Magic Rabbits

There are small moments in life when you may call into question your beliefs.  I love nature with its great vistas, cool and soft breezes, and birds soaring on thermal updrafts.  Nothing matches the fresh green of new leaves unfurling on trees in spring, or the harmonies achieved by a dawn chorus.  Moments such as these elevate my heart and give peace of mind.  But the intensity and proximity of nature at Crockern brings with it other challenges.  And, seeing yet another furry-bastard-rabbit in the garden can turn my bliss into rage.

A whole crop of cabbages destroyed last autumn!  Holes dug into the flower beds.  A pot of chives laid to waste in under thirty minutes.  Chives!  Who ever heard about a rabbit eating an onion?  Crockern rabbits seem not to be interested in a specific cuisine, rather, they are content to eat anything and everything.  This is war.

Strong words, but when we moved to Crockern we didn’t have rabbits.  This year, it seems we could supply the local pub for their rabbit pies.  When there was just the one rabbit two years ago, perhaps we could have prepared better, knowing that when there is one rabbit there will soon be an army.  As a prey species, rabbits will keep reproducing in the wild in order to survive.   These little buggers reach their sexual maturity in 3-6 months and can become pregnant again within 24 hours of giving birth.  At this rate, it would take a Google algorithm to calculate their numbers.

About a year ago, while our garden was flourishing, I heard a piteous shrieking outside.  Rushing to see what was happening, I found a baby rabbit being attacked by a slightly larger not-to-be-named predator.  I ran to its rescue and Roger quickly appeared with a box filled with straw bedding.  We made a safe space for the wee-rabbit to recover.  Knowing it would one day mature into its reproductive years, we threw caution to the wind and provided it water and nourishment in the form of fresh, tender lettuce leaves from our garden.  At the time, we felt good about our efforts to save this injured rabbit.  In hindsight, I wonder if we weren’t the classic marks in a short con game as we now have dozens of rabbits testing our garden and our patience.

Crockern Farm

Seemingly a single rabbit, but where there is one, there are many!

Just the other morning, I saw four baby rabbits eating grass among the chickens.  Our chickens have made peace, and yet we cannot.  Then again, the chickens have been known to do some serious damage on the garden beds, too, so perhaps they are allies.  And our dog Sam has a deep reverence for life.  A lot of traditional dog stuff is missing from him.  He never chases squirrels or birds.  And when it comes to rabbits, I recently caught him laying in the sun just napping while a rabbit nibbled at plants only a few feet away.

In truth, we could live with all of this if they would just stay out of our vegetable beds.  Last year, we surrounded the vegetable beds with seemingly impenetrable fencing.  Despite the fencing, one particularly cunning rabbit has repeatedly found her way onto one of the raised beds.  Each morning these last few days, we would see her on top of the same plot, scratching at the surface.  We hadn’t yet planted these beds, so there is nothing but dirt and a few weeds.   Beatrix Potter lovingly referred to all those rabbits in Mr. McGregor’s garden as “improvident and cheerful.”  With all due respect to Ms. Potter, I would quickly amend improvident to Grifter!  These little tricksters, driven by the need to frustrate and annoy, seem capable of all manner of magic and sleight of hand.  How else to explain their determination for jumping onto an unplanted garden bed?  What’s in it for them?  There’s nothing there to eat.

We needed a new game plan.  We needed to think rabbit.  And we need to do this before planting out all our tender plants this season.  Purchasing more scaffolding planks, compost and chicken wire, we doubled the height of the raised beds.   We secured the perimeter fencing.  We waited and watched.  And much like the magician who pulls a rabbit out of his hat, there suddenly appeared a rabbit on top of the same bed.  I watched her one morning as she dug a small area and sat in it.  She reminded me of our chickens when they are laying an egg or having a dust bath.  I called Roger to show him this behaviour, and in that moment, she had disappeared.

New double-height beds with chicken wire fencing perimeter! P1050396

The following day, when I returned from a morning walk with Sam, there was a deep and perfectly formed tunnel in the very same vegetable bed.  Again, with some form of misdirection, when I turned to reveal the tunnel to Roger, it had been covered up with soil.  A smooth, seemingly untouched surface left behind.  Where had the tunnel gone?  Where was the rabbit?  What was going on?

