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High Rise Habicht. The Goshawks of Berlin Part I - February 2018

Sat 16th Mar, 2024

When I started searching for new and unusual birds in the early 1980’s Northern Goshawks were mysterious, iconic birds I only glimpsed above the dark plantations and rain swept hillsides of northern Britain. Slowly over many years I have learnt how to recognise their calls, find and watch them where they are safe from persecution within our precious state owned forests. I have been more than happy with distant views of them and very excited when I achieved the occasional photograph. I have even been happy to raise a glass to the late great Peter Matthiessen “Have you seen the Snow Leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?”

So now, 35 years since I saw my first Northern Goshawk I am faced with an unnerving situation as I enter a park in central Berlin, reportedly the best place in Europe to see these elusive and supposedly mysterious hawks. I feel great anticipation. I try to keep my expectations under control and above all else wonder if this will change the personal feeling I have for these birds.

Precisely 35 minutes after entering the park I heard my first Gos. A few minutes later I watched a female carry a stick to a newly built nest in a Larch tree less than 100 meters away! She flew towards and past me as if I was not there, in the same way a Robin would in my garden. The male arrived shortly afterwards but kept his distance watching from a nearby Oak tree. He had a noticeably smaller head than the female with distinctively darker feathering on the crown and lores which created a whiter and more contrasting supercilliium.

Joggers passed me on the network of paths and park maintenance staff worked nearby and I quickly realised the birds were very tolerant of people. The Northern Goshawks just concentrated on courtship and nest building without a care in the world. In the time I was there, the female did the majority of nest building, breaking small branches from a Beech tree approximately 200m from the nest. When she wasn’t nest building she would call loudly and fluff out her white under-tail coverts. She was very active, faithful to the site and rarely left the area. On the second day early in the morning I watched her on the nest as she picked at food causing a flurry of feathers to rain down onto the head of an elderly lady feeding Red Squirrels!

The lack of human persecution of urban Northern Goshawks in Germany has contributed to these birds exhibiting an amazing tolerance of humans. The people of Berlin should be very proud. A monitoring scheme has been carried out for many years by local ornithologists and, after submitting my photographs and records, I discovered the male I photographed had flown into a window earlier in the year and been rescued. Hopefully he is now well on the way to a successful breeding season.

It was a fantastic privilege to be able to watch the behaviour of these magnificent birds at close quarters without them being influenced by human disturbance. This rare opportunity coupled with the fact that it has taken me 35 years and 35 minutes to gain this kind of experience, ensures my passion and fascination for this mysterious ghost of the (urban) forest remains unbroken.

Richard Baines YCN