Peregrines, Wild Geese and Avocets
Chapter one - Harrier and Buzzard
GITTISHAM COMMON - August 1945
When I was in my early teens I lived in Devon – in Honiton, that town of long and continuous traffic jams; although during those wartime years the only traffic we saw was just before D-day, when the streets and lanes filled with long lines of lorries and tanks. For the rest of the time, the place was a sleepy market town, where the biggest excitement was caused by the annual fair, when the gypsies appeared from miles around and it was once again possible to buy proper ginger snaps. There was not much to keep people occupied: a cinema, the odd local dance, but most people seemed to lead a happy and busy life. Like most country folk they appeared to exist without artificial entertainment and were far more self-sufficient than we are now. The wives of the locally-based soldiers found it dull to start with, but most soon settled down with a host of new friends. The local cafe helped in this, as every morning it formed the centre for a thriving coffee club - unofficial of course – where everything and anything could be learned over a cup and a scone.
At first I attended these sessions with my mother but, as I grew older and came to know the country better, I spent more and more of my time wandering in the woods and fields, alone but completely happy. It was here that I grew to appreciate the birds and animals around us: there that I learned to walk quietly and to stand absolutely still when I wanted to see a piece of that hidden world. It was the perfect place for this. Honiton is surrounded by wild, beautiful country and has an incredibly rich population of birds and animals while, like most of Devon, wild plants flourish with more colour and profusion than most cottage gardens attain.
I was fortunate in that my mother soon realised that I was happy walking and exploring on my own, and let me go off, with her blessing, during school holidays. She must have satisfied herself that it was at least as safe as playing in the street, but I think she realised it would do me more good than conventional pastimes.
I don't quite know how it all started: where the original spark came from, but by the time I was thirteen I was regularly keeping notes on the birds and animals I saw, and the first rather peculiar drawings of sadly mis-shaped gulls and sparrows were appearing in the margins of my diary. As time went on, the notes grew detailed and drawings became a primary way of showing or describing my finds. Thanks to these, I have a clear picture of the life I then led, and can again see the Buzzards floating over Gittisham common, or hear the monotonous phrases of the Yellow-hammer and see the flash of their golden heads on the telephone wires.
They were idyllic years, spent in a wonderful neighbourhood, and to this day I cannot think of a better way of bringing up a boy. Honiton lies in a bowl, surrounded by hills. To the north, the country is sharply rounded, with one of the hills bearing a peculiarly well-preserved Roman wall and ditch type fortification. To the south the land rose to my particular kingdom – Gittisham Common. This was a moorland plateau, covered with bracken and heather; a naturalist’s, as well as a small boy’s idea of paradise. The bird life was amazing, both in its profusion and its variety; I would have to travel to many different parts to see some of the species I then saw within a few miles. Indeed some I then thought were common, are now comparative rarities,
Early in my interests, I was lucky enough to meet one or two people who lived locally, who encouraged me and were kind enough to take me out to see particular birds or let me wander unhindered over their ground. One person was a retired army officer who owned a large estate with extensive woodlands, and a long stretch of the river Otter. This was known locally as the Major’s estate, and here I saw all sorts of nesting birds, including herons and buzzards. I shall always remember the kindness of the Major to one always-questioning small boy. He was incredibly patient and unfailingly willing to show me things and help in any way he could.
My other friend, to whom I owe a particular debt of gratitude, was the Vicar of Stockland, who was also then the secretary of the Devon Bird-watching and Preservation Society. I don't quite know how the connection arose: I fancy my mother must have met someone who knew the Reverand F.O. Butters and told of his kindheartedness to those who were interested in wildlife. Possibly, on mentioning my interest, my mother’s acquaintance had suggested that I meet him. All I now remember is cycling up the long hills to the Vicarage, armed with a letter of introduction.
Mr. Butters was expecting me, and I was ushered into a cool study and asked a lot of searching questions. These seemed to satisfy him that I was not a birds's nester or habitual user of an airgun, and we were soon firm friends: indeed I cannot remember any period of wariness or getting to know him. He was one of those people who have a knack of getting on with the young; he treated me as an equal and did not attempt to talk down to me.
The curious and rather awful thing about this friendship is that I can now barely recollect what he looked like; but I remember his patient and painstaking way of showing me some of the secrets of local wildlife and his great natural kindliness. The impression remains of someone with the knowledge of a Gilbert White, all the best features of a good schoolmaster and a real human warmth to everyone with whom he came in contact. Later I came to know him even better, for he then initiated me into the mysteries of trout fishing with a dry fly.
This visit was the first of many, but was memorable for the variety of nesting species in the Vicarage garden. I was shown the tree which held the nest-holes of Green woodpecker and Lesser spotted woodpecker in the same limb: I saw nests of Goldfinch and Spotted flycatcher as well as a number of commoner birds. The crowning moment came when I was led off to a nearby spinney where no less than three Sparrowhawks were nesting in the same tree - which must have been an unusual experience in any part of Britain. A memory which most lingers about that garden. is sitting having the sort of tea which any boy appreciates, while watching a flock of about twenty Goldfinches flitting around the garden, with a tinkling and natter of quiet bird conversation. They were the tamest Goldfinches I have every known; normally they are so shy.
