With record amounts of rain so far this year, it is a rare occurrence to be out for a walk without waterproof outerwear covering every inch of my body. I know on this particular occasion I am taking a small risk as the weather could change in an instant, back to punishing rains and winds, but my weather app is telling me there are a few hours before the rain sets in for the rest of the day and I am happy to take the risk.
As Roger, Sam and I head out onto the moors, the sky is a blue-grey and the tors look especially brooding on top of the hills. The sun has tentatively peeked out, affecting sepia toned lighting akin to an old photo found at a flea market. With the wind to our backs, we three march up past Crockern Tor, and then north along the ridge.
We sloshed through the boggy paths past Litteford Tor and Longaford Tor, and carried on towards Higher White Tor. On route, we pass sheep that will be giving birth in a few weeks. We hear the sounds of dogs barking as they work with the farmer on the other side of the valley to gather sheep. After about forty-five minutes, we reach Higher White Tor, clamber to the top and pause taking in the views. The sun is now casting our shadows across the gorse, reeds and granite boulders. The sudden flapping of wings turns our attention as a pair of Curlew fly away, low to the ground. Looking up to see the parting clouds, we glimpse a Buzzard circling overhead.
We sit and watch, trying to determine where this magnificent bird will touch down. Moments later, another Buzzard joins the scene and the two lazily drift arcs in the sky, either hunting or waiting for a clear moment to feed on something perhaps already lying dead down below.
To a bird of prey, the world is three categories: food, threat, or simply irrelevant. The three of us are solidly in this last camp. I’ve learned from many walks that coming upon a bird of prey sitting atop a fence post with its vice-like feet and solid long talons, fixing me with its steely expression of extreme indifference, I can safely watch back with curiosity and admiration. That’s right, I am neither food nor threat. In moments such as these, I would hate to be a vole, small bird, mouse, rat, fish, rabbit, or hey, even one of our chickens. I wouldn’t stand a chance.
Birds of prey are powerful and fast, graceful and nimble as they soar above upland landscape. And yet, despite appearing ferocious, they are fragile. I suppose that is what being a bird of prey ultimately means. They sit on the top of the food chain and their numbers are essentially controlled by the amount of prey available to them. Almost anything can potentially tip the delicate balance of their ecosystem. They are hunted, become accidental victims of attempts to poison other wildlife, or fail to thrive because of even a reduction in caterpillars upon whom the small prey feed. I know many who do not like to see a bird of prey pass by the bird feeder, fearing the future of other garden visitors. But, the presence of a bird of prey indicates there is ample food available, a strong indication of an environment in balance. Otherwise, I wouldn’t see them at all.
And who can deny that it is darn thrilling to spot a bird of prey. They are spectacular and spellbinding examples of power and grace. Possessing top predator status can’t be easy and that means they will never be as numerous as other birds, so there is a certain novelty and happy surprise to seeing these elusive creatures. Since moving to Dartmoor, we have spotted Red Kites, Hen Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrowhawks, Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, and Hobby. Roger once spotted a pair of Peregrine Falcons in this very spot we are watching the Buzzards. We have yet to see a Merlin.
Sometimes it’s not the seeing, but the hearing that lets us know they are in our midst. The other night, we were awakened by a strange noise. Still half asleep, I thought maybe we had mice in the ceiling. But it was loud, too loud to be a nest of mice. Roger went to investigate and announced that the sound, a pecking sound, was outside on the roof, not in the ceiling. While instantly feeling relieved, I did stop to wonder what in the world is making that racket at this time of night on the roof?
It is too late in the season for Santa, but it had to be something nocturnal and something that could get up onto the roof. That ruled out badgers, foxes, moles, deer, and presumably the Wisht Hounds from Wistman’s Wood. This left us with the possibility of bats or birds of prey. With sound as our only clue, we believe it was an owl eating its catch. A mouse, rat, mole, rabbit or even a bird was likely being dined upon – whole! – above us as we attempted sleep. Soon the sound stopped and we drifted back to sleep, content with the knowledge of a balanced and working ecosystem surrounding us.