I am watching goshawks. Two, displaying above a distant wedge of fir trees. It is a bright, clear, end of Winter morning, just after dawn, the best chance the casual observer would have to see such elusive birds.
No, I need to reappraise that. Although technically true, it would be an exaggeration to say that I am watching them. Yes, they are there; I am there, but the brevity of our alignment needs pointing up. I spy them only long enough to feel certain of identification, until they skirr and wheel away, either out of sight, or further back such that they are now unfocusable dots, quartering a territory that stretches far away from me, my view wholly inadequate to appreciate their full enterprise.
The grey flash that wobbled in the southwest quadrant of my binocular view, a second or two of tubular pale body and broad wings, would not be tethered. It was gone. It was gone, darting around an unknowable aerial corner, and away.
Mostly, they stay hidden inside the forest. The pine canyons created within this regimented man-made wood, these skyscraper trees, are perfect for them. They are residents of an adumbral Manhattan, the elite; outside of eagles, our top predator. It is a position well-earned. In a chiaroscuro world of greens and browns and disparate filtered light, goshawks thrive because they not only have exceptional vision, as you would expect, but they are also extraordinarily adept at manoeuvring within the close confines of dense woodland. Colliding with a tree, injury of any kind, is normally catastrophic for a bird, and raptors are no different, but goshawks are blessed with a mercurial talent for taking narrow gaps at speed. And so it is rare for them to slip the confines of their dank kingdom, but with Spring intimated, out they come, briefly, swiftly, acrobatically, to display across the tops, threshing the air with studied skill.
This is Thetford Forest, a huge slew of created woodland that lies across the Norfolk Suffolk border. It was created after the Great War to replace the timber used up by the various demands of the conflict. As if to echo that, the Forestry Commission shares the land with some Ministry of Defence work, and for much of my trek out to the birds I have walked along a border which on my map is marked boldly in red and calls itself a ‘Danger Zone’. There are red flags and signs warning against transgressions.
As I step away, I capture another peripheral flash of wings and I’m fumbling with my binoculars again, caught in the straps that overlap my camera, eager to catch a longer and better view. It is a fat wood pigeon, a common enough sight at the moment. It worries me. Big, grey, broad wings, paler body; have I misidentified the goshawk?
I walk, for the most part, especially on these early outings, on my own. So I can only rely upon what I can see for myself, try not to be too fanciful, and photograph things if at all possible. I had been sure about my sighting up until then and after this, suddenly doubtful.
Obviously, whether it really matters or not is a moot point. I am not a ticker offer or maker of lists. I am not a twitcher. I don’t have anything against it, it works for many people, but I do not hope or plan to see two hundred species in a calendar year, nor do I follow mobile phone alerts around the country to catch sight of spectacularly rare migrants who may have taken a wrong turning. I don’t have the energy or the discipline for that. My desire to be out here, at first in the dark, and then enjoying the receding gloom, comes from a different need. I love the context the country provides, the tracks and marks that not only we make, but also those that are made on us.
My Grandad Jack would have been able to settle the query over the birds’ identity. Jack was a countryman, an old-fashioned term today, and not really something he would have called himself, but he is the person to whom I directly attribute my interest in nature, and that phrase is how I think of him. And I think of him regularly, as I tramp about on my own.
He was born before the Great War, before this forest was thought necessary, when this landscape was all gorse and heath and sandy ridges. His family came from Burnopfield in County Durham, a mining village surrounded by other mining villages. Jack, his dad, his dad before him, and for all I know, for generations further and further distant than that, was a miner. He had gone down the pit in his early teens, but found he struggled with a bad chest, most probably asthma. In 1926, during the General Strike, unable to use the colliery, he and his peers walked over a hundred miles to the South Yorkshire coalfields to see what options might open up for them there. He never went back. It was in Doncaster that he met my Nana and before he was twenty he had started a family.
Jack was the most able person I have ever known. He was as sharp as a tack, practical, meticulous; his workshop, the garage I knew as a nipper, where I would go and watch him craft anything from a fully functioning lawnmower to a steel guitar with perfect pitch, was a treasure trove of wonder. The big thing for me were his walking sticks, which he whittled in his spare time but would still, nevertheless, turn out to be exquisite. I have one, at home, a wonderfully rendered piece of hazel, which we went and cut together and which he made me feel I’d created myself. My daughter commandeers it now, if ever we go for a walk, it is hers and Great Grandad’s.
As an escape from the horrors of the mine, Jack took to the hills and perhaps had more reason than anyone to thread his mind into the weave and weft of nature. He would predict the weather better than anyone I know, telling my Nana when she’d be best set to put out her sheets. He taught me birdsong, which I have all but forgotten, to my shame. He read widely and introduced me enthusiastically to HG Wells and Gilbert White. I miss him terribly.
As I trudged back along the dusty forest path, I could hear Jack laughing at my doubts. I won’t say he was there, but hell, he’s always there anyway. He was the person who told me to watch for the leaves turning up before the clouds threatened, he was the person who told me that the Yellowhammer doesn’t really say “a little bit of bread and no cheese” but is close enough to not matter because nothing else comes close, and he’s the one who makes me look forward to the weekends, to pouring over maps, and to taking my girls out to some distant point for the views on the road back home.
He would have chuckled. He would have told me that I wasn’t wrong, that my first instinct was right.
Yes. I have been watching goshawks.