Inevitably, it was a red kite. It still strikes me as amazing that such a big bird should be so common a sight over Oxford these days. This one was cruising over the dividing line between city and country. Oxford’s edges are usually sharply defined by the boundary of the green belt, and here, just behind Barton Community Centre, Bayswater Brook separates a playground and dog walkers’ path from the expanse of brown field leading up to trees on the hilltop. The stream is lined with smaller trees, yellowing and thinning in mid-October, and it was from behind these that the kite emerged.
It glided over us, seemingly only just out of touching distance. Its head and its forked tail were both in motion, adjusting to angles of the wind, or of sight. Meanwhile, the shoulders and wings proceeded unchanging, their deep autumn colours stark against the clear sky. It indulged in no flashiness – no sideslips, no rolls. It just patrolled, steadily and gracefully, while the sun reflected from its hooked beak and russet eye.
As if to assert their status as the most common birds of prey in the UK, a little later two buzzards took to circling on the far side of the trees. They were more slung with weight than the kite, and their feathers tended to lighter browns, but they manoeuvred round each other with a similar ease of flight. Their tails were fans, but the flight feathers on the tips of their rectangular winds echoed the kite’s seemingly outstretched hand. Their
calls, too, were similar and yet different – a single, extended scream for the buzzard, and a sequence of looping ones for the kite.
Like the kite, the buzzard is a frequenter of motorways and most that I had seen recently had been squatting on fence posts keeping a vampiric eye out for the rodents that line the largely unpeopled verges, or for roadkill. But in the sky over Barton they were transformed. They performed a slow, spiralling dance built on air, with feathers and shadows sharing colours with the aging leaves, the sparrows in the hedge and the ash keys that hung over us.
The kestrel that emerged shortly afterwards from the branches of a tree further along the stream was made on a smaller scale. It must have been eyeing the grass and the bottom of the hedge from its perch. Mice and voles, skirting the open wastes of the field and dog-busy space on the Barton side, probably use the hedge line as a run. But the kestrel can pick them out from the foliage if they make a misstep.
It had clearly not seen enough from its spot in the tree, for now it launched a few metres higher, spreading its wings and tail into the wind-hover after which it was once named.
The art of hovering is astonishing. Movement rippled continuously through the whole speckled frame – except the head, which gazed down fixedly. Its adjustments were made to a different routine from the kite’s, one focused on maximising the information entering through the eyes. The kestrel quartered the ground ruthlessly, but we spectators only saw the beauty of its hawking.
The last of the four to be seen is the most densely muscled.
A female sparrowhawk drops from its perch some time after the kestrel’s monitoring has taken it downstream. She has a white breast streaked with lines of dark arrowheads. Her wings are relatively short, ideal for sprint speed and manoeuvring among branches.
We know she is female by her size – bigger than the kestrel, and so bigger than the male of her species. All the rest we can tell about her from looking is that under the feathers there is a construction of immense potential force, dense flesh wound tight as a trap.
But she is not hunting. Her flight from the tree is slow and easy. She drifts from the branch over us, briefly a silhouette against the blue. Then she’s gone behind us, over the houses that back onto this strip of grass. We turn to keep her in sight but she recedes to a minute yin/yang circle – dark top, white below.
Then she’s coming back. She heads up, over us again. Now she’s found the column of rising air and catches onto it, describing indolent loops with wings outstretched, up and up and up until she’s invisible, gone.
Four raptors on a cold autumn day: something to celebrate.
First published on Oxford Magazine