The Merlin and a Raven-Buzzard dogfight
(plus a sneaky look at a drab little bird with a remarkable sex life)
April, 2020: Unless you are affected medically, or trapped in an impossible (or just very difficult) domestic situation, this is a unique time. Especially for naturalists and for all those who savour the spectacular sound of silence which now covers the countryside in a sublime shroud, although it is slowly being removed. For sound recordists of natural phenomena, it is an unparalleled opportunity: so little traffic and aircraft noise, and I’ve even noticed a quieter strimmer serenade – one of the more irritating sounds of summer – or maybe they just haven’t quite found their voice yet.
Unable to travel to nature reserves, beauty spots or just one’s favourite haunt, be it a gravel pit, reservoir, park or wood, we can stay at home with a chance to get to know better what used to be called Common or garden birds. And we notice they are not so ‘common’, in fact they are rather rare and fascinating; and we realise how little we actually do know them. The humble Dunnock (Hedge sparrow, or even ‘Hedge accentor’ if you will) for example possesses a sex life to be marvelled at, and you may notice their polyandrous trios bumbling about hedgerow bottoms; Mrs Dunnock is very free with her favours. I haven’t myself counted but Dr Tim Birkhead has, and he advises that male Dunnocks can copulate 100 times a day.
Dunnock Prunella modularis
The intriguing sex life of Dunnocks apart, I was sitting in my North Devon garden in April with Mij (a non-polyandrous wife), enjoying the astonishing quietness all around and waiting impatiently for our first Swallow (my daughter, Josie, saw hers ages ago, but she always beats me to everything), a bird come fleeting up the valley over the woodland. “A Swallow,” I cried; Mij immediately, “No, it’s a bird of prey” (she always contradicts me and is frustratingly usually right), but I, quick as a flash, came back, “A Merlin then.” And we watched in awe as this little falcon flew quietly over us, not hunting just waving. Only the third I’ve ever seen.
My son, Sam, phoned that night from his home in rural Hampshire. I told him about the Merlin, and he said he’d never seen one but thought he’d spotted a Hobby once. “Where could I see a Merlin?” he asked, I replied, “Well, you’ve just got to be lucky, like we were. I wouldn’t like to say ‘Hey, Sam, we’ll go up to Exmoor and I’ll show you a Merlin, it’s not like that.'”
So, what have I learned? You can stay at home, save your petrol (and the environment), and have just as much chance of seeing something interesting and beautiful as if you trek off somewhere special in full birding gear. It might be a sexy female Dunnock or even a spectacular Will-o’-the-Wisp Merlin.
It could even be as exciting as the sequel to our Merlin adventure. For immediately after he had winnowed off, the stage was taken by a contest between a nesting Raven and loafing Buzzard. We watched these two sparring for twenty minutes before a second Buzzard arrived. I don’t think they were really interested in the Raven chicks (probably quite a size by early April) but gave the impression of just enjoying winding-up the parents. In effect we were greeted to a dogfight worthy of Manfred von Richthofen: the Raven swooping down from… out of the sun? I wouldn’t like to say… but it was pretty spectacular. As the Buzzard turned over to meet it, the Raven would come within inches of its tormentor plummeting to the nadir of its descent, and from there, with the momentum gained, rapidly climb high for the next assault. The Buzzard appeared merely to flick the Raven aside and continue riding the thermals in carefree arabesques.
It is not always so charming. In a book I wrote under another name many years ago*, I included a photograph of a Raven with its top mandible ripped off by a Buzzard (it was then being cared for in a Wildlife Hospital, and survived by swallowing day-old chicks whole).
I so hope that whoever has a window on the world – preferably one which opens – can get a glimpse such as this. My daughter, Emma, who lives in a high flat in Ealing can see Sparrowhawks from her window, and I wouldn’t doubt Peregrines, and her partner, Raoul, a sound recordist, has sent me a recording of their dawn chorus. On it I can hear Nuthatches, tits, Blackbirds, sparrows, Wood pigeons, and ‘seagulls’ of course.
There is no need for isolation, birds and bees obey no human social distancing. I am sending Emma a window bird feeder and some seed. She claims they are too high up to attract small birds, but I challenge that. We will see who is right; if things run according to rule when it comes to women and me, I know the answer. Rosie Wood, a badger colleague, sent me an epithet which said, ‘If a man speaks in the forest, and there is no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?’ And I know the answer to that one too.
* As Richard Mark Martin, First Aid and Care of Wildlife, David & Charles, 1984.