She is uniquely skilled in the wild arts – like pretending to be a tree, for example. When she perches, she wears the hodden grey and brown shades of Scots pine bark.
She fooled me. Even at 50 paces I did not know she was there. She knew I was there, of course, and when it was all over I wondered how long she had been watching my slow traipse along the woodland edge, for all that I was often still and wearing the colours of the wood, the land.
There were sharper eyes than mine in the wood, eyes that have learned over centuries how and where to look for her. It matters that those eyes can find her, as without that skill, without that perpetual watchfulness, some would live much shortened lives.
And the odds are already stacked in her favour, because her eyes are sharper than theirs, her patience inexhaustible. And she is always ready.
They know that if it comes to it, if she is in the mood, she’ll appear to slink away deeper into the wood, but then she’ll turn in a space so tight and emerge from the turn – suddenly not slinking away at all but a flat-out hunter… if that is the mood she’s in, there will only be one outcome. For nothing is faster or more lethal or more skilled in the wild art of killing her target in that woodland edge realm than a goshawk.
The mob came down from the treetops. It began with a single voice, then two, and then they were everywhere, flying in from every compass-point, and as the volume increased they descended the branches, tentative but closing in.
The raised voices usually belong to the crow tribe, which in this part of the Borders means carrion crow, raven, jay. The mob works on the basis of safety in numbers. She cannot kill more than one at a time, so the larger the mob, the better the chances of survival. And besides, there is always the chance that this time she might really slink away because she is not in the mood.
Nothing else moved, not then, but they alerted the man-creature in the edge of the woods to her presence, because whatever else he may be and however inferior his eyes may be in this company, he is alive to nature and adept at reading the signals.
She slid into focus in the glasses. There could be no mistaking the raking white stripe above her eye and the deep chest in its striped vest. She was only the fifth goshawk I had ever seen. One in Sunart, one in the edge of the Trossachs, two in a Borders forest near Hawick in the company of the late Mike Tomkies, and now this, also in the Borders.
My first thought was that I had been so close with no idea she was there. But when I heard and saw the mob, I tuned in quickly enough, searched the trees, found her. And she was staring not at the mob but at me. She knows how to deal with the mob. They can’t hurt her. If she wants to, if she is in the mood, she can turn it to her own advantage. But my presence could mean anything, and it’s the unknown that troubles her.
And mine is the species that drove her species into extinction more than 100 years ago. Mine is the species that can still demonstrate contempt for her scarcity on the land – maybe 150 pairs in all Scotland, and mostly in the south and the north-east.
Hers is still a persecuted tribe, the worst kind of keepers and the worst kind of falconers still break the law in pursuit of a goshawk prize. She won’t carry the numbers around in her head but the race-memory she has inherited will see my stillness and call it “trouble”. If I am honest, I will concede that it was that – my presence, my stillness – that unnerved her, and the mob was just a seen-it-all-before ritual of her wild life.
So she flew.
For the first few yards she came straight towards me, dropping from the height of her perch about 20 feet up to ease into level flight at my eye level, and in the binoculars and the enclosing, darkening, dappled arena of the woodland edge, she was as exquisite and enthralling and ever so slightly unnerving as any bird I had ever seen, and big and bulky and beautiful.
There were many trees between us. She wafted through them, slipping left and right with minute adjustments of her wings and tail, and she was a bird-shaped shadow, a shadow-shaded bird. To see a goshawk navigate between trees whose branches overlap and intertwine, and to do it without slowing or making a single false step, is to witness a masterclass of flight, a sophistication in the particular wild art of forward motion meticulously evolved and groomed to meet the needs of its forest environment.
When I was anticipating a sharp upward diversion away from me and towards the comparative seclusion of the canopy, she side-slipped no more than two yards to her left, dropped to within a yard of the forest floor and went past me that way. Again the impression was one of something more shadow than substance.
She glided between a birch and a pine and was gone among the trunks and the roots.
Back in the tree where she had perched, the mob that gathered there had vanished as if it had never been. None followed her – they were not up to the job. They work mob-handed, she works alone.
Beyond the edge of the wood, the land climbed to a flat rock with a view over the top of the trees. I climbed, sat, thought about what I had just seen.
First, it was rare. Her recovery from extinction has been manufactured. Falconers released birds from mainland Europe, especially from Scandinavia. Foresters planting huge conifer forests redressed the destruction of native forest that did most to wipe out her tribe. She prefers conifer forests to nest in so this had the accidental consequence of consolidating – up to a point – the new population that was slipped into Scotland through the 20th Century, and under the counter as often as not.
Second, in the life of that bird in that forest, it was run-of-the-mill, it might happen a dozen times a day.
What was rare was bearing witness to it. Not just bearing witness but the closeness, the head-on glimpse of the first yards of flight that changed forever my sense and understanding of the bird, all of it within a handful of seconds, no more than 10 between take-off and vanishing point. Add to that the 20 or so seconds more that she was in my binoculars before she flew. Call it half a minute.
Sometimes, that’s the way nature writing works. There was a walk with no purpose beyond the exploration of a landscape. For three or four hours along the a burn, the side of a hill, and the edge of a forest – simply because I liked the look of them – nothing memorable happened.
But then the nugget of gold amid the empty hours, you grasp it between thumb and forefinger, it’s smaller than an acorn cup, but oh how it glistens.
And to think I didn’t even know she was there.
A brief moment with the rare goshawk, which is making a steady comeback from extinction in Scotland, leaves a lasting impression
Into the Wild: jimcrumleynature.com
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