Nature Notes

H is for Hawk, Part I.

BackIMG_0843 in midwinter, a thrilling discovery: the plucking post of a bird of prey in the centre of a clearing in the wood. The stump of a great, fallen ash, upended on its rootplate so that it forms a thick column just taller than me, is all roots, orange earth and exposed flints on one side and a neatly chainsawn edifice on the other. Its sides are layered with tiers of turkey tail fungus: seamed fans of graded chocolate colour, like tree rings imprinted on a ra-ra skirt, always ending in a white frill. Today they look like the fanned tail of a Harris Hawk on the fist.

Tumbled and draped over the column are the joined and jointed wings of stricken birds, like fallen Icarus wings. And large ones too: not just woodpigeon, but partridge and pheasant. This cannot be the work of a sparrowhawk, or even a peregrine, to have brought these birds here? I check my fieldcraft books, then return to look for white slices of hawk poo that radiate from the column like wheel spokes. I find one, a slash of white emulsion from an overfull paintbrush, the required 2m away. Goshawk? A friend mounts a camera trap on a hazel stick pushed in the earth.

Meanwhile, I read Helen MacDonald’s double-prize winning book H is for Hawk. It is a stunning, fierce work, alive with the wild and a woman’s relationship with it, her goshawk and the world. It weaves and tangles threads of grief and the story of troubled schoolmaster, austringer and author T H White. I read it slowly and deliberately, in awe and the book has remained by my bedside since, the bird staring out from the cover somehow demands that I touch it, reverentially, each time I pass it.

For days and weeks, I creep towards the column in the wood, beginning so low, I am almost on my hands and knees, as if approaching an altar. I find two fresh kills and thrill with what the camera must have caught.

‘Looking for goshawks’ says Helen ‘is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how … they are the birdwatchers dark grail’. I thought then of the altar in the wood. And my own impossible grail.

Yet I’ve seen wild goshawks here; two fleeting glimpses and one impossibly intimate, leisurely encounter when I drove beneath one in a tree one Christmas Eve. It looked at me through the car windscreen, fiery eyes over a breast of grey chainmail, before rousing and resettling its feathers, comfortably. The word raptor, for bird of prey, comes from the Latin to take by force. For me, it seems closer to rapture.

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