By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

ON a recent Sunday afternoon my attention was distracted from the England – Ireland rugby by a real life and death drama being played out below the fence outside our lounge window. A male sparrowhawk with wings spread was trying to subdue a creature which was fiercely fighting back.

The hawk took off carrying the still struggling prey, a great spotted woodpecker, and flew with it five yards to the nearest pond where it landed in the centre with wings and tail half spread, quite obviously holding the woodpecker below the surface to drown it. Here it stayed for one to two minutes, its position in the pond changing as it was blown about by the strong wind.

It knows the pond well for it often uses the shallow edges to bathe but here it had chosen the centre where it is three feet deep, clearly confident of its ability to stay afloat.

It took off again, still holding the now motionless woodpecker, flew to the side of the pond and fed on it for about an hour until, with the light fading, it flew off carrying the carcass with it, leaving behind just a few feathers.

I did not see the initial strike but a pair of woodpeckers have been daily visitors to our bird feeders, often hanging on the fat ball feeder for some time although easily spooked by any movement behind the nearby kitchen window. Perhaps they had felt invulnerable for they would not be an easy target on the feeder and in their natural habitat, on trunks and branches, would be almost immune to attack.

A pair of sparrowhawks, usually the male, make regular passes through the garden, sometimes flying straight and fast parallel to the hedge and the fence, at other times spiralling in and dropping fast.

On this occasion I suspect the hawk hit the woodpecker as it took off from the feeder heading for the nearby woods, its momentum carrying it to where it ended on the ground.

I have read of hawks drowning prey but had never witnessed it before, a two stage execution by a bird which clearly knew exactly what it was doing.

While it was feeding, the female woodpecker (pictured, identifiable by its black rather than red nape) flew to the fat ball feeder just twenty feet away and perched there, feeding normally and oblivious to the fate of its mate.

Life had to go on.