The Hills Are Alive

Curlews are back, and they couldn't have chosen a more atmospheric moment to return.

After a beautiful spring day spent looking at a computer screen, I headed out for a long walk around the hill just as the sun was setting. Having heard the first snipe of the year on Saturday, I hoped to hear more drumming, and given that it had been a clear, still day, I felt confident that if there were birds displaying, I would hear them. I had no idea how right I’d be.

With the last rays of sunshine, the skylarks began to fall out of the air one by one as if their batteries had failed. A crow called off in the distant forestry, and there were a few moments of silence, when the only sound was the occasional muted click and crackle of water moving through the peat. I sat on an old outcrop overlooking the moor, finding a comfy spot where the moss covered the stones like upholstery. The half moon rose vertically upwards and a silvery mist swallowed up the bogs on the low ground two miles away. One snipe began to chack, followed by another and then another. In under a minute, almost a dozen birds had started to chak back and forth to one another. The squeaky pulleys called back and forth over the whispering silence.

Two hundred yards away, a red grouse cock burst into a full cackle, drawing out his “go-backs” and linking them at length into a “feck-aff”. The first snipe drummed just as the first star appeared. A woodcock zoomed past at about head height, racing crazily off into the gloom. A second snipe joined the first, and a third rushed over my head from behind, drumming with a higher pitched throb. Far down below me, a different red grouse cock called like the sound of a dodgy two stroke engine, sputtering into life for a second before clattering back into silence.

The snipe throbbed overhead. I tried to count them, but they move in such big circles that the sounds overlap and the tally is doomed. You can get an idea from the pitch of the drum, and over the course of half an hour, I identified twelve different cocks in the darkness above me. One crossed the moon and I was left with the impression of a searing silhouette, wings swept back like a sickle. The chakking had stopped altogether, and now the air was full of rushing bodies and whistling wings, like teal around a flightpond. A frog creaked in the moss. The moon had lit up a broad expanse of moorland, fading off in total darkness to the distant hills of the Southern Uplands. There was no sign of human life in any direction. No electric lights showed up against the hills; no orange glow above the horizon. From where I was sitting, there was nothing to suggest that humans had ever existed.  With the ghoulish swelling of snipe overhead, I set off on the long walk back to the car. I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to heaven.

As I walked the last half mile to the car, seapies came bleeping angrily against the stars. Then down beneath the mist, I heard the dear old whining question. A single curlew was circling in the water vapour, calling out that classic sliding note. It was a far cry from display calls and arching flights, but it gave the evening an extra twist of pleasure. I hardly even noticed as a barn owl swept over just feet from my head, rasping like a file and turning away with the wind.

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