Nature Notes

H is for Hawk, Part II

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It seemed fitting to climb the hill to watch the solar eclipse. I have come here to watch comets, meteor showers, sunsets, the Northern Lights and beacons lit across the country. There is a disappointment of thick cloud white as a snowfield, yet at the appointed time, the landscape darkened and went gloomy and the atmosphere became quiet and strange and eerie. Skylarks singing either side of the track stopped to parachute earthwards. Then, for a moment, the cloud thinned enough to reveal the sun eclipsed and veiled enough to look safely at – a wry, crooked, molten smile; a fingernail sun pantomiming as a new moon.

The cloud drifted again and hid it, but revealed it twice more as the skylarks rose vertically to sing again: now, on the ramparts of this ancient hill fort, with the ravens calling, the widening sliver of sun glowed like a gold, Iron Age torc and then our last glimpse was of a bite out of a Babybel cheese. The chilly, uncomforting greyness was unsettling enough, but the beautiful, luminous moon had been exposed as a dark, cold planet; a shadow across a lit face – something I could not quite put my finger on.

Last week, I had the immense privilege of going out with some of the country’s most respected falconers, and their birds. Colin Thomas flies Jim Chick’s goshawk. The last time I saw this bird, her plumage was that of a young bird, a paler yellow eye, breast spotted with black teardrops. Now, the ring around her eye has deepened to an unholy, arresting amber and there are fine, barred, graphite lines of flint, chalk and granite across her breast and body.

On the side of the down, she leaves the fist with easy grace, folds herself up like a paper aeroplane to dart, with astonishing speed into the covert, opens her wings and turns from a horizontal plane to a vertical one, finding gaps, tears and rents in the very air to slice, slip and chase through the wood.

I tell Ray, Colin and Jim about the potential goshawk plucking post we have been watching. They would know. Last year, Jim helped me positively identify a wild peregrine kill on the little promontory of a thyme-covered meadow anthill; he reminds me to look for displaying birds on the soar above the woods, just about the only time you can actively, hopefully look for these ‘ghosts of the forests’. Ray reminds me just how elusive wild gosses are, that if I manage to walk into a wood one is in, it will slip out, unseen, the other end.

Later, I inspect the plucking post, forlornly – nothing doing. No fresh kills. I have to accept this bird has evidently moved on. A wildlife photographer friend set a camera trap up at the post, a tall column of an ash stump, last month and there were delightful revelations, if not the ones we wanted: the remote camera filmed an inquisitive polecat, and a handsome young dog fox sniffing around and cocking its leg against the stump. The camera was raised and reset and in the meantime, I’d found two freshly killed pheasant carcasses on the post. The anticipation of what might be on film grew. But when the camera was recovered – crashing disappointment. The card had recorded for 45 minutes, but damp had got in and the footage proved irretrievable.

A week later, my friend glimpsed a goshawk cross a ride in a wood a mile away. They are here, then, these wild ghosts. They are here.

Colin gets ready to fly his Harris Hawk and the goshawk is put away. I look into her fiery wild eye once more and find, that under that gaze, I am held: I can’t look away. A week later, it is still burnt onto my retina; the eclipse is bright as a goshawk’s eye, the moon a dark pupil at the centre of the burning sun.

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