Phantom

Conor Mark Jameson describes his meeting with the elusive Goshawk…

Berlin. Late February. As chill, and still and drab as all the Cold War, spy thriller clichés. I am here with ‘Altenkamp!’. That’s how Rainer answers his hands-free, as we drive to the fourth and last of our destinations this afternoon, here in the east of the sprawling city. This is Rainer’s ‘precinct’. This is where he does his stake-outs, stalks his quarry, makes his notes. We aren’t looking for dissidents, however. Those days are gone. We are looking for goshawks.

Improbably, we are in a swing park. And not a very big one. It makes a change from the first three venues of my whistle-stop tour – cemeteries. We found evidence of goshawks in all three – plucking sites, nests, tantalising goshawk calls.

The park is dotted with people. The quiet is punctured by the cries of children and small dogs. There is a tennis court, a roundabout and swings. Mallards loaf on a tiny duck pond, ice still intact around its muddy, scummy rim. It doesn’t look promising, all this. I’m still stuck in my image of the goshawk as a bird of remote and expansive conifer woodland, where they remain strangely invisible.

The trees here, however, are towering in places. In one, Rainer points out a gos nest from last year. Further on, we spot what must be this year’s: another huge, dark cone against the grey, in the highest fork of a beech. And I notice dark feathers on the ground. They catch my eye because some are still stirring in the faintest breeze. Not

wet and stuck to the grass like in the graveyards. Fresh. There is a trail of them. And I notice downy feathers too, and some of these are in fact still airborne.

I absently follow these round in the air with my finger (I realise now this probably looked like the exaggerated, gormless gesture of someone in pantomime). Without realising it, I am looking up open-mouthed and pointing at the source of this feather trail: a hooded crow, prone on the branch of an oak, ten feet above our heads, in the firm grip of a juvenile female goshawk.

It is a hyper-real scenario. The phantom of the forest, the grey ghost, the bird you normally see well only in books or glass cases – glass-eyed – now close, animate, fiery-eyed, moving, pulling and tearing, twitching as she dips her head. Purposeful, focused, alert and aware, yet somehow not really looking at us. Looking beyond us, or through us; as though maybe we are now the ghosts, the phantoms. A little disconcerting. Haunting. And quite amazing.

‘Don’t point at her!’ hisses Rainer. Of course, I immediately feel like the gauche, rooky cop, liable to give the game away in his enthusiasm after a prolonged investigation that has led finally to the clinching encounter. I pull my hand away abruptly.

‘We need to not look at her – she might not like it,’ he whispers. ‘We should take turns to look over, while talking to each other – like this…’ As he demonstrates the ruse, I sense that Rainer, even after 15 years of study, is nearly as excited as me. Not old and cynical like the veteran cop of cliché. In a way, I’m also gratified to confirm that I can still have feelings like this myself. I’m like the kid that once was me, seeing my first buzzard, up close.

We attempt a rather awkward, stilted semi-conversation while I at least am struggling to disguise my excitement, stealing glances at this mythical bird, come to life. The goshawk – ‘the bird you know is there, because you do not see it’, as they say in rural Germany – plain as day, relaxed as a pet, more beautiful than books, pictures, films and of course taxidermy can ever hope to emulate – is right here before us: in a city centre swing park.

It becomes steadily clear that she has not batted a mad, raptor eyelid. This is confirmed when a pram-pushing couple stop immediately below the branch and, as one, look up at her and, yes, point. Perhaps they too have noticed the crow’s stomach on the path, discarded by the dining hawk with the bulging crop. Or maybe they just couldn’t miss her.

She is 26-inches long, lean, muscular, saffron-tinted and streaked with chocolate-coloured arrowheads. She has that goshawk glare – looks invincible. Perhaps she is. Perhaps the routinely persecuted goshawk has at last found real sanctuary, so close to us now no one could find it in their heart to hate it, far less shoot it, or trap it, or poison it, or put it in a glass case. In Berlin at least, the goshawk is now out of the woods, and back in our lives, and no longer considered a threat to the state.

The goshawk, after finishing her meal. Photo by Rainer Altenkamp.

The goshawk, after finishing her meal. Photo by Rainer Altenkamp.

This story first appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, as the winning entry of the 2010 Nature Writer of the Year competition.

Looking for the Goshawk, the full story of what happened next, is out now.

9781408164877

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