Raucous, shrill, outraged, the Jets and Sharks of the rooftops of downtown Stirling – also known as jackdaws and big gulls – suddenly united in common cause.
A buzzard has made a barely credible presence in their territorial heartlands.
It appeared out of thin air clutching a dead pigeon, and propelling it past the first floor windows of New Look, and banked into a climbing turn past the NatWest on the corner of Dumbarton Road and Port Street.
With a black and white posse of about 80 barking and caterwauling pursuers filling the airspace at its back, it eased into a short, angled climb across the road to a ledge on the wall two stories above the Filling Station eatery which occupies the ground floor of the building named after the great legend of Dark Ages Stirling – the Wolf Craig.
There, surrounded by such a tumultuous foregathering of symbolism, the buzzard faced into the wall, lowered its head, and began to breakfast on fresh pigeon by hacking its head off.
I had just come out of the paper shop on Port Street and was heading towards the lights, at which point I was just across the road from the Wolf Craig.
I had looked up in response to the sudden jackdaw-and-gull clamour, and when a buzzard emerged from the midst of the throng with a pigeon for an undercarriage, I thought maybe I was still asleep. Perhaps under the spell of some bizarre species of dream reserved exclusively for nature writers who hadn’t slept too well last night.
The nonchalance of the buzzard’s manoeuvre suggested it might be a well-practised routine, but I happen to know that it was nothing of the kind. I know that bird, and I know where it lives – in the grounds of Stirling’s new health village, formerly known as Stirling Royal Infirmary. We are near-neighbours.
Several mornings a week I walk down a footpath below a wooded slope. The buzzard nests in its tallest trees, and although the location is suburban, there are rich pickings hereabouts if you have a buzzard’s inclinations.
The wood has a boisterous population of grey squirrels, and just beyond a short stretch of dual carriageway that parallels the footpath there is a substantial wedge of open ground favoured by rabbits. And there are plump, brainless woodpigeons everywhere.
This buzzard, the male of the resident pair, has acquired the rare skill of negotiating traffic on low-level attack flights, and occasionally disturbing motorists by suddenly appearing very close to their windscreens, sometimes carrying a bloody corpse.
So the Wolf Craig buzzard, as I have now taken to calling him, is a familiar presence in that corner of town. But Stirling is a small, compact city, and its centre is only a minute or two’s travel as the buzzard flies. It is just possible that the combination of a favourable wind direction and a speculative flypast of known woodpigeon haunts presented an opportunity that was too good to resist.
Then, having made its kill, and being encumbered with the substantial burden of the woodpigeon in its talons, it was set upon by the screaming hordes. Finding its way back to the wooded slope blocked, it opted for a low level retreat between the high walls of Port Street.
The short, sharp climb to a ledge on the second floor seemed to catch the mob unawares, as did the fact that the buzzard turned its back on them when it perched. Where I had expected a few mobbing runs by the big gulls to try and dislodge the buzzard, the whole gang backed off, lost its nerve and dispersed.
It has occurred to me since then that the buzzard had transformed a position of disadvantage into a position of strength. For the mobsters, even outnumbering the buzzard about 80 to one, a buzzard flying low to the ground and hampered by its prey is a very different prospect from a buzzard on a high ledge – from which its capacity to launch a fast aerial attack was not a prospect to be trifled with.
I went for coffee, read the papers, and when I retraced my steps an hour later there was no visible hint that anything untoward had happened there.
On a cool, still, spring afternoon, I found my way out to a broch a handful of miles to the west. It is an archaeological treasure that nature has substantially reclaimed. It moulders peaceably back into the earth.
Where it once stood on a low, bare ridge to the north of the flat lands of the upper Forth, and perhaps 60ft tall, it now hunkers down in a woodland; its walls have long since been quarried for farm buildings and what’s left is nowhere higher than seven or eight feet. It’s a quiet, tranquil place which I visit often, sometimes with lunch in a backpack, always a notebook.
Badgers, roe deer and foxes drift through its wood to the burn at the bottom of the ridge.
All the woodland birds you would care to name are here, for it is one of those Highland edge places that accommodates, at least fleetingly, tribes from both north and south of that landscape frontier – from woodpeckers and flycatchers to crossbills and ospreys.
Once a goshawk ghosted between the two tall Scots pines that lean their heads together just beyond the ancient walls. It crossed the amphitheatre of the broch’s circular chamber and I saw its shadow flicker there on that grassy, brackeny, brambly floor and climb the moss-padded walls.
But the prevailing voice of the place is the buzzard’s. There are two nesting pairs within easy reach, and the broch and its wood seem to offer a kind of no-man’s-land, for they overfly it and sometimes perch there, especially in the pines on the north edge of the wood and in the trees that front the southern edge, staring out across flat fields and growing warm in the afternoon sun.
This is buzzard terrain par excellence and they prosper all through the valley of the upper Forth. I love to see the buzzards soar and circle up through the thermals of rising warm air.
A warm afternoon is quite likely to lure the sitting bird up from the nest to stretch its wings and the pair will circle on stiff wings held in a shallow “V”.
Their woodwind voices drift down and cheer the watcher standing on the rock-solid girth of 3,000-year-old walls, and find their echo not half a mile to the west where the neighbouring buzzards cross and circle their own territory.
All of us, the buzzards and I, are much more at home here.
This kind of terrain is our natural habitat, with low hills to the south, hidden lochs to the west, the great raised bog of Flanders Moss sprawling in the north-west towards the Highland foothills, and the river unspooling east from its source high on Ben Lomond.
This much the buzzards and I are agreed on: there are worse places to be a buzzard, and worse places to be a nature writer. We would rather our wandering paths crossed here on some afternoon of growing warmth than at the end of a screeching, barking mob of gulls and jackdaws in the shadow of the Wolf Craig.
There are jackdaws in the broch’s wood, and gulls cruise the fields too, but their presence is toned down, as if the huge spaces of land and sky and the overlordship of mountains have a restraining effect on them.
On the top of the broch wall, a woodpecker suddenly appeared in a spotlight of sunshine and there it positively dazzled.
A summons, halfway between a giggle and a guffaw, erupted from the huge beech just to the south of the broch. The woodpecker on the wall, inclined its head towards the sound then arrowed up into the tree’s glorious and far-flung embrace, vanishing into the thickening crown of new leaves. From in there, the sound doubled and become vaguely hysterical.
In such a place at such a moment on such a day, you can’t help smiling. A buzzard crossed the airspace above the broch, looking down, and unfurled a long down-curving pibroch cry of assent.