Dust Devil, Raven Devil.
A green woodpecker rolls and dips through the lower air like a paper plane folded from a page of colour supplement. His ‘yaffle’ laugh is slowed-down and languorous. He seem to wear spring’s colours in that season – all lime, lemon and sunlight-through-beech-leaves, but now, those same colours are of the coming autumn: the yellow fade of spent ash-leaves, a flash of scarlet, shades of milk chocolate.
Young buzzards are mewing constantly and adults are appearing alternately gap-winged in their moult. It is a good time to hunt for feathers. In flight, buzzards’ gleaming undersides are the same silver as the tin-foil paper-suns of knapweed, reflecting light after the thistledown has been teased out. A juvenile bird sits on the noticeboard of our little village green, eagle-eyeing the sward of drying hay. Concerted effort from villagers has brought this tiny mown oasis back for wildlife. Hand scythed and turned over with hay forks, it is a delight to see.
On a still-hot day, acres of wild bird cover are in full flower. Tall, thick and joyfully full of scent, colour and life, we wade through phacelia plants bent low by enormous bumble bees. There are honey bees and hoverflies among kale and vetches, brimstone, red admiral, peacock and tortoisehell butterflies, small skippers and speckled woods everywhere. And hummingbirds from France – or possibly Africa: hovering on a blur of wings, proboscis like a long bill, hummingbird-hawk moths are every inch a tiny exotic bird. Here too is another exciting migrant; a clouded yellow butterfly on dark-bordered, marmalade wings.
Then, above the escarpment, the bewildering spectacle of a white mini-tornado, coming from the ground up, spinning fast. There is no wind. The ripe wheat-ears, bent meekly against their own swan-necks, shimmer, crackle, but do not move. Hot air has risen speedily from the bare stubble-ground below, through a pocket of cooler, low-pressure air and begun to turn, pulling in more hot air as it does so. It has quickened rapidly into a spinning vortex: a dust-devil! Something of an uncommon harvest phenomenon, I have seen them stir up hay or straw into a travelling chimney as the ‘straw-devil’ tracks along between windrows – but this one, this one is made of thistledown and has whipped up like a swarm of silver bees, rotating rapidly to a blur. The column widens, tilts forward and walks along the ridge before stopping abruptly. The thistle-seed parachutes are released from the dance and, in the absence of any wind, hang suspended like the ghost of a whirlwind – a tall, chalky smudge of an apparition – before the ravished down ‘fairies’, by slow increments, drift away.
Along the down, later in the week, a wide chimney of ravens has formed, rotating in the updraft off the steep slope. We count twenty, then thirty; a handful of buzzards and kites spiralling up among them. The ravens pair up, mirror each other’s flight, rise to the top of the chimney, then dive, tumbling back down through the cooling tower of its centre. More birds arrive, and more; we count and recount, then spot others, so high as to be just pairs of simple black crosses, only the direction of flight indicating which end is which, their thick necks and long anvil beaks stuck out as much as their long diamond wedge tails. There are 50, 65, 70. They speak to each other in soft September ‘gowps’ and ‘cawps’ and we stand mesmerized, watching. A vortex of birds above the harvest, a dust devil of ravens. A season’s turning.