Like forensic scientists, we examined every corner, and possible access spot.  We eventually discovered a small hole where the rabbit was burrowing up under the bed.  A difficult to access spot as there was a giant boulder buried under the ground at that point.  Difficult, that is, unless you are a rabbit.  So, in a flash of genius, we blocked off the hole with rocks.  In another, somewhat dimmer flash of genius, we fenced off all the beds, barring this one as we had a plan.  Roger dug up a ton of compost and soil, laid chicken wire into the bottom of the bed, and returned the soil.  Job done.

That night, as we nodded off to sleep, we listened to the sounds of owls in the trees and another strange sound we couldn’t identify.  It wasn’t an owl, nor did it sound like a fox, and as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.

By early morning, I looked out the window and saw the rabbit once again by the vegetable bed.  Not on top, but a tunnel dug nonetheless.  With her dirty little paws, she was by the edge where we had placed the stones.  She had moved the small stones and by her side were three baby rabbits!  When I went to investigate, the four of them were gone.

This is the classic magician’s illusion:  Rabbits appearing from tall silk hats. They appear.  They disappear.  The single rabbit suddenly becomes four.

After confirming there were no baby rabbits left behind, we added  new and larger stones on this potential breach.  Wilful and unaffected by our prevention efforts of the past year, the rabbits seem reluctant to grasp our efforts.  They come in droves, like creatures in a horror film.  We’re engaged in furious combat.  I don’t wish a family of foxes to return and jeopardise our chickens, but I wouldn’t mind them passing by and helping to return the rabbit population to a more manageable number.   The rabbits have rightly identified Roger and me as easy marks and we could use a little back up.  Clearly, this is going to be a long battle.  The enemy may never run out of soldiers to occupy our gardens, but we are stubborn and will never surrender!

 

Zan_Zig_performing_with_rabbit_and_roses,_magician_poster,_1899-2

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Stanley Comes to Visit

Early one morning, I walked into one of the sheds and there he was, sitting on the ground. His small dark eyes glancing up at me as he turned his head to assess danger. Unlike other birds that quickly fly away, this one remained quietly on the ground before giving a little shake of his feathers as if to settle into position. I passed gently, carrying on with my morning routine and trying not to startle the bird. Of course, my faithful hound and shadow Sam was not far behind me and as he came trotting into the shed, there was a quick flapping of feathers and the pigeon was soon perched on high. Sam, who could not care less about birds, remained oblivious.

Why did this pigeon appear in our shed in the first place? We don’t see many pigeons at Crockern, and certainly if we do, they don’t hang out in our shed. Was he blown off course?   Dehydrated? Injured? Sick? Roger and I opted to provide some bird food and a deep bowl of water on the ledge where he was perched. I left the shed, returning at regular intervals to monitor his progress.

With each visit to the shed that first day, I thought I would either find a dead bird, or one who had taken some rest and carried on with his trip. Instead, I was met with blinking bright eyes, which observed me with care before turning to eat, drink, and rest some more. This bird is healthy and unusually tame, clearly used to people. We have not wanted to cause any stress, so have not approached too closely, but a look at his legs reveals both have been ringed. We think he must be part of a racing club.

By the second day of his visit, the little guy was taking short flights to the top of the barn, then the top of the house, and into one of the Sycamore trees before returning to the shed. It was watching one of his flights that we realized why he was hanging out at Crockern. He’s not sick, but instead, missing half of his tail feathers and needed to recover some before flying any distance. To do so, he opted to make a safe haven in our shed. That’s when we decided to name him Stanley.

Racing Pigeon

Racing Pigeon

Once you turn your heart to the well being of another, there are choices to make and questions emerge. How did he loose those tail feathers? Was he shot or did a bird of prey attack him? Either scenario, Stanley managed his escape. Will those tail feathers grow back? When our chickens molt and loose tail feathers, they grow back in time. Provided there is no damage to the follicles, those feathers should grow back.

Each day we freshen his water, provide more bird food, and check to make certain he is okay. We watch him fly to higher and further points before gliding back after a few hours to his safe perch in the shed. We’ve introduced him to our friends and neighbours. We talk to him each day and encourage him to grow tail feathers and return home, or make a new home here. His choice.

