As any regular reader of this recently irregular blog will know, aside from my relatively new birding patch in East London, I have another patch.
My second ‘patch’ is in a remote part of Southern France in the foothills of the Pyrenees. As I type, it is a sweltering evening in East London. And so it was also sweltering a couple of weeks ago in France. Whilst I tried to avoid the mid-day heat, I walked out every morning and evening to record the wildlife as I have attempted to do for the last seven years.
Every day I would scan the sky for dark shapes… for raptors, such as…And my first ‘certain’ French Honey Buzzard, which showed well until I hoisted my camera out of my bag just in time to snap its silhouette… But what I was really hoping for was … other than the dreamy hope that a Griffon Vulture or Lammergeier might soar down the mountains to us … a view of a Hen Harrier. I have watched these birds glide low in the valley a couple of times before but not for a few years. Their horrendous persecution and near extinction in the UK intensifies my desire to see it anywhere now – like the sudden, almost guilt-driven, desire to see a terminally ill friend or relative.
One evening I walked back along our long dusty track to try and see a Turtle Dove – which I duly did, or rather I listened to its purring of bottled summer song.
I got to the point where I knew I needed to turn around to get home before dark, but sat for a few minutes by a small deserted building.
The rocks I sat on were annoyingly uncomfortable, but the views in the golden light of evening, and the almost mystical awareness of nature that enveloped me on the hillside in the shadow of this ruin, compelled me to stay longer than I should. As I stood and wiped the dust from my shorts I became aware of something in the upper periphery of my vision.
After the initial flick of my head to see what what happening, I stood as still as the ruin and watched a Hen Harrier. Far closer than I have ever been before, it glided in front of my eyes, tracing the contours of the land and bushes as perfectly as if it was connected by some invisible wire to the ground. But the Harrier was connected to nothing. It was free, and by the time I had slowly exhaled a single breath, it had slipped over the brow of the hill like wind-blown smoke.
It was a male. As grey as dry slate with its wingtips dipped in black ink. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. And it was gone.
These words do not accurately depict what was going through my mind at the time. When the Harrier had disappeared over the brow of the hill, it was as if I were an anxious parent whose child had just slipped from his hands into great peril. Any reverie I had been in as it flew across my sightline had been shattered. I ran. In some dreadful contrast to the grace of the Harrier, I chased it like a greedy, chubby child might pursue a dangled chocolate. As the Harrier had only been 25-30 metres in front of me, I was over the hill in a small matter of seconds and ready with sweaty palms to claim my prize: a photo of my favourite bird.
But it was gone. Of course, it could not have ‘gone’ as it had been there just a few moments before and I now had a perfect view over the scrub and cultivated land for almost a mile in every direction. But it was gone. Logically, I can reason that it had swooped down on some unsuspecting prey just a few feet beneath its talons, or it had landed to avoid the sweaty ape that was invading its territory, but it seemed like it had vanished like a phantom, or disappeared like its kin due to the persecution of man. My greedy desire to photograph the Harrier then seemed to horribly mirror the greedy desires of those who cannot tolerate the competition the Harrier poses on their grouse moors. I stood in silence, still looking, but with the downcast outline of man shamed by the grotesque actions of his kind.
I felt like I had seen a ghost. And perhaps, tragically, in a way, I had.
If you can help the Harriers, please do.