Mr. Butters gave me a wealth of information about the best places to watch birds, and a number of introductions to various people who would allow me on their land. At the same time I was given a long string of "don'ts": a condensed and highly pertinent country code as to how to avoid disturbing young birds or upsetting those that were sitting on eggs. It was all good advice, which I followed to the best of my ability, the wisdom of which I was to see demonstrated in the next few years as I saw the 'country laws' broken and the subsequent trail of destruction.
Early in my time at Honiton, I discovered the speciality of the neighbourhood - Montagu's harriers on the common. No doubt they have left the area long since, as they appear to have suffered more than most species of birds of prey from the effects of cumulative poisoning by insecticides, but at the time they were a reasonably common sight. A summer walk up to Gittisham Common would almost certainly be marked by the sight of one or more of these beautiful birds. The only other place I have seen them is the Norfolk Broads, where at that time they were not uncommon.
These particular harriers indulged in a habit which I have not seen described elsewhere, though I have seen the Broadland birds indulging to a lesser extent. Frequently they hovered for long periods over the same spot, like giant Kestrels. My diary bears several notes of actual timings I took with my watch, the longest being a staggering three quarters of a minute, and many well up to half a minute. The hover was not in the least similar to a Kestrel; the latter hangs with rapidly fanning, quivering wings and broad spread tail. The harrier hovers in slow motion, and does not look nearly so smooth and streamlined during the process. While the Montagu's harrier is the most tidy and dapper of harriers, as well as being the smallest of the clan, it appears an unstreamlined bird, with widely separated 'fingers' on its wing. It is a big bird, without the compact streamlining of the falcons, or their flame-like wing-beat, and behaves like a big bird, tending to soar high in the air, or fly low with comparatively slow and untidy wing-beat. So with its hovering: the wings adjust to the angle of the wind, the primaries opening and closing their great fingers to the gusts and, in windy weather, hardly flapping at all, hanging like a scarecrow over the heath. In calm air it has to fan its wings, but this it does slowly, with no sign of the quicksilver-quiver of the Kestrel.
The summers of childhood seem to have passed in a blaze of heat, a shimmer of light and the sound of innumerable larks singing forever in a cloudless blue sky. We forget the grey days of endless rain and the rationing of those after-war days, and bring to mind only the salad days of the song. Certainly this is true of my childhood; if I think long enough and hard enough I can recall rain, but only the end of a shower and the hot, exotic, steamy smell as the leaves and bracken dry off in the sun, the smell of hazel and fern, of crushed vegetation, of damp Harris tweed. It comes before my eyes and into my nostrils again, as I think back; only it all seems to be outside, never a smell of rain-wet pavements, but of fields and coverts. This I ascribe to my living in a world bounded entirely by the Devon hills and woods, a land of colour and variety, in which it was impossible not to be infected with a sense of the natural world, of living things and plants; where the hedgerows were richer than market gardens, the banks topped with a profusion of flowers. I have no doubt that those not brought up in this way have different memories, some of which they hide at the back of their mind and which never should be revived. It seems to me that the country child has these hay-scented memories of golden summers because it is so much easier to appreciate the fine weather when all one has to do is to run out into the fields when the sun breaks through. Now I'm grown-up, I suffer as a town dweller, although I live in the country, for the office claims the sunshine hours for most of each week. Now, perhaps, I appreciate what is left even more.
In my diary, I noted one walk in those golden days; a walk that started with a long hot drag up the hill to the common. I feel the heat beating down and the sound of the little cloud of flies as they buzzed round my face. The pages bring the day back as clearly as yesterday, yet I cannot remember any of the hours before the walk or of what happened afterwards. I cannot remember what I thought - only what was there, the texture of the road and the shapes of the melting tar patches in the centre, the dust of a passing car and the sound of a Yellowhammer on the telephone wires, singing its monotonous song.
All the way up the hill the wires were strung with these solitary birds and their song reeled across the air. All along, I would look up and see the brilliant yellow flash as one moved across the sunlight and reflected back. To this day I seem to know I am in Devon by the sight of Yellowhammers on the wires. I see with a shock, one of these birds lying on the side of the road, hot on the asphalt, perfect in feather and colour, yet dead; struck by some unmarking force. The shiver I gave is with me yet, but soon I was watching everything with as much enthusiasm and joy; memories of that sort are short at the time.
