Friday 1 March 2019

Goshawks of Berlin

There are lots of cool birds. And I have even seen some of them. But some birds are cooler than others. I am not sure why; it could be where they live, or their unpredictability, their behaviour, their enigmatic status, or that they are just hard as nails. Pomarine Skua is one of these birds, Great Grey Shrike another. But the prize in my view goes to Goshawk. 

Not many people see Goshawks in Britain, though many people think they do. Sparrowhawks are very common and displaying females can look surprisingly Gos-like even to experienced birders. Most 'out of range' Goshawks turn out to be Sparrowhawks. Goshawks do disperse and so can turn up anywhere, but their genuine rarity at migration watchpoints shows how rare they are away from their breeding areas. Sadly, as a top predator they are targeted - illegally- by gamekeepers and away from areas where they are protected they don't last long.

I have spent many an hour over the decades scanning the skies above remote pine plantations in the Brecks, the Peak District, Great Haldon Forest darn sarf somewhere and in recent years, in the Great Yorkshire Forest, in the hope of seeing this elusive predator. In recent years, my hit rate has been high, I'm pleased to say, as the population in the Yorkshire Forest seems to be doing ok, and going out in the right weather at the right time of year, to the right place has given me many sightings of these charismatic birds. Views, however, have usually been distant - reasonable through the scope - but mostly of flying birds. This has been great - I love seeing them display over the forest in early spring, but the only time I have seen them perched has been at great distance. Readers of this blog will have seen my laughable attempts at photos in recent years!


A few years ago, I heard that these spectacular hawks had colonised Berlin and had become accustomed to people, thus affording much closer views than in the UK. Over 100 pairs now nest within the city, with most parks, churchyards and other small wooded areas, hosting a pair. The birds feed on pigeons, rats etc and are doing very well. They are monitored by local scientists, who ring many of the birds (see here). Visits by mates - first Rich Baines this time last year (see here) and then by Mark Pearson in December (see here)- really whetted my appetite to make this trip. Berlin is also well renowned as a 'must visit' European city and it is clearly an attractive proposition for a family 'city break'. My good mate Philip Precey (see here) was keen to join us, so our plans were hatched and off we went. 

Our AirBnB was just east of Tiergarten, the large central park in Berlin which housed a number of pairs of Goshawk. I scanned mid-afternoon from our apartment window and briefly saw the distinctive cruciform of a Gos, as it circled over the monochrome woodland of the park in the bright afternoon sunshine. This was more the view of a Goshawk I was used to from Yorkshire, so hopefully things would improve when we entered the park at dawn the next morning. 

Central Berlin. The red 'Xs' show where we watched Goshawks in the Tiergarten.

Monday, 25th February
It dawned bright and cold. A steady traffic of cycling commuters headed through the park on various cyclepaths, paying us no heed. Remarkably few dog walkers were in evidence which made the experience more relaxing- and I didn't have to constantly watch where I put my feet! Woodpeckers were drumming all around (all Great Spotted) and the air rang to the calls of Nuthatches, Blue and Great Tits. Shortly, I heard the familiar powerful 'kek-kek-kek...' of a female Goshawk - not too far away. We walked towards the sound and there she was, a pale shape sitting bolt upright, two thirds of the way up a bare tree. Wow!

She really was unbelievably beautiful, yet fiercely terrifying at the same time, exuding power wrapped in grace and style.  And look at those talons! If I was a Woodpigeon or Red Squirrel, I would leave the park. Right now. I had to change my underwear.

And at the top end, a fairly rapacious looking beak. If the feet don't kill you, the beak will.

But most of all, the eyes got me. A piercing, fierce stare, that burned through you with unblinking fire as if the hawk is working out whether you are prey or not...

Her mate arrived on the scene (colour ringed F16), followed by a third bird, an intruding immature female. No wonder there was lots of angry calling going on! The young female showed off her skills to the older male by chasing a Hooded Crow through the wood, twisting and turning among the trunks, like speederbikes on Endor, right on the screaming crow's tail. She let it go and beat a hasty retreat before the adult female could attack. Very sensible. Two German ladies walking dogs asked us what we were up to. They seemed amazed that we had come all the way from England to look at their Habichts! They told us there are Kingfishers around the lake sometimes.

