Feathers unlock secret to private life of rare bird

Martin Davison with feathers from his collection which help identify individual goshawks in Kielder Forest & Water Park.  Credit Mark Pinder.
Martin Davison with feathers from his collection which help identify individual goshawks in Kielder Forest & Water Park. Credit Mark Pinder.

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HUNDREDS of goshawk feathers are providing the key to unlocking the private lives of one of the UK’s rarest and most persecuted birds.

With no more than around 400 breeding pairs in the UK and an instinct to steer clear of people it takes an expert to track the creature down, let alone study its habits.

Undaunted, the Forestry Commission is launching a series of stunning nature events for the Wild about Kielder season starting with a spectacular trek to see the amazing goshawk skydance, when frisky males take to the wing to impress potential partners.

Leading the way will be Martin Davison, Forestry Commission ornithologist, who spied six birds during last year’s events.

He said: “Goshawks made a comeback in Kielder Water & Forest Park in the 1960s and now together with the Forest of Dean, it is probably the speedy predator’s major English stronghold.”

The bird is now legally protected, but monitoring its fortunes can be tough compared with owls, peregrines and even ospreys and that’s where a huge collection of goshawk wing and tail feathers comes in.

Martin added: “I’ve got hundreds of feathers collected from around Kielder goshawk nests, some up to 15 inches long.

“As the female sits on eggs she moults so it’s just a question of walking around the base of the tree and picking them up. “The pattern on each feather is unique to the bird - a bit like a fingerprint.

“By comparing feathers from previous years it’s possible to tell whether it is the same bird in the nest.

“Using this technique the oldest bird we have on record at Kielder is 16 years old, which is pretty good going. Goshawks are fairly faithful to nests and tend to use the same location every year.”

Martin and other trained tree climbers will scale trees to ring young chicks in the summer, after trekking countless miles in the forest looking for nests. However, rings are almost impossible to see on a living bird and the recovery rate for dead goshawks is extremely low so rings don’t provide as much useful information as with other birds.

“That’s why the feather technique is so useful,” Martin added.

“Nationally, persecution levels seem to be on the increase, so Kielder’s population which is both stable and monitored is incredibly important.”

Terrible weather during the crucial egg hatching period last year meant that slightly fewer chicks successfully fledged.

The three hour goshawk walks set out from Kielder Castle and take place at 9am on 10 and March 24.

Booking is essential, contact 01434 220242. The cost is £6 adults, £5 concessions and £16 for a family of four. More information at www.visitkielder.com