was first made aware of ‘A Sparrowhawk’s Lament’, I both didn’t really know what that title meant and also assumed it was a fictional novel or a true story about Sparrowhawks. What I hadn’t realised is that the title was in fact borrowed. Cobham was made aware of a poem written in the fifteenth century of which this book shares its name. The poem’s premise was the thoughts running through a Sparrowhawk’s head and the fear of dying. Cobham was intrigued by the poem as it made him wonder how such an accomplished predator at the top of its food chain would need to fear death.
The book itself was not what I was expecting. Throughout Cobham’s years as an ornithologist and filmmaker saw him document all of the fifteen breeding species of Birds of Prey (not including owls) and in this book, allows a whole chapter for each species.

Two of Three juvenile Ospreys with their piercing orange eyes

The book begins with Sparrowhawk, but then explores the life history of the following fourteen: Osprey, Honey Buzzard, Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Goshawk, Common Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Kestrel, Merlin, Hobby and Peregrine.
Each chapter goes into real depth about the history of the species beginning with Cobham’s first experience with the species, and then going back in time to the first occurrence of the species in literature. The name of each species if also explored and the meaning behind it including a few confusing names such as ‘Honey Buzzard’ which is the name of a species that isn’t a buzzard and doesn’t eat honey! Following this, the population status throughout the past centuries is explored and sadly, there is a hideous monotony of each species almost being persecuted to extinction in the early part of the 20th century. Of course, this negative is not a comment on Cobham, but the intolerance to birds of prey from our previous generations. Cobham is clearly a fan of literature as he regularly references past poets and writers such as William Shakespeare and his reference of falconry during the goshawk chapter.
With each species, Cobhams includes extracts from his own journals to describe the breeding ecology and life history of each bird of prey. The in depth notes which are taken throughout the time chicks spend in the nest is a fantastically intimate look at this very secretive part of a raptor’s life. Cobham’s descriptive writing ability is fantastic and really paints a picture of what he observes. After visiting a red kite nest myself this year, I was instantly transported back there when I read his description of a Sparrowhawk’s nest at the end of the season: ‘The empty nest with relics of kills. It’s like a battlefield, bones picked clean, bleaching in the sun.’

Juvenile Red Kite just prior to being placed back into the 'battlefield' on a nest

As with almost all of the 15 species, they have all suffered extensive population crashes, with persecution being the main cause. Several reintroduction schemes have been put into operation and Cobham shares a great deal of anecdotes about all of these which proves to be very educational. He interviewed a lot of people for this book and prolonged quotes, again, open up lots of insights into these extremely successful reintroductions.
There is a keen message throughout the book that birds of prey have always had a strong relationship with humans. The chapters featuring Golden Eagle and Goshawk take you through the experiences Cobham has had whilst training and working with falconers birds. Particularly with the Goshawk sections, the process of training shows a very detailed insight into this intriguing past time. Of course, prosecution is a major part of the history of the human-raptor relationship through game keepers attempting to look after their game. Given the recent increased press at the time of writing of 'Hen Harrier Day' marking the start of the 2014 grouse shooting season, it is quite refreshing to read an unbiased chapter on Hen Harriers and looking into the ecology of red grouse and the reasoning behind the illegal hen harrier persecution. Whilst I am completely pro-harrier, I did learn an awful lot about 'the other side' from this book.

Juvenile Kestrel just starting to get some proper feathers

After reading countless scientific papers and reference books, the style in which this book is written took me a long time to get used to as it was written very lovingly and passionately. That being said, there was a huge amount of information in the 272 pages and I learnt an awful lot from it.
The book is illustrated throughout by monochrome impressionistic artwork by Bruce Pearson. The style of these images is very free and really helps to bring the text, in which the illustrations are in reference to, alive.
It is a very well written book and really didn't take me very long to read at all as I was so eager to keep reading. I would certainly recommend this book as both a reference of information and also a book to read for enjoyment. Even if you are somewhat of an expert on certain species of birds of prey, you will almost certainly learn a lot from this book and if not, you will still enjoy it greatly.

-Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch, he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 22 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

1 comment:

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    42 mm
    8 x
    780 g
    Width 125 mm
    Height 147 mm
    Depth 63 mm
    5.25 mm
    Field of View at 1000 m 125 m
    1.9 m
    -20°C to +80 °C
    twist-up eyecups
    Objective Cover Yes
    Rain Protection Cap Yes
    Bag Yes
    Warranty 10 years
    Best Binoculars .