My walk took me between meagre hedges, still mourning the loss of their green plumage and anticipating the new clothes of the changing season. It was a slow turning this year. Shark toothed winds still wandered the land and the bilious sky above was ailing. To the south-east, a vaguely circular haze, the colour of old Cheddar rind, indicated the sun’s position in the sky. Its’ pathetic attempts to raise the temperature were thwarted by the claustrophobia of the all-enveloping Stratus.
The overcast sky was beginning to leak a little, with the merest droplets floating by in a light mist. I passed a cloud of Brambles whose stems placed their feet carefully between the untidy holes of a warren, which vomited streams of the pale sand which underlays the thin soil. A Rabbit grazed nearby, and was oblivious of my presence at first, until the natural instinct for survival overtook the animal’s hunger. Its white scut winked out as it entered the darkness of a burrow.
Over the field stood a wood, its trees bare and uniformly black, resolute against the best efforts of the wind to rip away the fresh folded bud bearing twigs. An oasis of the unstoppable coming Spring was conspicuous on the edge of the wood. A Blackthorn bejewelled with a crown of white blossom. Its head, shaken by the gusts, caused the tiny flowers to flicker like a twinkling constellation.
Something caught my eye on a branch. A falcon Kestrel hunkered down but watching, always watching. You can always tell the direction of the wind by looking at birds sitting facing into it. It flows over their feathers, preserving warmth and lifts them in an instant should they feel the need to fly.
Her head, worn like a slicked back hood, was the colour of that most English of autumn fruits, the Chestnut, with contrasting darker streaks, and a sooty moustache under each yellow rimmed impenetrable dark eye gave it detail. The tiny cere glowed like the sun around the base of the bill, mother of pearl graduating to black, as exquisite as a rose thorn. Her wings, breast and back were that same rusty brown and peppered with small black lozenges. The flight primaries were the sooty brown of Swifts.
I raised my camera and, as if some extra-sensory perception were passing between us, she became aware of my intentions, lifted off into the fast moving wind and after a long circular glide on the wind she rose up and hung on the air, wings outstretched and head down, like Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross. Her cream and black barred tail splayed like a fan, anchoring her as her wings flickered and then remained still, with her body pitching and rolling slightly, like a ship in a slight swell, in her efforts to hold position.
Her head moved constantly as she look for prey. Her eyes are so large that a circle of bone holds each in place and obviates movement of the eyeball. Of course, she was not really hovering. It was negative motion. The little falcon was flying into the wind at exactly the same speed as the wind approached her. After a short while, when time appeared to stand still, she sheared off and embarked on another fast, downward glide with the tailwind before circling quickly and returning to her former position, like some kind of geostationary satellite.
Suddenly the small hawk closed her wings, like snapping a book shut, and dived the short distance into the undergrowth at the edge of the field. She rose seconds later with the limp corpse of a small rodent gripped and hanging from a yellow glowing foot and headed for the nearby wood at speed, her sharp wings cutting through the air as a rower’s macon cleaves the water. Her prey swung like a silent bell, sounding an unheard death knell.
I continued alone with my thoughts, and heard a familiar plaintive mewing call, vaguely like that of a cat but more shrill and strident. A hundred feet above the wood were two Buzzards, separated by a further ten feet, as they slowly circled and rose on a thermal.
Their wings are rounded with a jagged edge of flight primaries and their wings appear to move in slow motion if they need to make forward progress. They are the antithesis of the Kestrel, which is all jerky and nervous, like a coiled spring. Buzzards are more relaxed, but ever wary of the human shape that can spell death.
I watched transfixed as these large birds floated like gossamer as they rose on the warmer air rising from the wood. In today’s neutral light their plumage was a mixture of dull brown, a colour like the furry hue of oxidised chocolate, with cream stirred into it. Like all raptors they are aloof and mysterious, their hooked beaks give them a Wellingtonian air of haughtiness. I find birds of prey wild and elemental, in a way that other birds are not. They are apart. There are no anthropomorphic characteristics which give many other birds a kind of familiar, humorous charm. Birds of prey stand aloof, like great thespians. The other birds, small mammals and insects, their prey, are merely the supporting players, the extras, the walk-on parts.
The two birds disappeared beyond the wood, morphing into shadows flickering between the trees. The sky grew empty save for the occasional wind-blown black rag that was a Carrion Crow, keeping its own counsel, unlike the copse I later came upon, studded with the untidy raucous shambles of a convivial rookery.
On the adjoining marsh stood a field gate and it bore a strange fruit. A Buzzard sat lethargic, yet regal and erect, defying the wind. It looked regal and powerful, lacking all the featherlight grace of a Buzzard soaring, as it sat watchful, awaiting the hunger urge which would send it rising again on the almost solid air.