Cameraman James Aldred on three months of filming New Forest goshawks
WATCHING the tiny goshawk fledglings shakily spread their wings and with trepidation take to the skies over the New Forest was a momentous moment for James Aldred.
He had just spent three months 60ft up a tree in a tiny hide watching the goshawk family being created and nurtured.
But even as he proudly watched the three little birds soar into the sky, James’s happiness was tinged with anxiety. He said: “At the end of 2020 out of around 184 chicks born in the Forest only a tiny amount managed to fly away from the nest.
“So, I knew the chances of my three surviving for very long were tiny. They are easy prey for predators like ravens and crows, and even goshawks themselves that are feeding chicks.
“But I really hope they are out there still flying.”
The experience of James, an award-winning wildlife filmmaker, was extra special because he had the Forest almost entirely to himself as his project coincided with the pandemic lockdown.
He has travelled the globe for his work but revealed his assignment to capture nature in the New Forest during such a quiet time was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.
So much so that he says it is “up there” with the filming he has done with Sir David Attenborough who he worked with on Life of Mammals, Planet Earth and Our Planet.
James revealed: “I grew up in Ringwood, and the Forest was always such a fantastic place for me. It is one of the most unique forests in the world and during the pandemic I was able to experience it as it would have been hundreds of thousands of years ago.
“At times, watching the foxes, ponies, deer and birds with nothing else intruding but the sounds of the Forest was every bit as special as being in the Serengeti.”
James was filming for production company Big Wave TV for a programme called New Forest: The Crown’s Hunting Ground.
He said: “The hide I used to film the goshawks was just 1.5 metres tall. I often spent from 4.30am to 7pm in it. It sounds tortuous but time sort of disappears when you are filming.
“It is so intense, and what you are watching so incredible, you lose all track of it. During lockdown all you heard was the sounds of nature.
“There were no human sounds, like people walking, dogs running around, traffic noise. I feel really privileged that I had that time in the Forest.”
When not filming James kept a daily journal which has formed the basis of his book, Goshawk Summer, which covers the time he watched the family of avian predators from April to June 2020.
He said: “They are such intelligent birds – they knew I was there; their eyesight is legendary.
“There were two real highlights of my time with them. One was when the male first turned up.
“They are so different to the female, a lot more delicate. He was exquisitely beautiful with almost blood-red eyes, smaller than her but with a real wild edge.
“The other was when the female had finally finished incubating her eggs. She had been unable to leave the nest and this one squirrel had almost tormented her by frequently climbing up and down the tree it was on.
“After the eggs hatched, one of the first things she did was find the squirrel, pick it up, smash it really hard into a tree trunk to kill it, then flew it back to the nest to feed to her chicks!”
James admits he became very attached to his goshawk family, saying: “When the chicks hatched, I had this overwhelming sense of relief that I hadn’t screwed it up and interfered with the nest at all.
“I was also so proud of them. There are estimated to be only 450 breeding pairs of goshawks in the whole of the UK, so these three chicks were really special.”
What he did not enjoy so much was the end of lockdown when he said the Forest “turned into something of a war zone”.
James said: “The noise of people crashing about was just so loud. It was a massive contrast to before but, funnily enough, the goshawks ignored it. If they heard something coming, they flew away until it was gone.”
His new book, now in paperback, is his second. His first was The Man Who Climbs Trees. They are available from Waterstones and Amazon.