Helen Macdonald, photographed for The Times

When The Times asked me to photography Helen Macdonald, author of the prize-winning H is for Hawk I didn’t quite know what to expect. Not because of Helen (who turned out to absolutely wonderful) but because she was going to be posing with a Goshawk.

To quote Helen in her book, “goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail”

Pretty intimidating, huh?

I met Helen after she’d completed a day’s filming at Stonham Barns Owl Sanctuary for a new TV series. Since we wouldn’t have much time with the hawk, I found a few locations that would give me what I wanted and set up a light in advance – an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra with a large softbox. It was a fairly overcast day, and I wanted to use some flash to make Helen stand out on a dark background.

Helen McDonald, photographed by Ian Farrell for The Times

Goshawks, it turns out, are pretty jumpy things. In fact Helen told me they are either “nervous, or in the mood to kill something.” So much so that every time I moved the light stand, Helen had to turn away so he couldn’t see it moving. I was worried the flash itself would spook my new feathered friend, but actually he seemed pretty OK with that.

After a few pictures at the arena, where the sanctuary usually puts on falconry displays, we moved towards a more wooded section, where the goshawk’s behaviour changed noticeably. He was fascinated with the trees, and started looking all around him. Helen told me he was after food – this was obviously the ‘I want to kill something’ part of the goshawk’s personality.

Later I found we were shooting near to an enclosure of red squirrels. That must have been the raptor equivalent of walking past an Indian restaurant on the way home from the pub.


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