As anyone who has seen a Goshawk close up will tell you, this is a bird that projects power.The piercing stare, strong beak and powerful talons underline that this is a formidable predator.
The Goshawk was effectively lost as a breeding species towards the end of the 19th Century, the result of persecution and habitat loss. Sporadic breeding records throughout the first half of the 20th Century were then bolstered by birds that had either been deliberately ‘reintroduced’ or lost by falconers. The present distribution of the species, with populations centred in Wales, the New Forest, northern England and southern and eastern Scotland, reflect the pattern of release – this is a bird whose populations disperse only slowly. Goshawks have been breeding in Northern Ireland since the early 1990s.
Another factor that has influenced the current distribution and pattern of recolonization of former haunts is the illegal persecution that continues in some areas. Immature birds, dispersing away from established breeding sites, may be attracted to pheasant pens, bringing them into conflict with game managers. Many of our Goshawk populations are associated with state-owned forestry – the population on the BTO’s doorstep in Thetford Forest is one such population – the birds nesting in mature conifers, such as Douglas Fir. Elsewhere, the birds may nest in deciduous trees, often using the same nest or same general area over subsequent years.
Is it a Goshawk?
Care must be taken when separating Goshawks from the related Sparrowhawk, the latter more numerous and by far the more likely to be encountered. However, if the bird is in your garden and feeding on a Blackbird, Collared Dove or Woodpigeon then it is unlikely to be a Goshawk.
Your chances of seeing a wild Goshawk are best during early spring, notably March to early April, when pairs may display over their chosen breeding area. Select a vantage point that provides you with a good view over a suitable piece of forest or woodland habitat and then watch for the birds. Activity peaks during early morning under fine weather and this is when the birds may be seen soaring in tight circles and, if you are lucky, plunging in a steep dive into the wood that is likely to be used for the nest. Goshawk is listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act, so it is an offence to disturb the birds at an active nest site. Sadly, the species is still the target of egg collectors.
Goshawk is not a common enough species to be monitored through core surveys like the Breeding Bird Survey, so most of the monitoring work is carried out through the efforts of Raptor Study Groups and dedicated individuals, many of whom visit the nest sites under licence to record measures of breeding success and to ring the chicks. This work has revealed that breeding tends to be earlier in southern Britain than it is further north and it has also provided valuable information on how breeding success has changed over time and between habitats. Evidence of deliberate persecution may also be gathered, adding to our understanding of the threats facing the successful re-establishment of this stunning predator.
Some 8,000 Goshawks have been ringed in Britain, virtually all of them as chicks in the nest. These have generated some 278 recoveries, including that of a male Goshawk ringed in Gloucestershire as a chick in May 1990 and found freshly dead 18 years later in the same county. The recoveries reveal a few long distance movements, including a female chick that moved 218 km from Derbyshire to Kielder Forest in Northumberland, and a Norwegian chick that was caught by a ringer at Theddlethorpe Dunes in Lincolnshire just a couple of months after leaving the nest. This Norwegian bird underlines that we do receive some immigrants from elsewhere in Europe and that at least some of the birds breeding here are likely to have arrived by natural means.