We meandered west through the park, hoping for Middle Spotted Woodpecker, but to no avail. Hawfinches ticked repeatedly from the canopy; one or two gave good views.


One or two rather nervous-looking Red Squirrels foraged in the leaf litter, keeping eyes and ears alert for imminent death from above.

Photo by Philip.

Soon we came to a lake, complete with a few Mallards and a flotilla of Mandarins. Goshawks were calling again - perhaps another pair. We soon came upon the male in the top of a large ivy-clad tree, eye burning fire-red. Clearly smaller than the female, the male's head pattern was more clear-cut, with darker ear coverts and crown, contrasting with a white supercilium and plainer white throat.

Male Gos, photo by Philip.

Nearby the female was calling maniacally. We tracked her down, but this bird was shyer than the previous bird and moved on silently through the wood. It was interesting to note how the hawks spent most of their time under the canopy, usually perching between half and two thirds the way up the tree and flying through the woodland at the same height. Presumably the birds in the Yorkshire forest behave the same way which is why sightings are often brief, when the birds get above the canopy to display, or soar.

Female Gos, photo by Philip

Later, we explored the Tiergarten with the kids. Goshawks appeared and disappeared like phantoms, with lots of calling. Quite a surreal experience! Overhead, a huge V of White-fronted Geese headed north late morning, followed by two groups of Cranes, totalling about 40 birds, bugling loudly as they went.

Tuesday 26th February

I went back into the Tiergarten alone at dawn. Before I had even set foot into the woodland, the adult female came charging in, shouting her head off. She landed amid the branches, undertail fluffed out big style. She was clearly in the mood for love, or a fight. 

A large angry mob of Hooded Crows started a huge clamour nearby - it didn't seem to be the female that was upsetting them. And then I noticed that the F16 male had come in, unseen by me at least and had perched above my head. Crazy scenes! He nonchalantly relaxed on a branch, ambivalent to the Hoodies going bananas all around and keeping one cool eye on the big female, who was calling all the time. 


 The male suddenly noticed something behind where I was crouched on the forest floor.

He then flew fast and direct straight over my head. He called loudly as he went, I followed him. Soon, I discovered what he had been distracted by. The same big immature female we had seen yesterday. She was perched this time, glaring at the male, who was calling loudly nearby.

She was gorgeous. No wonder the male was getting distracted by her. Note the yellow, rather than orange eye, heavily barred upper tail (plain in adults), mottled nape, white bases to the mantle feathers and barring on the secondaries. After a bit, she powered off through the trees, the male in hot pursuit.

I decided to leave them to it. The adult female disappeared during the commotion. I was still hoping for Middle Spotted Woodpecker, but to no avail. A few Short-toed Treecreepers were a nice consolation.

A scream from a Hooded Crow and I turned to see a Goshawk whip in and miss a Woodpigeon by centimetres. The lucky pigeon shot off high; the Gos landed casually on the pigeon's perch and began preening. It was F16. He casually glanced over his shoulder at me. After a few minutes, he headed deeper into the park.

F16 preening.

And that, I thought was my last encounter with Berlin's Goshawks.

But no! Later on, after meeting some friends in Potzdamplatz, we wandered into the Tiergarten so the kids could have a play on the swings. I explained to our friends about the Goshawks and they were keen to see one. I said I couldn't really show them one that easily, but I knew where there was a nest nearby. To our surprise, a male was sitting sentry-like in the next door tree, so they got to see one! Round the back of the copse the female suddenly started calling. We walked round and the male flew round, landed on her back, mated and then flew into a nearby tree to preen. Amazing! The female then flew back over our heads carrying what looked like a pigeon carcass, calling her head off. My friends were left thinking this birding lark is easy! Spectacular stuff. I must return to watch these birds some more.

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