Does he understand? Do birds make choices? I haven’t a clue, but I rather like the idea that Stanley is considering his options while he convalesces.

Visiting racing pigeon web sites, we learn more about these lovely creatures. There are blogs, tweets, and detailed information sheets on the care, feeding and handling of the birds. There are photo galleries, awards, and upcoming meetings! It is, in fact, a whole new world of which I knew little until Stanley flew into our shed and prompted our curiosity. On every pigeon racing website there is a section addressing what to do if you find a lost pigeon. I read with interest and then stumbled upon the following: “Before we can notify the owner, the pigeon must be contained and held for collection.”

Catch the bird? Read and report its ring tags? Put Stanley into a box and keep him there? These all seem like good citizen things to do yet, I can’t help but think Stanley’s racing days are over, and thus his value to his owner. Some wildlife pages caution reporting injured racing pigeons, as they are likely to be dispatched. Others assure there is a kind and worried owner waiting for their bird to return. How are we to know? Like Elsa in Born Free, hasn’t Stanley had a taste of something bigger (our shed) than his cage? Could he manage to live a life in the wild? Or, in our shed? Roger and I have moved house before, is it okay to let Stanley do a similar thing? Or, are we obligated to contact an unknown owner? What will happen to Stanley if we do? What’s his fate if we don’t?

By day three and then day four, Stanley’s flights were getting longer and more acrobatic. He’d circle the valley, visiting the colony of herons roosting in the stand of pines across the river. Our racing fly-boy would swoop and dive and soar out of sight only to return to the shed a few hours later. We suspected he was readying himself for a return to his home.

I know he’s a pigeon and many might say, “Hey he’s just a pigeon, what’s the big deal?” But somehow, Stanley found his way into our shed and thus our hearts. We feel responsible. For the time he may be with us, we will keep an eye on him; provide food, water and shelter. When Stanley is ready to make a choice, he’ll do what he needs to do to return to a life he wants. Staying here as a formerly “domestic” bird may put him at risk from any of our local birds of prey. But, flying back to a racing life may do the same.

At the start of each day, we find him in the shed and say, “Good morning Stanley.” At night we wish him, “Sweet dreams old fellow.” Yesterday, after he picked at seed in the grass and took a little dust bath, he took to the skies once more and we watched him fly expertly at top speed above the treetops. This morning, the shed was empty, Stanley had made his choice.

 

Old Man Winter

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a few friends visit, but none more wild and disruptive than Old Man Winter. Carried into town on gale force winds from the north, he arrived full of bluster, hail, snow, and disruption. It’s been terrific!

After being blown sideways on walks, the weather finally settled and left a beautiful covering of snow. Not so much to cut us off for any length of time, but enough to change the atmosphere. Snow dampens the ambient sounds, while at the same time lifting the various bird songs to a purer tone. Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing. Sometimes I imagine myself a skilled animal tracker as I follow where the fox has been in the night. From the size of his prints, he is a large chap and no doubt would take all our chickens if given half the chance. We also know the route of our visiting badger, who seems to circle the house, the vegetable beds and bird feeders, and then end up down near the horses. The good news is our electric fence is working a treat, as there are no tracks inside its zappy perimeter.

 

Snow just beyond Wistman's Woods.

Snow just beyond Wistman’s Woods.

 

If only these winter scenes were this simple: to enjoy the landscape and note animal tracks in the snow. But as the day unfolds, this snow invites crowds of people who approach it as if it is some sort of drug. They tried it once and can’t get enough of the fluffy stuff! Hundreds of people from surrounding lower-lying areas, which received rain rather than snow, arrive en-mass to go sledding, build snowmen, and enjoy it all. In their joyful frenzy, they leave behind litter, block our access gate with their cars, and this time, remove stones from the stonewall in order to climb over into the next field. It’s hard to imagine going to their houses and doing the same without invoking genuine rancour.

