The annual springtime fall of bricks from the sky

A sparrowhawk
A sparrowhawk

SPRING wouldn’t be spring without bricks falling out of the sky. Every year it has happened here in the woods at West Dean.

March 21 was the day the first brick was seen coming down from the clouds this year.

I called my wife to rush out of the kitchen where she was boiling up the kettle to see the phenomenon. But the brick had almost hit the ground before she had even started to move. “Oh well, I expect there’ll be another tomorrow,” was all she said.

When I say ‘from the clouds’ I almost mean it. These missiles, black in silhouette, reminding me of the bits of metal I saw as a tiny child coming off a Heinkel bomber in the war as it tried hard to get back to France after being shot to pieces by a furious Spitfire, do fall from a very great height.

And they are about the size of an average house brick and do fall as quick.

They are of course just sparrowhawks showing off to each other.

I saw the male this time but once or twice have seen both male and female together.

If you are lucky enough to see them preparing for this death-defying plummet to what looks like certain death, don’t take your eyes off the obvious sparrowhawk dot high overhead which is circling up on a thermal. You will be sure to see within half a minute the extraordinary display of aerobatics.

With wings tightly closed to body, the bird is then capable with so little wind resistance to the streamlined shape of achieving the standard 120mph of a falling object.

The black brick falls with almost the speed of a peregrine.

Only at the last second does it raise its long tail a few millimetres and open its wings a fraction to swoop in parabola away from the treetops.

Hobby falcons can also do this manoeuvre with a little more finesse, for they are able to then land in the treetops, breaking to zero speed in a second.

Goldeneye ducks entering their nest holes in trees in Sweden stop even more abruptly as they hold out their wings at right angles while the head and neck are entering the old woodpecker hole.

I expect you have seen buzzards this spring plummeting as well, though they are much more careful and pull out like a tyro in a tiger moth biplane trying their first dive.

This lovely photo by Chichester photographer Brian Henham shows a young female sparrowhawk in autumn, by now this spring even more fierce looking and streamlined and ready for action.

She and her mate will have by now enjoyed sky-diving together giving us humans the ultimate expression of till death do us part.

Richard Williamson