Caroline said it was two years ago that I spent some days going out with her and Malcolm. The purpose of our trip was to find nesting sites of birds of prey. Once found they would return to put rings on the chicks’ legs.
The days and evenings I spent with them never seems to travel into the distance of time. I can hear their voices in the car joking and teasing. Despite their ages being separated by a number of decades they have a strong friendship bonded by feathers and talons. I sat in the back of the car, an observer, part of the site visits, but peripheral to the core of their unfailing dedication to keeping tracks on our birds at the top of the food chain; only man can topple their crown.
Part way along a forest track I stop to look at an orchid. My companions are not interested in flowers ... they are focused on the canopy. Further on we stop at a kill in the middle of the compact stone and earth. Small feathers in browns, golds and creams are scattered from one fateful second. Just a short distance away, light brown feathers are interspersed with a couple of bright blue feathers.
A sparrow hawk has swooped low, flying and gliding near the ground. Like a stealth bomber, she silently takes out a song thrush, and later, a jay loses out on nature’s lottery.
At the killing sites we leave the track and follow a group of hardwoods. A rickety post and wire fence that has aged to the colour of the woodland beyond it crossed. Then, not far into the dark cover of pine trees, Malcolm and Caroline find the signs they are looking for.
White splashes on fallen branches on the forest floor and one moulted feather are indicators that a nest is very near. Caroline spots it. Some more joking and teasing as the healthy competition between the two ornithologists continues. One evening, a few weeks later we return to the site when the chicks are big enough to be ringed. Malcolm puts on the appropriate gear and climbs up a rather spindly looking Sitka. One chick drops out of the nest and begins to part fly, part scurry between the trees.
I catch it. I take it to Caroline who now has the other four chicks around her that Malcolm has lowered down from the nest in a rucksack. The process of ringing, weighing and measuring has to be done five times before they are returned to their large, twiggy nest. Even when I leave, the bundle of chicks with their black eyes is imprinted in my memory – what a privilege to hold them, to see them so close.
I attended a talk that Malcolm Henderson was giving during Biodiversity Week.
The mood was serious. The first slide was an image of a male hen harrier gliding through the air in pale grey.
Although we live in an area where there is excellent habitat for this bird there is none. In the Langholm area, where there is no persecution, there are only two males and one female.
An image of a golden eagle chick, wings out, beak open in a threatening stance, is lit up on the screen.
Really, the chick’s mannerism is not threatening, but threatened.
After the poisoning of its mate and a year with only one barren egg, rearing a successful bird is a long-winded and vulnerable process.
The more efficient the killer the more threatened they are by man.
Goshawks and peregrine falcons are, therefore, important to monitor. Peregrines are lucky that they can adapt to an urban landscape with high steeples for nesting and a glut of pigeons to feed on.
When we walk out of Old Gala House at the end of the evening we can hear the peregrines calling from the red sandstone spire.
There is comfort in knowing that some pairs can find a corner of our chaotic world where they can live and feed without interruption; at least for just now.