Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

A fizzing atom, bombarding the sky

“Once I tracked the Merlin down into a dusty peat hollow below clouds of heather, I marked the spot and started to walk slowly down the moor towards him. Grandmother’s footsteps: every few paces I froze and watched him through my binoculars. At each pause the colours of his slate-blue back grew sharper. Even at rest he was a quivering ball of energy, primed to spring up and fling himself out and up. Relentless, fearless, missile of the moor, you would not be able to shake him off once he had latched on to you.”

I bought Raptor: A Journey Through Birds by James Macdonald Lockhart because spending a pandemic year in Wales has afforded the privilege of seeing birds of prey on a daily basis, and I wanted to learn my hawks from my falcons. Raptor has certainly helped with that, but much more besides, with Lockhart’s lyrical descriptions of avian behaviour making my own experience of seeing raptors in the wild even more magical.

That said, Raptor’s isn’t what I was originally looking for, which was simply a guide to birds of prey. Instead, Raptor intertwines biography (of the nineteenth century ornithologist, William McGillivray), with encyclopaedia, and a bit of a travel story thrown in. Lockhart had originally intended to describe each of Britain’s raptors in a different landscape within the British Isles, but after a Merlin popped up to bomb a Kestrel he was watching in the Orkneys, Lockhart was forced to modify his plan. Thus while each of the fifteen chapters are named after an individual raptor, quite frequently the are long asides to describe an entirely different bird.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of information in Raptor and I was delighted to find this concise categorisation of the birds of prey resident in Britain for at least part of the year:

  • Soarers and gliders (hawks): Honey Buzzard, Red Kite, Sea Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Mantagu’s Harrier, Goshawk, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Golden Eagle
  • Fishers: Osprey
  • Speed merchants (falcons): Kestrel, Merlin, Hobby, Peregrine Falcon

Many of the raptors described by Lockhart I have yet to see – a Golden Eagle or Montagu’s Harrier to name two. But for those I have had the privilege of sighting, Maconald Lockhart’s descriptions have been a huge aid in identification and bought additional pleasure to the experience. Take the Goshawk, for example, a bird I longed to see after reading Helen Macdonald’s book H is for Hawk. There have been a few occasions when I have seen an unusually large bird from a distance that doesn’t look quite like the Buzzards and Red Kites with which I have become familiar, but never close enough for me to be certain about identification. But Lockahart’s description of a Goshawk flying “wings held straight and stiff..Slow wing strokes: glide, flap” came back to me the other day coming down Pen-twyn-mawr and I saw an unfamiliar bird travelling in exactly that way. A later check confirmed that Goshawks are present in the area and I ticked off my first sighting!

The Kestrel, on the other hand, is a raptor with which I have been familiar since reading and watching Barry Hines/Ken Loach’s ‘Kes’ as a boy, and afterwards regularly sighting them hovering over fields on family car trips. But always there has been a question: “[h]ow does a kestrl hover the way it does? It is a movement of such precision and control. The falcon holds itself in the air like a star you could navigate by. The bird is standing still, walking into the wind. It’s head, it’s eyes are fixed to the ground beneath. Every minute adjustment of its wings and tail is made to keep the head in place…the Kestrel is not hovering but balancing itself, pushing itself against the wind so that the force of the wind is cancelled out by the momentum of the bird’s flight. The Kestrel is held in place, pinned by the interplay of wind and flight.”

On the same walk where I spotted a Goshawk, I came nearly face to face with a Kestrel as it rose up on the thermals to the cairn I had just reached. It stared me out for a second and then casually swooped back down and recommenced watching for prey.

One raptor that I had rarely seen before living in Wales, but now see almost every day is the Red Kite, a huge bird with a distinctive reddish-brown breast and wings, which tend to catch the sunlight. The Red Kite, according to Lockhar, is “pure agility, pure manoeuvrability..MacGillivray wrote, It is his tail that seems to direct all his evolutions, and he moves it continually. In the Upper Twyi valley the kite is known as Boda wennol (the swallow-tailed hawk). Further south in Wales, she is Hebog cwt-fforchog (the falcon with the forked tail.”

Its broad tail makes it unsuitable for hunting in the wood, unlike the Sparrowhawk, with its straight, narrow tail, which enables it to fly fast through the dense tress without getting snagged. Kites, therefore, prefer to hunt in big open spaces, which explains why we are so frequently treated to their aerial displays above the farmers’ fields in front of our house.

Alongside the kites, we also frequently see Buzzards soaring above the fields in front of our house, seemingly just hanging around, often with a few friends. A Buzzard in this mode, as Lockhart explains, is displaying, rather than hunting. Typically, a pair of birds will start the show, with the smaller, lighter male usually at the top of the stack, as it is able to rise more quickly. As male and female call to one another they attract attention and, invariably, other Buzzards fly over to see what is going on, which is why we end up with a column of these massive, soaring birds.

The sub-title of the book is “a journey through birds” and Lockhart comes across as the kind of twitcher who is willing to countenance travelling significant distances and enduring considerable opportunity cost for the chance of glimpsing his chosen raptor of the day. But unlike Robert Macfarlane, whose Landmarks has similarly enlivened my pandemic, Lockhart doesn’t dwell on his own capacity for hardship, but rather channels it through his description of William MacGillivray’s incredible perambulations.

I knew nothing about William MacGillivray before reading Raptors, and if you ask me in a year’s time probably the main things I will remember are that he was a Victorian era naturalist, who chose to walk from Scotland to a meeting in London in order that he could make study of plants, birds and animals along the way. With very little resources at his disposal, he frequently slept rough, tested his own fortitude with ridiculously long daily treks, and unthinkingly reduced his capacity to carry sustenance by gradually filling his knapsack with samples of flowers, mosses, and bones.

MacGillivray makes for a fascinating biography and one can see why Lockhart wanted to bring his story to greater attention, but there’s no hiding the real focus of the author’s awe – the raptors that also captivated MacGillivray. Lockhart’s prose is, thus, at his best when he is describing birds, not people. A Peregrine Falcon on the attack he recounts as “tearing down through the astonished air”. Watching a Montagu’s Harrier he is moved to observe that he has “never know something so undeterred by gravity”. While the female is incubating, Lockhart depicts the male Honey Buzzard as a “map-maker, a cartographer of wasps nests”, carefully surveying his patch and setting in memory the precise location of the best feeding spots for later in the season. The Hen Harrier “swims over land as a Storm Petrel hugs the surface of the sea”. The little Merlin is “a fizzing atom, bombarding the sky”.

It makes for a sensuous, dramatic and uplifting read. Indeed, there is so much to take in from every chapter that I am glad that I experienced Raptor by reading it aloud to Ms Markontour over several weeks. But there’s no point reading about amazing birds if you’re not going to make an effort to see them in the feather, and so it’s time to grab the binoculars and head out. Maybe today’s the day I’ll see my second Goshawk..

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