Life

Take on Nature: A dive-bomb of feathers, claws and knife-sharp beak

Autumn skies are like a work of art

THE sky at this time year can be like a huge lumbering and ever-shifting work of art hanging over our heads. The tones and shapes take on hidden depths, light and shadow interchange, layers peel away to be replaced by others.

Out along the coast and looking towards the sea it is easy to believe that a huge mountain range has emerged where none existed the day before, its outline and undulations seeming to emerge from the shimmering cloud that is half hiding it.

In among the waves a seal peeks out its head and turns in slow circles as if keeping an eye on me watching it and twisting back to see what the clouds are doing.

Along the shore, gulls, oystercatchers and redshanks mingle and squawk a distinctive coastal chorus and huge fronds of seaweed washed up by the previous night’s high winds are like an assault course for the unwary walker. Out on a rocky outcrop a lone cormorant stretches its wings as if crucified, drying them after a morning of diving to seek out fish among the waves.

Back inland the trees and hedgerows are being stripped of their leaves, the denuded branches swaying like flailing, emaciated limbs.The shifting light draws out new textures from the landscape, as if dropping a selection of tinted windows over it to see how it looks.

The fields are stripped of their crops, the soil churned into naked drills in preparation for next year's planting. There is a sense that nature is bunkering down, putting its slippers on and sitting back to wait out the winter and the return of growth in the spring.

But sometimes the weather will surprise and the shifting clouds fracture and drift off into the distance to be replaced by blue skies and a sun that may not exactly blaze but create enough heat to make it pleasant to sit outside and enjoy it while it lasts.

It was on one of these sunny afternoons last week when in my suburban garden I was listening to the loud chatter of hundreds of starlings that had gathered in nearby bushes and trees. It was as if they were taking a bit of down time to catch up and maybe discuss where they should all gather together for their spectacular evening murmurations.

They were loud and excited and more and more kept sweeping into the gathering to increase the noise levels.

Then from high, and with a shocking suddenness that took everything around it by surprise – me included – a dive-bomb of feathers, claws and knife-sharp beak hurled itself in among the smaller birds.

It had all the violence and primal danger of a Ted Hughes poem – the starlings scattered in all directions, their cheerful chirping rising to pitches of terror, their collective wing beats pounding the air. In among the branches, alongside the sound of a wounded starling was the high-pitched, victorious shriek of the buzzard that had plunged in with its claws flailing and was now presumably feeding on whichever one it had wounded.

The afternoon seemed to shift in tone, the cheerful chattering replaced with a silence that was only accentuated by the occasional satisfied gloating of the buzzard and shuffling it made where it was feasting.

At one time the buzzard was all but extinct in Ireland, a few strays lingering on the coast of Antrim, but over the past 30 years they have made a significant comeback and can be seen throughout the country, perched on a gatepost or hovering effortlessly overhead.

They are beautiful birds, but witnessing one on the hunt at such close quarters was unnerving.

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Life