At such times, it is important to turn our attentions to our house and stop fretting about all of the playground behaviours outside. Given the renovation work we’ve accomplished, the house keeps us feeling snug and dry during these cold winter days. And we still have the downstairs to complete. But, we’ve had a few troubles of late: The Aga went from working okay to not working at all. We have a boiler, so this just means no heat in the kitchen, or the ability to cook or have hot water. In this situation, I enter a state of despair about no coffee in the morning. Ever quick to solve the problem, Roger appears with a camp stove. Hurrah!

Yet it took Roger three days of cleaning filters, bleeding fuel lines, lighting and relighting the Aga, before it finally stayed lit.  We know the problem and are replacing the troublesome bit of pipe in the coming days. Still, we are back in business with hot water and the ability to eat warm food. This just in time as we have friends arriving for the weekend.

As sledders, and snowman builders and photographers and hikers and birdwatchers pass by, we were hoping to rest on our laurels, before turning our attention to finishing the bathroom tiling. Never rest on your laurels is the message of the season because as soon as we did, almost to the second, the boiler decided to go on holiday. As it is only a year old, we hadn’t had any troubles and couldn’t help but think all the problems encountered while fiddling around sorting out the Aga were now manifesting themselves in like fashion with the boiler. A quick read of the owner’s manual and we locate the reset button. Depress it for a few seconds, release it, wait a nail biting second or two and, hey presto, the fan begins to whirl. The red light changes to green and the boiler is back.

 

In the meadow, you can build a snowman......

In the meadow, you can build a snowman……

 

“Roger, we really need to set a deadline and stick with it.” is my haunting refrain. The downstairs remains a close-but-no-cigar project as the devil is in the details, and there are more than a few details. The largest one is finishing the tiling in the bathroom, which has been delayed due to all of the above heating fiascos.

With the house now warm, what’s our excuse? That’s easy; it is nicer to go out, walk the hills and soak in the beauty, even in this seemingly dead of winter. The exposed grass is not simply green, but is accented with colours of gold, brown and red. The sky often seems mostly grey, but there are variations in the clouds and the colours poking from behind of blues and yellows and oranges, depending on the sun.  Lately, there has been a full moon and clear star-filled skies at night reflecting off of the snow. To walk along listening to the sounds of my boot on the frozen ground is one of my simple pleasures. And if I stop and look, I am often greeted with a flock of several dozen Fieldfares flying about the gorse bushes and reeds, or a bird of prey taking a break on a high branch, before pursuing its next meal. Most recently, we spied a pair of Goldcrest feasting on seeds in the pine trees near the barn.

At the end of the day, the snow tourists will eventually return to their cars and make their way home. Those of us who live here will breathe a collective sigh of relief. And when Roger and I sit by the fire, contemplating the tiling to do below, we will be easily tempted and then simply adjust the deadline to some future date.

I see a bad moon rising.

I see a bad moon rising.

More fabulous skies!

More fabulous skies!

Under Siege

Casey Ryback (Steven Segal) is a former S.E.A.L. who becomes a cook, and is the only person who can stop a gang of terrorists when they seize control of a US Navy battleship in the 1992 movie Under Siege. And yet, where is he now when we need him? Did he help us prepare our Thanksgiving dinner? Nope. Will he rise to our defence against the predators in our midst? It seems not. As we once again find ourselves engaged in a battle to protect our chickens, Ryback may as well be locked in the freezer.

A few weeks ago we had some very determined badgers threatening our chickens. Typically, the badgers come around at night, dig up a few things – earthworms, insects and grubs — in the garden, and then wander off.  We discovered, one morning, some of the security stones around the wire fence perimeter of the chicken coop had been moved. These are not light little stones easily held aloft. Rather, they are Dartmoor granite rocks, weighing about 30-40 pounds. To lift these, it takes two hands and an ergonomic awareness to avoid back injury. Yet, they were tossed around the garden with abandon.   This is a most sinister and foul creature.

Having returned the stones and added extra reinforcement, we found the next morning an even larger stone from the base of a 15-foot high wall moved a few feet away and next to it, a sizeable pile of dirt. In the course of a single evening, the badgers had moved this 60-pound rock and dug a horizontal tunnel some seven feet in length. What took them perhaps an hour or two to unearth, took Roger an equal amount of time to repair.

Hard to believe, but this is the rock the badgers moved in order to begin their big dig.

