From the flint track over the down, I watch someone walking their dog well away from the footpath and where they ought to be, with interest. The dog quarters an area of rough grass where several hares will be lying up. But it is not these I am half-expecting, half-hoping to see. A pale, marbled bird goes up from the ground on wide wings; it looks kite-sized, but in reality, is a little smaller. Short-eared owl.
I have seen them here intermittently over winter. They are nomadic, open country birds, roosting on the ground and hunting early or during late afternoons and at twilight. Man and dog – and I at a distance, through binoculars now – watch for a moment. The owl’s long wings are pale beneath with black half-moon crescents at the wrists. It flies low across the grass, when a raven swoops down to mob it. The same size as a buzzard, the raven drops onto the owl’s back to give it a blow, but the owl jinks and pitches abruptly earthwards trying to throw off the raven; but this bird is a practiced aerobat, and deftly mirrors its moves. The owl looks over its shoulder at its harrier and shows its striking face – a white disc outlined in black, with smouldering yellow eyes ringed with thick black kohl. For a moment, the fierce glare of Asio Flammeus looks vulnerable. The raven soon gives up and the owl flies out of sight.
Not twenty minutes later, another bird shoots across the top of the pine wood and rockets across the sky towards the wild bird cover: the peregrine falcon that often hunts up here. As it approaches the bird cover crop, its wings sweep back in a long stoop, made at a 45 degree angle, describing the trajectory of a shooting star. It disappears over the brow and I remain rooted to the spot, seeing the aerial path it has carved as if it were scorched air, when, perhaps three seconds later, a huge explosion of thousands of little birds goes up; a glorious, pulsing cloud of tits, finches and buntings.
Moments later, the peregrine returns, fast and direct, with empty talons, pursued by three jackdaws. They swoop and dive at it, mobbing, the way the raven had the owl. I marvel at their tenacity, harassing a bird that could easily make them dinner: the harrier of the little birds, harried.