25 July 2023


David Waterhouse has been supporting WWF’s work for over 60 years. He continues his support through a Gift in his Will to WWF-Australia.

David spent a number of months observing a mating pair of nesting goshawks and their offspring. Found widely across Australia, you may have seen these elusive birds of prey flying over towns as they hunt for prey. 

As soon as I saw that old nest had begun to be built up, I knew that the goshawks had returned to breed. 

It was late August and the sight of wattle and scent of Pittosporum proclaimed that spring had already arrived on the forested slopes below the path. Ancient stately blackbutts and twisted rusty gums covered the rocky ground and between the trees, the sunlight spangled the surface of the Georges River far below. 

Not long after I arrived and sat on the edge of the path, a rapid kik-kik-kik-kik call announced that a brown goshawk was somewhere below, hidden in the leafy canopy. I didn’t go down to the lower path to look, knowing that if I was seen anywhere near the nest in the old blackbutt tree, I’d likely be dive-bombed repeatedly. Not only that, but if I stayed in the vicinity, the hawk would keep well away from the nest. It was best to keep my distance and crouch down with my binoculars at the ready. 

I was well aware that I might have to wait for some time, but with a bit of luck, one of the mated pair could put in an appearance sooner rather than later.  

As I settled down to wait, watching the half-rebuilt nest, I tried to recall what I knew about the secretive and reclusive raptors.  

I had read that the female was larger than the male bird, but I only became aware of that on the rare times when they were together. 

In earlier times, the brown goshawk was far better known than it is today, because it had a bad reputation as a chicken thief. Most people who kept poultry knew it as the ‘chicken hawk’ and often shot the bird on sight. Only a few weeks ago, a farmer in the Kangaroo Valley who kept some free-range fowl told me how the hawks regularly patrolled his property, and he lost not only small chicks to the predators but full-sized hens as well. In times much earlier still, the European goshawk was valued by falconers and kings alike as a hunting hawk, which could be trained to be cast after migrating wild geese – hence the name 'goshawk', that is say, goose hawk. 

I had encountered the brown goshawk occasionally around Sydney, but only rarely close up. Most views were either distant and overhead or fleeing among the treetops.  

The only sustained observations tended to be on still, spring days when the sky was blue and clear. On such mornings, the birds abandoned their unusual furtiveness, and the smaller male could be made out high up and calling perhaps to its larger mate as the pair cruised overhead, 'making lazy circles in the sky' as musical lyricist Richard Rogers put it.  

As I reflected on those limited past encounters with these elusive raptors, without warning, one appeared suddenly, seemingly from nowhere and landed on the edge of the nest with a stick, which it added to the wooden cradle.  

In seconds, the bird flew off again before I could obtain a good look, and I had to wait for some time before it or its mate returned. This is often the way trying to observe hawks at a nest.  

At times, it requires the patience of a saint.

Stock image of Australian Brown Goshawk Bird
Australian Brown Goshawk in flight © Shutterstock / Shane Hermans Imagery / WWF

After well over an hour, one landed again, this time with a spray of eucalyptus leaves, believed to assist in nest hygiene. As it positioned the broken-off foliage, its mate appeared with another stick, and the size disparity between the two was apparent to any observer. What was striking about the pair was the fine orange barring on the breast and thighs contrasting with the dark-coloured heads and upper parts. Both had long, yellow legs which matched the glaring golden eyes. Altogether, a splendid colour combination, certainly not noticeable when a goshawk is high overhead or glimpsed as it flies away through the tree cover.  

It took less than a week for the nest to be completely rebuilt. Throughout the next month, all I saw was the hen goshawk sitting very low down to incubate. Her head barely showed above the rim of the nest bowl. Unless the nest was studied with binoculars, she wouldn’t have been seen. By mid-November, as I took up my usual position on the path above, the brooding bird appeared to be sitting much higher than usual. The next day, I spotted a tiny downy white head wobbling alongside its mother, slightly above the top of the nest.  

The solitary chick grew rapidly, and several times I heard the male announce his arrival as he called the female to leave the nest and present her with food, usually some unidentifiable partly eaten bird for herself and the chick to eat. The hen would soon return to the nest to pluck pieces of meat from the prey to feed tiny morsels to her young charge. She did this every few seconds and, now and then, swallowed a piece herself.  

I watched in vain for other chicks to show themselves.  

As the lone chick developed, steadily shedding its downy covering to be replaced by brown blotches, she would leave the nest to hunt, as did the male bird. In their absence, the youngster would stretch its stubbly wings, which grew steadily longer as the chick began to turn into a fledgling and seemed to be outgrowing its bowl of sticks.  

My last observation of the nest, not long before the young bird fledged, was at dusk at the end of the second week in December. The mother was perched on a branch higher up the tree. As the light faded completely, I could discern her silhouette as she dropped down to the nest to position herself next to her well-grown offspring, after which they engaged in a mutual preening session.  

In the moonlight, I left them to slumber together as I trudged back up the path and the slope to my car. I felt privileged to obtain some insight into the life of an elusive and mobile bird of prey, even if it is scorned by some as a mere poultry thief. 

David hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature he can inspire others to protect what’s left. While David is an incredible monthly contributor, he has also decided to continue his support by leaving a gift in his Will to WWF. If you’d like to support conservation initiatives into the future like David, get in touch with us at giftsinwills@wwf.org.au.