By a chance encounter this afternoon, I lifted the curtain on a fantastic process currently taking place right under my nose. Heading down to the coast to walk the dog, I pulled the car over to watch a couple of roe deer browsing through some old stubble. My eye was drawn from the deer to a flock of barnacle geese, and then from the geese to a massed formation of lapwings and golden plover.
It so happened that within five minutes of stopping the car, this peaceful scene was absolutely shattered. Coming up from the South and hidden behind a low bank of whin bushes, a ringtail hen harrier had judged its ambush carefully. Although I hadn’t seen them, the stubbles were alive with hundreds of skylarks and meadow pipits, presumably returning to the hills as part of their migratory movements. The harrier burst over the whins and flared into the middle of them, sending the whole mass of birdlife into the air. Even some of the barnacle geese were put out, and they rose up with a wailing yap and settled further down towards the sea.
Against the spread of the snowbound Lake District, the harrier worked behind the flock of larks like a mackerel after whitebait, showing the most phenomenal degree of agile dexterity. It shepherded them one way, then took a sudden shortcut and blazed into their midst. It flew briskly one moment, then at a snail’s pace the next, adjusting its speed and pirouetting round on itself – an absolute masterclass. The larks and pipits were strangely unwilling to take to their heels, and they often settled again in the same spot after a few minutes, only to rise again when pressed too closely.
It was a strange deadlock, and it felt almost as if the harrier was holding back, searching for weakness – and then the moment came – pressed against the fence, half a dozen little birds faltered for a second to make space to escape and the harrier slashed into them. This all within sight of the dusk-lit mud and the Isle of Man and a mouldering rummle of black cloud on the far sea.
The golden plover swirled round overhead, and a buzzard coursed menacingly near the geese so that they rose, looped around the field and settled back where they had been again. Wondering at the massed larks and pipits, I drove on and in the next field found a merlin mantling over a very fresh kill. It was a cock bird, wonderfully white on the chin and flecked all down his breast with black sooty smudges. I watched him through the binoculars as he plucked his prey, and saw lark feathers caught in the bitter wind. He was close enough for me to see his orange breeks and the trailing edges of his black moustache.
And even as I watched him, a mass of tiny birds rose out of the strip-grazed fodder crop three hundred yards beyond. Another merlin was hunting them, and it pared a single shape away from the gang. They chased and fled for several breathless moments, then the hunted bird fell like a stone – a desperate throw of the dice to shake off the hunter. The two birds vanished below the horizon and I never saw what happened next. Some redshank squeaked in a tizzy, but they had not been involved in this encounter and the sound was sheer petulance.
It occurs to me now that when I judge the start of the year by the arrival of the larks, I am looking at a massive puzzle through a very small aperture. For the past six years, the first larks have sung on the Chayne on the fourteenth of February – a whimsical touch for the love birds, but a surprisingly reliable date in the diary to suggest the changing seasons. Shooting in Norfolk last week, there were already larks singing over the cereal stubbles, and I see from my notes that the earlier arrival of larks in the South has been consistent for the last three years. My fixation on the fourteenth is only really relevant for the hill ground in the immediate vicinity of my patch, and now that I live near the coast, I can understand the birds’ movements a little more clearly. They obviously don’t just fall out of the sky when they land at the Chayne, and my observations this afternoon allowed me to follow them back a step or two in their migration.
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of skylarks and pipits in the reedbeds down by the shore as I write this. In the next few weeks they will spread themselves across the West of Scotland, but for now the long Solway grass is teeming with them. It is hardly surprising that the predators have rolled up their sleeves and made hay. After all, much of the upland vole country in Galloway has been under several inches of crackling snow for more than a week, and prey for small hunters is scarce. I saw a pure blue cock harrier hunting the whins from my office window on Friday – there are snipe down there in the myrtle, but it is not classic harrier country – the cold weather must have pushed him downhill, conveniently just as the mass migrations have started to arrive.
I have lived within these same few square miles of Galloway for thirty years and never knew that this migration (and a proportionate predation pressure) could be so conspicuous. I felt that these things happened mysteriously under cover of twilight, but as it unfolded before me this afternoon, I came to terms with a process that, while not immediately obvious, warrants much closer observation.