Raptor by James Macdonald Lockhart – An extract
Chapter 11 – Marsh Harrier, Isle of Sheppey
If a day can give up on itself long before it is over, even before, for goodness’ sake, it has reached its midpoint, that winter’s day on Sheppey was such a day. But then the day never really stood a chance faced with all that wind and snow. It was better that it closed itself down and let the onslaught continue through the dark. So it was strange to see figures coming towards me across the marsh just at the point, in the early afternoon, when the light was being raked out of the sky and the day was perishing. Wildfowlers: coming out of the grey and the snow with their dogs, faces buried under balaclavas, bulky camouflage jackets, shotguns sleeved over shoulders, nodding as they passed me. Strange apparitions, they were only briefly real. Though I knew they were not spectral because at the moment we passed each other, I heard them cussing their dogs to keep back.
The first marsh harriers I met on Sheppey were a pair. Huge dark brown birds, untroubled by the wind, working a small field that bordered the marsh. I stood above the harriers, looking down on them from a slight hill. They shifted through the wind lifting over hedges and fences, peering into field margins, scanning the dead winter grasses. More than their size, their slow flight made them conspicuous. They were using the wind to hold themselves up, turning in to the wind to slow and steady their flight. The wind was so strong, at times it held the harriers static, pinned them in the air like giant kestrels. They were a female and male. Too distant to make out the patterns of their plumage but the male lighter, greyer; the female, when she came close to the male, noticeably larger, heavier.
I was so pleased to see them. There are some days when I spend all day searching and find nothing and that’s as it should be. But it is such a relief when I do catch up with the birds. I was worried that the day’s weather would have grounded any harriers who had stayed on Sheppey for the winter, but they were unmistakably harriers, could not have been anything else, gliding on V-shaped wings, sliding over the ground, foraging, occupying the harrier zone which is theirs and theirs alone, those first 2 to 6 metres above the ground, within earshot of the slightest squeak or rustle. Sound-gatherers, radars, listening in to the undergrowth as no other bird of prey, except for those great auditory hunters, the owls, can do.
I walked down the hill towards the harriers, hoping to get a closer look at the birds’ colours. The male marsh harrier does not have the pearl-grey colouring of the male hen and Montagu’s harriers. Instead the male marsh’s plumage is a distinctive tricolour, black wing tips, light grey wings, a chestnut undercarriage. The contrast between these colour bands is like early morning fireplace ash before it is disturbed, the undercoat of grey, the black charcoal splints, the red fibrous imprint of the burnt-out logs.
I stalked the two harriers under the cover of a hedge which fell down towards the marsh like a slipway. But when I reached the field where they had been hunting the harriers had split apart and were a long way off, heading east, flapping slowly along the high-water mark.
Even within that harrier zone there are demarcations – holding patterns – for each of the harrier species. The marsh harrier tends to fly a little higher than its congeners, the hen and Montagu’s harrier, relying more on its eyesight than the other species to peer down into the tall reed beds that make up so much of its hunting range. The hen harrier (the greater vole specialist) hunts perhaps the lowest of the three, scything the ground. The hen harrier also has the most pronounced facial ruff of the three resident British harriers. And as the ruff is the harrier’s radar rim, of the three species, the hen harrier has evolved the most efficient sound detector to pick up the minute patter of a vole moving through its grassy tunnels.
But the marsh harrier is as much a sound detector, as much a listener-in as its harrier cousins. And the panicked splashing of a duck with her flotilla of ducklings through the reeds must flood the marsh harrier’s hearing. At night, roosting on the ground, often in open spaces, harriers depend on that hearing to listen out for threat. Roosting sites are selected for their acoustic properties: reed beds, barley crops, dried mudbeds, all places that crackle and ripple when entered by a predator. A bird that can detect the sound a locust makes feeding along a branch must also hear the footsteps of a fox.
The harrier’s face is a scoop, a shallow drinking cup, an Elizabethan face, rimmed by the silky, light-reflecting ruff. The ruff itself is like a thick plait, a ring of closely packed barbules layered around a rim of skin. The ruff can inflate, puff out, increasing the surface area of the face, increasing the harrier’s ability to capture sound. The face is really a giant ear. It works like an ear, or, rather, serves the ears, scooping up sounds and channelling them into the large ear openings set behind the eyes. The harrier’s facial disc is always working, drinking up sounds, weighing them, tasting them in the feathers’ nerves, reflecting them back off the ruff, through the earcoverts, into the large ears.
I walk north-east across the saltmarsh, following behind the two harriers. In the distance: a hamlet crouched low on the headland, hunkered in on itself. It is slow going against the headwind and I am amazed any bird could beat into such a wind. Then I reach the island’s east coast and there is the sea again, brown and unrecognisable.
James Macdonald Lockhart is an associate editor of (and regular contributor to), Archipelago Magazine, and a literary agent at Antony Harwood Limited. ‘Raptor’ is his first book and it received both a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and the Authors’ Foundation Roger Deakin Award in 2011. You can follow the author on Twitter here.