The road ran on for ever, winding up that hill which is passed in seconds in a car, yet I felt no discomfort. Always there was another rise, another straight and another corner, but at last it burst forth beyond me; high above the surrounding countryside, edged with a steep scarp of wooded hillsides. I ran to the hedge and lay down, looking on the pygmy world below, with its patchwork of tiny Devon fields and streams, its trees and hedgerows. I feel myself half- asleep and dreaming in the windless heat, hidden from the flies, with my face buried in palest fronds of young bracken. I woke smartly to life as I caught sight of a series of dots in the upper air curl lazily round and down, drifting on silent, immovable wings. Down they came, tails spread wide and wings curving gracefully up from the shoulder to give lines of purest grace at the wide-spread primaries. It was astonishing to watch no less than twelve Buzzards in the air at once. To make life even more amazing, they dropped down the thermal, still circling and gently mewing every so often, until they were actually below my eyelevel, soaring under the lee of the hill, caught in some invisible standing wave. I doubt if I will ever again be privileged to watch these superb birds so close, in such numbers and at such an unusual angle. I could see every movement of each primary feather, constantly adjusting to give just the right amount of lift and direction, feeling what I could only guess existed.
To birds like these, the air must seem a living thing. A man in an aeroplane cannot feel the speed of the wind since it is supporting him, thus he cannot be torn and buffeted by it once in the air, but it must surely be different when the air is used in feathers so intimately, to change lift, speed and direction. All the exhilaration of the Spitfire pilot must be there, plus the feeling of being in direct contact with the atmosphere around. I have heard it said that all creatures other than man lead a coldly purposeful life, where there is a scientific reason behind every move; I cannot believe this of all creatures. I have watched birds like these buzzards flying for the joy of it, with no purpose other than fun. Why else should a full-grown hawk throw itself on its back and tumble about the sky, mewing and screaming, infecting others to do the same until the whole looks like a party of skittish Jackdaws? For what seemed hours I looked down on these superbly dignified birds, true miniature eagles in appearance, watching their every move, their every feather with a detail-consuming hunger. I saw their eyes and heads moving as they looked below; I could almost feel the ripple of muscles beneath the feathers. Then came a little puff of wind and the signal seemed to be passed to the troop; slowly they rose up, still circling, and drifted down-wind and away from the hillside and my watching eyes, until they were dots in the high distance, eventually disappearing from sight.
I stretched and yawned and moved on into the open sun, hazel wand, with which I bent back the brambles and kept the nettles from my bare legs, clutched in one hand and an ancient and cloudy pair of binoculars hanging from my neck. As I left the road and plunged into the tussock grass and scrub, the line of the common was revealed with the dropping horizon. Far off there was the long line of telegraph poles which ran down and over the other side. The closest of these had an incongruous figure balancing with extreme difficulty on the wires, a tall slender hawk with long legs and longer tail, fanned in and out to keep the bird's balance. Next to the harrier, was a stockier figure, a buzzard with an exceptionally pale head. Another buzzard was perched on the end of the pole and looked much more secure than its uncomfortable-seeming companion which, no doubt at sight of me, took off and flapped slowly down wind and away, until out of sight. The buzzard sat tight until I was close and, on seeing from the line of my walk that I was not coming any closer, settled its head lower into its shoulders once again. All the time that I was in sight of it, I could see its head moving round to follow me and I had an uncomfortable feeling even when I could no longer see it, of having something prickly at the base of my neck.
All members of the hawk and falcon family seem to have this power. I remember watching a Peregrine through very powerful binoculars on a tripod and watching the eyes turn and apparently look straight through the glass and into the very depths of my being.
What an astonishing place that common was in those days. I certainly had not seen all the hawk family, although already well surfeited with my sights of buzzard and harrier. As I watched, the latter sailing out of sight, a faint quiver high overhead caught my eyes and I was watching a Kestrel suspended as if on a wire, eyes focussed intently on a patch below; then, a breathtaking drop, a brief struggle on the grass below and the bird was up in the sky once more, as if the whole incident had never occurred. I had to blink to make sure I had not dreamed the whole incident while asleep in the bracken. Later still during my walk, I heard a high-pitched chattering and instinctively ducked as a Blackbird came tearing round the edge of a clump of hedgerow trees, hotly pursued by a Sparrowhawk; both birds were upon me and gone in an instant of time. The common was like that: full of little incidents framed in a moment of stillness, separate from all others, but part of a whole pattern. Whinchats and Stonechats, Meadow pipits and Skylarks, these were the typical birds of this heathland of mine. To this day, the sight of two or three species in an afternoon will recall that place with its happy memories of colours and birds, the smell of crushed bracken and rolling, wooded hills.
SOME DEVON BIRDS
Common buzzard, Buteo buteo
Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis
Green woodpecker, Picus viridis
Jackdaw, Corvus monedula
Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus
Lesser-spotted woodpecker, Dendrocopos minor
Montagu’s harrier, Circus pygargus
Skylark, Alauda arvensis
Sparrowhawk, Accipiter nisus
Spotted flycatcher, Muscicapa striata
Stonechat, Saxicola torquata
Whinchat, Saxicola rubetra
NEXT: Chapter 2. The Western Isles; a sea trip in 1949 & 50