I went to the reservoir late this afternoon on a day of high humidity, continuous grey cloud and a northeasterly wind. I fancied a walk, alone up the causeway to clear my head and with always the chance of finding a migrant wader.
Due to the weather and the late hour I had, as hoped, the causeway to myself with the result that several Common Sandpipers were teetering their forever anxious presence along the shoreline. As is always their way they fled from my approach in bow winged, flickering flight, low across the reservoir to the far side
Further along was another small wader, its shape and behaviour being just that much different to the sandpipers that it raised my interest. Maybe a Dunlin or perhaps a Sanderling? As the intervening distance decreased between myself and the bird I discovered it was a Sanderling. By Farmoor's limited standards a good find. As usual it allowed me to approach without showing much alarm and to lessen its anxiety I sat on the low retaining wall, some thirty metres distant, to demonstrate I was coming no closer
The Sanderling stood for a minute by the water's edge, facing out into the wind, uncertain and ready to flee but then relaxed and resumed its feeding, moving towards me in short steps, picking delicately at the weed along the water's edge.
I sat still, waiting as it moved towards me but as I did a brown shadow caught the corner of my eye. A hunting Sparrowhawk flew at speed past and below me inches above the concrete apron that separates the low wall, on which I sat, from the water. This Sparrowhawk has learnt that there are easy pickings here in the form of Pied Wagtails and any other unwary small bird and patrols the reservoir regularly in this fashion.
It happened in seconds. With hardly time to catch a breath I was only able to watch with an exquisite combination of horror and yes, excitement as the Sanderling saw the hawk a fraction too late, crouched in the hope of being unseen, then realising the hawk had noticed it, flew for its life, low out and over the water. The Sparrowhawk never wavered, changing direction in an instant before the wader could gain speed and caught up with it, the Sanderling crashed into the water in a last desperate attempt to evade capture. I hoped this would deter the hawk but to no avail. The Sparrowhawk stalled over the Sanderling and grabbed it from the water with one long leg, clutching it in needle talons and carried its victim back to land, the Sanderling's wings that had carried it so far, now hanging down in mute powerlessness.
The Sanderling was obviously a heavy victim for the hawk and it landed clumsily with its prey on the causeway, the previous aerodynamic mastery as it caught the Sanderling now no longer in its remit.
Instinctively I ran towards the hawk and its still living victim in an attempt to save the Sanderling but the Sparrowhawk was not willing to give up its prey and clutching its victim in one talon flew unsteadily from me further up the causeway to land on the concrete once more
I let nature take its course and ceased any pursuit. The panting Sparrowhawk took half a minute to compose itself after its exertions and took flight again, flying low and still unsteadily to the end of the causeway and into the trees beyond.
I was left to reflect in shock this unexpected tragedy. A shock that arrived with such suddenness as death did to the Sanderling. To me it was a tragedy that the Sanderling had flown all the thousands of miles from its summer home in the Arctic to no avail. To the Sparrowhawk it was nothing more than the opportunity to feed itself and survive for another day.
Here before me was a graphic example of the daily hazards and dangers all birds encounter but that we so seldom see and when we do, it is so unaccustomed it shocks us that the natural world is so unforgiving and pitiless.
Sentiment is a human condition and a stranger to the natural world