Hard to believe, but this is the rock the badgers moved in order to begin their big dig.

A coop within a coop.  It's a fortress, really.

A coop within a coop. It’s a fortress, really.

Badgers have the ability to tunnel after ground-dwelling rodents, so perhaps they were simply after the rats or moles who regularly burrow beneath the grass? I console myself with this idea. But, I’m no fool and am fully aware badgers will eat small mammals and birds, including chickens. Our well fortified chicken coop sits on a cobbled stone base, within a stone and wire perimeter, and yet these badgers seemed to be attempting to tunnel underneath in order to pop up inside. Possible? If so, we need some help.

There is a long tradition of the military on Dartmoor dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. Today, there remains a large British Army training camp and the Ministry of Defense uses three areas of northern moorland for their manoeuvres and live-firing exercises. In fact, one is just over the hill from us. Pyrotechnics, digging, low-flying helicopters are all apart of the military practice on Dartmoor.   But, no where in the recently extended 40-year agreement to continue the use of land for their activities does it require the military to, “help protect Catherine & Roger’s chickens.”

Badgers. Spiders. Moles.  These represent some of the recent British Invasion to Crockern. Unbelievably, and despite the evidence, the badgers have not caused the latest sustained confrontations. It has been Mr. Fox!

In the summer, we had lots of rabbits attempting to feast on the garden’s bounty. Our successful use of bird netting kept the chickens and the rabbits out of the vegetable beds, with only minor nibbling on a few plants on the edges, which we were prepared to sacrifice. Lately, I’ve noticed a distinct absence of rabbits. No sightings. No nibbled plant leaves. No poop evidence. Nothing. It hadn’t dawned on me that it could be the rabbits have been engaged in their own bit of animal warfare, and are seriously down in ranks. But when Roger and I suffered two separate mid-day losses of chickens to a cheating fox, the penny dropped.

The weather has turned colder and the days shorter, the grasses, bushes, and trees, are ready for winter having changed colour and dropped their leaves, generally providing less camouflage and making spotting the local wildlife easier. Scarcity of food and cover means seeing a fox on the hillside during daylight hours is increasingly more likely. I find myself pausing longer in the top windows, staring out upon the grasses as if I’m in a wildlife hide, waiting to spot him, my now archenemy.

Daily, we are reminded of the predator and prey relationship with soaring buzzards in the sky, or a ravaged carcass in the deep grass near a path.  Like any skilled predator, the fox has marked Crockern as easy pickings and will return. Coming once during the day whilst we were out on a walk was bold. Returning another day, when we were out in the garden, was considerably bolder.   It will be back. With no sign of outside help, we are left to our own efforts to protect and defend. With the money we’ve saved in a jar from egg sales, we’ve purchased electric fencing.

I don’t like it. It’s ugly. It is in the way. I can’t easily climb over it. But, the chickens get to roam around outside during the day. It gives us peace of mind during these winter months when the food supply is less abundant and the chance increased of a fox attack on our free ranging hens. The chickens are oblivious to the threats around them. All they know is being cooped up all day is not half as much fun as scratching around in the dirt and preying on worms.

The flock of seven, checking out their new fencing.

The flock of seven, checking out their new fencing.

 

The new electric fencing.

The new electric fencing.

You Cute Little Heartbreaker

Driving home one recent evening, Roger met me at the gate and said, “We have a problem.”  Gulp.  No one ever wants to hear these words from their partner.  It can only mean misery and heartache, the kind born of death, disease, or financial ruin.  Once my racing mind filled with all matter of imagined catastrophes began to subside, I heard Roger calmly telling me he spotted a fox in the garden earlier, just five feet away from the chickens.  Yikes!

We know there are foxes all over Dartmoor.  We know they come sniffing about Crockern at night.  We’ve seen one slinking through the reeds on the other side of the river and spotted others crossing the road, or laying dead along side it, in countless locations.   We just hope they don’t come sneaking around during the day to snatch one or two of our chickens, or worse still, kill the lot.  Thankfully, on this occasion, Roger spotted the fox in time and he and Sam ran around the garden, making barking noises until the chickens were safely returned to their coop for the remainder of the day.  Deprived of their free-ranging fun, but safe.

