This is not a cool spring evening in the north-east highlands, murmuring pink-footed geese settling onto the lake in the woods, the smell of the air from the river. And I am not standing on the edge of the woods waiting for a faint announcement:
(thin sound, breathy start, central consonant sharp, defined); and then silence, cool breathing; then again louder as it comes closer:
Pause, smiling at the pleasure of it all, knowing what comes next – and louder:
“whittick ———- oort–oort”
Closer and then – whipping across my head a faint shade, “whittick ———- oort–oort”, and he’s gone, off between the trees.
No, this is in the city, the big city, surrounded by housing, tenements and council flats, in the wild rough grass of the ‘meadow’. This is one cold morning, arrived off the train at Waterloo, doing my daily rainfall and temperature check, probably in that long-standing mourning for different places and different air, and now taking pleasure in recognition: in the grass, a wing, some feathers.
Stooping carefully, I can see what I have. Two wings, legs, no head, breast meat partially removed. I lift his remains and look around. No sign of the head, no more feathers. Only these: the perfect woodcock form spread into my hand, a driving wing, it carries you fast across Europe, twists you through trees when you reach your wood, rich chestnuts, ambers, a dark rippling linear script hides you in the dead leaves; and your two legs, sturdy, not long not short, but curled and out of action now.
How did you get here?
I looked everywhere for the head – it could have fallen anywhere – and perhaps some distance from this resting place where meat was ripped. I went across the public park and around the streets a little – for I could see the moment of strike, of sudden death, head flying. From the way it was lying and eaten, I could imagine an instant of perfect predation – a peregrine – intersecting paths with this migrating woodcock.
Peregrine falcons living in cities like London and Bristol are known to hunt at night, taking advantage of migrating prey. These birds, skylarks (I found one lying dead once in the street on Lambeth Walk, a faint shade of the singing larks Blake would have heard walking across from home to the river), warblers (they pause and stay awhile each spring and autumn, feeding in the cover I have left for them in this city patch), woodcock – use the cover of dark to avoid their shadowing and rapacious angels. But in Lambeth, in Bristol, the peregrines find they can see well enough in the street lighting.
I carried his remains back to my Wildlife Garden Study Room, photographed and kept them for a long while. I showed them periodically, witness to a tale of living, hard journeying and then dying. Eventually mites nibbled the feathers into dust and I placed what was left amongst the flowers outside the window. The dust is as clear a memory now as the roding woodcock by the River Ythan.
© David Perkins 2012