Caerlaverock 09/01/20

I know the Solway empties like a sink with the plug pulled out. But still it surprises me. When we pulled up, the car windscreen looked south over sea to the frost-glazed fields of Cumbria. We were here for a low-tide bird count but the sea didn’t bother us. We would sit, have lunch, talk, and soon enough the sea would metamorphose to mud and an alternate, avian tide would flow back instead, flocking on the freshly revealed land.

Between bites of my sandwich, I watch a goldcrest shimmy along the blue-green branches of a fir tree, its bill a tweezer, delicately picking out the insect food that I cannot see. It flits away and I turn back to the Solway and the sea is less. There are stones and sandbanks appearing. Against the flow of water, waders fly up the firth. Curlew come first, then oystercatchers, then dunlin. Before they can spread themselves out, while the water still drains away, they bunch together. We give each other directions to the flocks based on radio masts, wind turbines, the modern landmarks of the Cumbrian coast. It is between two masts that I see it first. I see it as a rolling ripple. Dunlin turning silver, grey, white in the sunlight. A flock oscillating. Then a wave of oystercatchers, a ribbon of lapwings.

The thought dawns on me so late that if I were a wader I would be dead. This is not a pre-roost display, a murmuration of convenience, a flaunting of avian skill. This is the motion of fear. Predator. I catch its shape a second later. A familiar shape, a familiar thrill. The peregrine curves up, high above the Solway. It levels out for a second, flying onwards. Then it flips.

It drops like an anchor. Like gravity with anger. The hunger of speed. An action as quick as a flash and it is within the flock. More oscillation, shivering shapes of waders. Within a beat the peregrine is up again. Then down. Tearing through the flock, sifting out the weak, the ill, the slow of thought or fear. It finds nothing.

It exits high, heading further up the firth, panic spread in a handful of seconds.

I first saw a peregrine stoop over the Tesco carpark in Dunblane, almost a decade ago. Since then, I have never seen a peregrine kill another bird. But every year I see one come close, to the point where I am in no doubt that I will witness it in the next few years. I have no idea how I will feel in that moment. If my sympathy lies in the thrill of the chase, or with the life lost. Or with the knowledge that nature will just go on, regardless of my thoughts and feelings.

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