Foxes sustain themselves on a variety of foods, including rabbits, voles, mice, insects such as beetles, worms and snails, ground nesting birds, little lambs, and of course, domestic fowl (a.k.a. chickens!).  The vast majority of chickens in Britain are raised in battery conditions and foxes are the least of their problems.  Free-range hens, such as ours, are usually safe from foxes if they are securely housed and not left out at night.  We remain vigilant in our efforts to keep our hens safe.

Are you talking to me?

(Photo by Charlotte Levy.   charlottelevyphotography.co.uk )

Some people love foxes, with their furry tails, pointy ears, adaptability and intelligence.  Others view them exclusively as pests.  I have mixed feelings about foxes.  They are indeed beautiful creatures, but they are a potential threat to our chickens.   Over the years, I have enjoyed the countless stories where foxes are presented as sly, clever, and cunning.  But, I don’t like Fox news in the United States, finding it misleading and troublesome.   Foxes are among the most adaptable of all carnivores, living in nearly every type of habitat on earth, which I find admirable.   And, if a fox chooses to feed on the rabbits that attempt to feed on our vegetables, then I subscribe to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  The problem is, foxes have excellent memories for the location of their food caches.  A return visit if it knows we have chickens could spell curtains for our hens.

I find it enthralling and magical when out walking on the moors to catch a glimpse of a lone fox loping across the heather, slinking stealthily among the reeds, or darting out of sight into a hidden den.  It is more unusual, and thus the thrill of this wildlife spotting all the greater, to come across one of these creatures out in the open, perhaps sunning itself along a riverbank.   Sometimes, at dusk or dawn, we might catch a flash of movement in and among the reddish brown reeds.  We might not see the fox, but we know it must be there given the evidence:  The sheep continue to graze, pausing only to assess a potential threat while several birds quickly take flight from a gorse bush.  Moments like these are always filled with sudden bursts of pleasure.

This past week, I returned home at the end of the day, and Roger once again met me at the gate this time saying, “I have some sad news.”  Once again my mind tripped into overdrive about death, disease, and financial ruin.   This time, I was right about death.  Earlier in the day, three of our chickens had fallen victims of fowl play.

Roger quickly disabused me of my notion that a hungry fox – the one spotted the previous week – had returned and killed our chickens.  Instead, an off-lead dog had jumped our walls, given chase and killed three of our hens.  Unlike the fox that kills for its food, this dog’s instinct to catch and kill a moving object caused the carnage.  Not for food.  Not for survival.  Simply because it could.

Our chickens scratch and peck and do their funny chicken things just like moveable flowers in the garden.  I lose all track of time when watching them digging for worms, or scratching at a new bit of compost I’ve just put onto a garden bed.   I may get a little cross with the hens when they find a way into the vegetable bed and tear apart the Kale, but it warms my heart when they meet me at the door in anticipation of treats.  It puts a smile on my face when they see me across the yard and beat a path to say hello.  Or when they help put the bird feeders up, making certain the ground below is clear of any spillage.  I like when they decide to stand on my boot, or peck at my fleece when I’m trying to do any work outside.

It’s difficult to describe the feelings when losing chickens from a dog attack.  We recently had one chicken that fell ill and two days later, was dead.  It happens.  And chickens are vulnerable to attacks from foxes and badgers when not securely housed.  Chickens also can lead short lives, sometimes dying of unknown natural causes.  But for that evening, it was hard to be existential about life and death.  Instead, we just felt sad.

When the weather is a little better, we’ll get a few more chickens to join our remaining five.  For now, losing three in such a grisly attack has left a silence in our garden and an egg size hole in our hearts.

I'm so pretty, oh so pretty...

One of our hens who died from the dog attack.  She was an original in many ways, including she was our first.                           (photo by Charlotte Levy)

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Rap-Tors

Dartmoor

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.

As if on cue, this Sparrowhawk entered our garden. I concede it is a lousy photo, but it was stormy outside and all I had to hand was the camera on my phone.

As if on cue, this Sparrowhawk entered our garden. I concede it is a lousy photo, but it was stormy outside and all I had to hand was the camera on my phone.

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.

 

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