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The Goshawk - Phantom of the Forest


Goshawks are a rare and protected bird of prey as they were once persecuted to extinction in this country. Since the 1960’s they have been slowly re-colonising Britain, thanks to strict protection laws and the diligence of dedicated conservationists.
Known as the ‘phantom of the forest’ goshawks are swift, agile, silent predators able to hunt their prey while expertly weaving through the trees. The display of skill is a sight to behold – but you’d be incredibly lucky to see it, as they are extremely sensitive to the presence of people.

The Story So Far

Goshawks have used several areas at Haldon over the years, and although they have successfully bred in the vicinity of the park, there are no records of them having done so within the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This is surprising – Haldon received it’s SSSI designation for a number of reasons, one of them being it’s breeding population of birds of prey. That makes the success of this year’s brood all the more exciting for us!
The year before the project a pair started nesting in an area of the park away from our main trails, but as spring wore on they were disturbed by cyclists using unofficial trails very close to the nest. Despite closing these trails and posting notices asking cyclists to keep away they persisted and consequently the pair abandoned their nest building. They hurriedly restarted in another area, so that the female could lay her eggs – but the nest was weak, and the chicks were lost when it collapsed.

The Goscam Project

Before the project could go ahead it was crucial to secure a licence from Natural England to film the birds. Goshawks are given the highest level of protection as ‘Schedule 1’ birds under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, so anyone wishing to disturb them for any reason requires a licence. Our ranger, Ian Parsons, has monitored breeding goshawks at Haldon for many years, so already had a licence for that task. Once the licence for filming was secured we were ready to get started.
Based on past experience we could only guess where they would nest, and only hope they would be successful. Despite the failure of the previous year we felt the area they eventually chose was a good one. Ian made regular visits in the spring, and to our delight they started building a new nest not far from the previous one. Because they are so sensitive to disturbance we had to wait until Ian was certain the chicks had hatched before installing the camera. Any earlier and there was a high risk that the parents would abandon the nest.
The exact location of the nest must remain a secret for the security of the birds. Despite their protection by law many birds of prey continue to be killed and have their nests raided by individuals who see them either as pests or prizes, and are not put off by the substantial penalties they face.
The protection of our goshawks is of the utmost importance to us. The nest camera footage has not only given us an insight into their behaviour, but also enabled us to keep a close eye on the progress and health of the chicks and parents - something that is almost impossible from the ground.

The Results

The video on this website shows the male landing on the nest next to the female. From this you can see the difference in their plumage, and that the female is substantially larger than the male.
The female can be seen cleaning the nest and adding more material, and from reviewing the full footage we learnt just what good parents this pair were. The female regularly cleaned the nest disposing of left-over food, and constantly added material to the nest as the chicks got bigger. Chicks also received a regular supply of food and all three were fed equally. When we visited the nest after the chicks had fledged we found the remains of many squirrels.
You can see that there were a couple of very wet days when the female spread her wings over the chicks to keep them warm and dry. You can also see the tree swaying back and forth in strong winds – imagine how that must feel! During those days of bad weather we saw very little food brought to the nest as conditions were difficult for hunting. A longer spell of bad weather could have been really bad news.
As the chicks grow you can see their darker ‘pin’ feathers starting to appear along the edges of their wings, which they begin to stretch and exercise. They move around the nest much more and as they grow the space in the nest shrinks. They become more boisterous and competitive and eventually venture out onto the branches, known as ‘branching’.
As they near full size you’ll also notice they way they compete for food, by positioning their body over food in the nest, turning their back with wings spread forward, and pushing their siblings away. This is called ‘mantling’.
Eventually all three chicks successfully fledged and we think there were two females and one male. We were incredibly lucky to have one successful nest at the park, and to have filmed it, but the story doesn’t end there. A few weeks after we finished filming Ian found a second, empty, goshawk nest elsewhere in the park, and it appears another pair also successfully raised three chicks this year – more than we could have hoped for!

England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.