A Confusion of Raptors.
I am listening hard in the wind that comes off the downs; trying to silence the rustle of my ill-chosen coat with shallow breathing, directing cupped hands held behind my ears to the sky. Five woodlark are singing over Windmill Field. Still here, pouring their melancholy, heartbreaker alleluias over the earth. I stare hard at the white sky, trying to separate and blink away the glides of motes and floaters in my eyes from the flicker and glide of spiralling birds. There. But then the bell-bong from a raven in the high wood seems to signify something – they silence and are gone.
Homeward, up the wide hedge through the arable, a bird of prey is hunting. It drops from the hedge to move up a space; sits, then does the same again. I don’t recognise it. I catch a black edge on a long tail, the hint of more bars perhaps, a white rump: and then it glides, very low across the open field, putting up the partridge. Long-tailed, wings held in a shallow ‘v’, it is gone into a far, favourite beech that lost its crown in a storm some years ago. I feel like I have grasped at something wonderful and missed. What was it? Could it have been our sometime-resident goshawk? Or a female hen harrier?
From my somewhat contradictory descriptions, a more knowledgeable friend thinks the former, another, the latter. Both birds are seen here, especially in this season of movements and migration. The topography and height of the place, it’s collision of geography acts as a draw; a pause for birds en route.
Two days later, I walk the route again. Woodlark are still singing. On a hunch, I divert through the wood, towards a plucking post used by a large raptor at intervals; likely, by the size of the birds plucked here, a goshawk.
But before the post is in sight, a large bird of prey flies up from the ground and into a tree just 20m away. I freeze, heart hammering in my chest. Again, I do not know it. It has a greyish appearance, pale chest, a light-coloured, rather small head and is looking right at me. It fiddles on its perch and gives away a dark edged, possibly banded tail, too long for a buzzards’. The dusk is muting the light that might help me.
I rock forward on one foot to stalk closer, but as I do, the bird leans forward to take off. I straighten slowly. So does my mystery raptor. I try again, but the bird mirrors my movement. We repeat the dance until I step forward and the bird takes off. It doesn’t go far. Kites and buzzards swoop over, unhappy at its presence. It cannot be a buzzard, and yet … And then the bird utters a buzzard-like pe-ooo, but higher, purer, clearer. For comparison, two of the circling buzzards mew back. Pheasants racket the wood with waves of angrily spat throat-clearing at this most sensitive roost time. The strange raptor calls again, moving between the trees in a circle around me, feathered legs hanging down. I have ruled out goshawk by now – that would have left the wood as I entered – but this bird seems reluctant to leave. And then, risking looking down and away, to take another step, I see something that seems to make the scales fall from my eyes, that turns the almost-certainty of my identification on its head with a vertiginous swoop.
An unearthed, papery honeycomb lies broken on the ground at my feet. A wasp’s nest, dug up and grubbed out by resident badgers has been recently messed with. Ragged chunks of hexagonal cells are scattered like building blocks around the hole in the ground and a few drowsy wasps (late for the season) remain.
When I look up, the bird has gone. I stumble out of the wood in the near dark, exhilarated, but with my questions unanswered. One mystery has led to another. Perhaps I have just had a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a honey buzzard, a late-migrating juvenile? And after a possible hen harrier or goshawk at that: such potential rarities within days! But then, this is special landscape at a particularly thrilling part of the year. Anything could turn up, and does. The place is alive – and I don’t think we know the half of it.