On patrol with Northumberland goshawk security team in Kielder Forest

PUBLISHED: 13:50 05 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:39 20 February 2013

On patrol with Northumberland goshawk security team in Kielder Forest

On patrol with Northumberland goshawk security team in Kielder Forest

Protecting one of our most spectacular birds of prey demands a head for heights and <br/>a bucket-load of insect repellent Words and pictures by Ann and Steve Toon

The dead branch hits the ground beside us with a gentle thump. But the crouching figure in front of us doesnt look up.

Hes clad from head to toe in drab green, his face and head completely concealed by a large hood. Perfectly camouflaged for clandestine operations n the dark forest, he looks like some sinister eco-terrorist, or perhaps an SAS operative deep behind enemy lines. Hes working intently, oblivious to the threat all around.

Which at the moment is midges. Millions of them. Trillions. A black cloud, all-encompassing, in our hair, on the back of our hands, in our eyes, our noses, our ears, our mouths. Hoodless, unprotected, were breathing midges instead of air. Were hoodless because were trying to photograph, but our cameras are struggling to autofocus through the black fog of insects.

The objects of our photographic enterprise are perched impassively on a fallen branch. Two scruffy chicks, covered in white downy feathers, flecked with brown.

And definitely not cute. Even at this tender age their steel grey beaks and talons look lethal, and their wide-eyed gaze is anything but friendly.

Which is understandable, as theyve just been lifted unceremoniously from the security of their treetop nest, stuffed in a cloth bag and lowered to the ground below, to be hung upside down and have strange implements thrust down their throats.

Were not shadowing eco-terrorists. Quite the reverse, though the operation does have a degree of secrecy about it. The hooded figure crouching before us is Martin Davison, Forestry Commission ornithologist.

Roped to the tree 10 metres above our heads is his colleague, wildlife ranger Paul Pickett, passing the time by lopping off dead branches. Theyve invited us along to witness the annual goshawk ringing exercise in Kielder Forest, and its a third goshawk chick that Martin is now busy with.

Its only the second nest of the morning and were already exhausted, though Martin and Peter are just hitting their stride. This nest site is only a hundred metres or so from where we parked our vehicles, but stumbling though the dense forest is hard work.

Fallen trees block our progress, the forest floor is slippery with moss and mud, foliage whips our faces, broken twigs threaten to poke out an eye.
But its the midges that are the worst thing. Living on the edge of the forest we thought we knew midges, but this is like nothing weve experienced before. Its a still, warm, overcast day, midge heaven - or, for us, midge hell. Our liberal applications of Avon Skin So Soft, supposedly the best midge-repellent going, seem to be having limited effect.

Fortunately, Martin leads us directly to the nest. Hes been doing this for years and has an uncanny knack of remembering almost exactly where established nest sites are, even in tracts of forests that seem featureless to our untutored eyes.

The last few yards he doesnt look up, but down.

Hes looking for splatter, the telltale whitewash of raptor guano on the ground below nest sites. Goshawk chicks keep their nest bearable by defecating over the sides, and judging from the size of this splatter patch, they have quite a range. Another reason to look down not up when approaching the nest.

Nest located, Paul fastens his climbing harness and quickly clambers up the tree trunk to just below the roughly fashioned nest of twigs. He quickly bags the chicks, and lowers them to Martin below.

For good measure he throws down the carcasses of a red squirrel and tawny owl that hes found in the nest for Martin to inspect. They will be returned with the chicks when were done.

On the ground Martin is focussed, efficient and quick. He weighs each chick, hanging it upside down from a scale, measures the young birds wingspan, takes a throat swab, and fastens an identification ring to one yellow leg. The throat swabs are for DNA analysis, the rings will provides data on goshawk movements if any of the birds are recovered at some point in the future.

DNA analysis is the latest tool in the conservationists kit for studying Kielders goshawk population. Goshawks are one of the UKs rarest birds of prey, heavily persecuted in the past, and only reappearing in Kielder in the 1960s.

Blood tests carried out two decades ago found that the local population derived from a single female, presumably the one which arrived in the forest 50 years ago, explains Martin.

We are now seeking scientific proof that new bloodlines have since come into the forest. We expect the results to confirm that the species is drawing on a wider gene pool of unrelated birds. That is important because it makes for a healthier and more viable goshawk population.

Martin is coy about how many goshawks are now breeding in Kielder, for the same reason that nest sites are kept secret. Goshawks are still vulnerable to the predations of less well-intentioned nest robbers, intent on stealing eggs for collections or young for falconry. But the population is doing well. Good news for the goshawk, less so for its prey.

Goshawks are spectacular aerial hunters, almost as large as buzzards but capable of flying at high speed, weaving in and out of trees and using their long legs and talons to take prey in flight. A research project in Kielder a few years ago correlated a decline in local numbers of kestrels and short-eared owls with the growing goshawk population.

Kestrels hunt by hovering, short-eared owls by slowly quartering the ground in daylight, making both vulnerable to high speed aerial assaults. But, as the researchers pointed out, with goshawks confined to large areas of forest its unlikely their numbers will ever be sufficient to threaten the viability of other species at anything other than a very localised level.

Martin is soon finished with his measurements, placing the three nestlings back in the cloth bag for Peter to hoist them back up the tree.

The whole operation has taken just a few minutes and the chicks are soon back in their nest, none the worse for wear. Peter rappells back to earth, we pack up and head for the car. Its a relief to emerge back onto the forest track, away from the midges. On to the next one, says Martin. Time to apply more insect repellant.

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