Take on Nature: Ghost of the moor showcases art in the wild

A female hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) in flight
Stephen Colton

HAVING experienced the pleasure in early July of watching four fully fledged young hen harriers (Circus cyaneus) dance on the wing, practising their flight skills along the west Tyrone/Donegal border, I began to think about how various art forms of music, dance and theatre help enrich our lives and how such art is present in the natural world.

Often, however, in our quest for scientific knowledge, we miss the various elements of art present in what we see or hear. What music can rival the lyrical, fluty song of the blackbird or theatre compare with the dancing stoat before a rabbit kill?

What choreography can match a ‘murmur’ of starlings in a winter sky or the mimicry of their musical calls. These actions all have scientific purpose and function but they are also performing acts.

The story of the young harriers began in April when the adult birds established their ground nest site in hilly heather moorland surrounded by a mixture of young and mature forestry. Above, the ghostly grey-and-black wing-tipped male languidly flies over the natural contours before rising up to begin what is known as its ‘sky dance’, a graceful expression of the bird’s intention to nest nearby and an invitation to the larger, brown-streaked female to join in an exuberant celebration of their courtship.

The artistic dance involves a series of undulating flight manoeuvres, with the bird rolling and tumbling downwards before rising up to repeat the sequence again and again. The female, known as a ‘ringtail’ because of her conspicuous white rump, may sometimes join in the performance.

This striking raptor, ‘Préachán' or 'cromán na gcearc’ (hen crow) in Irish, is sometimes called the ‘ghost of the moor’ because of its habit of appearing and disappearing through the hilly landscapes it dominates.

Persecuted for centuries across Ireland and Britain because of its alleged predation of poultry and game, the bird has made recoveries in Ireland but it still struggles to gain a breeding foothold in England where no pairs bred in 2013 and only four in 2014.

A survey of hen harriers in the Republic in 2015 recorded an estimate of 108-157 breeding pairs, a decline of 8.7 per cent since the 2010 survey. The results of a similar survey for Britain and Northern Ireland for 2016 are expected soon, but current estimates for here are approximately 50 pairs.

A level of the historic persecution of the harrier can be gained from a piece written in the Guardian, August 2015, which states: "Between 1837 and 1840 on the Glengarry estate in Inverness-shire, gamekeepers’ tally books show them to have killed 63 Hen harriers."

During incubation and the feeding of chicks, usually between two and six in number, adult harriers will execute numerous ‘food passes’, involving the precision timing of prey transition from the male to the female in mid air. The male descends, legs outstretched carrying a meadow pipit or some other prey item while the female, after calling out, rises up from ground level, flips upside down and accepts the prey with her talons in an elegant, seamless exchange of visual art.

North of England poet Colin Simms refers to the "minute correcting adjustments’’ of the hen harrier’s wing feathers as it flies its predatory circuits, quartering low over the land, another hint of visual art.

The four young harriers I watched were enjoying their new-found freedom and interaction with their parents, twisting, rolling and diving. By now the young birds will have dispersed and a natural journey of science and art completed.


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