I am wild yet tame. I’d like to believe there’s a wilderness, untouched, full of pristine materials and wildlife deep inside my psyche. Some primitive form of myself visits that place from time to time and has experiences my tame self can only dream of.
Heaven knows what wild me gets up to in that frighteningly unspoilt paradise. Perhaps I do all the things I did as a kid; physical things like climb trees, dive into deep river pools, run through woods like a manic deer, walk along tracks that lead out into silvery horizons.
But most of all I keep an eye on the birds. Then I know I don’t have to time myself, there are no deadlines or dates to keep, there’s no mess. There’s just colour, behaviour and puzzlement and last but not least, a mysterious wonder.
I was taking a pee indoors when out of the blue came a familiar yet totally unexpected sound – a tawny owl’s call. It was barely 5pm, an unusual time for an owl. How comforting to know that the shadowy, silent guardian of the night was still around, despite the white noise from the rush hour traffic and the endless days of soddening rain.
There’s been little opportunity for the owls to do the thing they do best, hoot into the stillness of a moonlit night before gliding swiftly down onto unsuspecting mice and voles. Wind and persistent driving rains have surely kept these silent swoopers oppressed and unable to hunt properly, which they do primarily through listening for small rodents in the undergrowth. Exceptionally big eyes also help.
I’ll never forget the first time I watched two young tawnies practice their hunting techniques. The month was October, the training ground an orchard, their prey large common moths and crane flies.
They were on the roof of a hen house which stood amongst large sycamores and oaks and smaller apple trees. In the faint light I could see them swooping down, first one then another, repeating the exercise until they’d got it right.
It was a riveting performance. When the darkness grew,
off they would fly, like velvet phantoms, back up to the higher branches of an oak.
The frantic bird was screeching like crazy, flying round and round the cathedral spire in the middle of Wakefield. This was a major panic. Some workmen were climbing up ladders to get at the weathered stone but the peregrine was having none of it. It had a nest up there and wanted everyone to know just how much it felt threatened.
It was early morning, between 8.30 and 9am, so not too many shoppers around to witness this impressive sight. And I’m going back in time, to the spring.
I couldn’t quite believe my ears and eyes. Here was one of the finest falcons, a bird designed as no other to reach speeds attained by no other raptor when hunting. Here it was a few metres above my head bringing the true wild into the heart of the city.
More and more peregrines are moving into urban settings. They have high buildings to nest in and there’s a plentiful supply of their staple food, pigeons. Why stay in the countryside and risk being shot, why compete with other predators out in the sticks when the fast food market is right here right now?
The kestrel was perched on a nearby telegraph wire so I paused my walk and stood to watch, hoping to discover just what would happen next. It was looking down into some rough grass bordering a small farmstead, a good vantage point. And it could save precious energy, preferring to sit rather than hover against the wind.
I think this must be a young kestrel recently left the family scene. For one it’s a newcomer to this tiny gathering of farms and cottages – Little Lepton – and two, it seems to be learning new things.
I’ve often wondered how a kestrel knows just where to hover in order to find its prey in amongst all that chaotic undergrowth and unkempt grass? I guess it must map a small area at a time and keep the mouse and vole runs in its database for future reference.
Kestrels have fantastic eyesight but they must also have knowledge of exactly where (and when?) the vole or mouse will appear.
I stood for five minutes or more. In that time the falcon kept a steady focus on the rough ground below, occasionally adjusting tail feathers to keep balance in the remaining breeze. Mapping out
The little owl is a beautiful bird, with a square head and beetle brow. But it does have odd habits, like coming out in the daytime to hunt for food. When we first moved into this cottage on the edge of the village we got to know a little owl quite well.
One male would sit on a telegraph pole in the middle of a field and every so often dive down to catch a moth or insect that lived in and around the many horse turds.
We even saw a little owl trying unsuccessfully to catch a small finch one evening. It was a desperate flight into a small flock but the owl ended up with nothing.
Days later that same owl was driven out of the neighbourhood by a pair of territorial crows. We witnessed the incident one late afternoon on the lane that leads out into the countryside. In a medium sized oak the two crows kept repeatedly attacking the little owl, driving it away into a nearby holly tree.
The following days we missed seeing the little owl. It had gone, and the two crows had taken over.
Watching birds fly can be both hypnotic and puzzling. Large birds such as herons, vultures and white storks once airborne have that unique ability to slow time down to a standstill and fill the watcher with awe. Those slow wing beats, a certain grace, an element of danger in the way they transport themselves.
I saw a flock of white storks in Bulgaria on a warming April Sunday. They were just starting a spiral, wheeling upwards above the open fields not far from Popovo. Such wide wings and slender bodies! It didn’t them too long to gain the height they needed then off they flew north, languid, poised. Long sentences of rhyming poetry.
The river Dearne rushes, meanders and struggles its way for 20 miles or so through West and South Yorkshire, eventually meeting the river Don as it leaves the city of Sheffield. Something good is happening to the water in this once polluted river – salmon have returned after 150 years.
Although only a short stretch of water it has a strong personality and needs respect – just ask folk who got caught up in the flooding of 2007. Much of it is managed but there are quieter, wilder spots where thick willow and reed and inaccessible banks mean less hassle for wildlife.
It’s here, in the shallower, stony stretches that you’ll find the dipper (Cinclus cinclus), an excellent small bird the size of a song thrush. With dark brown plumage and a white bib the dipper isn’t that conspicuous; what gives it away is its behaviour : there’s tail twitching and lots of head bobs as it busies itself preparing to plunge into the water from a small rock or stone.
Once under it searches for insect larvae amongst the weed and silt, using its wings to fight against the currents. It also searches for insects on land but more often than not you’ll see it on a rock or flitting around above water. It spends most of its life near water and is sometimes known to next under small waterfalls and close to rushing tumbling water on a bankside.