Caught by the River

The Hawk

26th August 2011

by Jim Farrar.

As a kid I loved birds. Specifically birds of prey. Killers all. I can’t explain why. I just did. I could identify other birds. Their eggs. Their nests. But they didn’t have the same hold over my young mind. How could they? Sparrow v Sparrow Hawk. Sparrows are alright. It’s nothing personal but they were ten a penny. Sparrow Hawks, well, they eat sparrows don’t they? More specifically they stalk them, then swoop from above, then pluck them from the sky. All at tremendous speed. Have you ever seen that? I have. It stays with you forever. Majestic.

They used to take us once a week from school, St. Theresa’s, clutching our two orange tickets, round the back of the church, to Crossgates library. You had to get one ‘real book’. A novel. Asterix books didn’t cut it. We tried every week but no luck. The teachers frowned upon football annuals also. Then they told us reading should be fun. We used to make mad grabs for books on birds. The Observers Book of Birds, RSPB Guide to British Birds, The Observers Book of Birds Eggs (collecting eggs was still seen as a viable hobby for a young boy in the mid 70s), European Birds of Prey. They were always out. Should a kid ever return one of those titles he either renewed it, if he could get that little transaction past the ever vigilant teachers, or the kid behind him in the queue jumped on it. In time I acquired them all and more. Gifts at Christmas and Birthdays. The obligatory book from a favourite Aunt.

Five minutes from our back door,(I didn’t know anyone who used their front door growing up. We had one, I think, but I don’t remember ever using it. The postman would push bills and birthday cards though it and a kid a few classes above me in school the Evening Post six nights a week but to actually open it?) we had loads of fields. Football pitches, a cricket pitch, a graveyard, woods, a golf course, Templenewsham House and the remnants of an open cast mine. Paradise for a 10 year old boy. Perfect terrain for a multitude of wildlife.

I knew a lad who found an Owl in the woods. A Tawny Owl with a broken wing. He took it home, kept it in the garage, nursed it back to health. He found and rescued loads of animals. They said he’d saved a badger. And a fox. But the owl was the one. Have you ever been close to an owl? You may tower over it and even as a 10 year old you out weigh it by a good 75 lbs or so but, make no mistake about it, the owl controls the situation.

I knew where an owl lived. A Barn Owl. It’s nest a classic in an abandoned out building by the big greenhouses at Templenewsham. Me and another lad who lived in our street we’d climb a nearby tree and just sit there watching. Waiting. For hours. Staying out late. Tempting the wrath of our respective Dad’s. When you’re young and it’s the summer holidays, the sun can take a hell of a long time to set. Weeks on end we wouldn’t even catch a glimpse of it but when we did, it was worth it.

I knew where there was a Kestrel’s nest, under the eves of the Pavilion at Whitkirk Cricket Club. I knew where there were several. Kestrels weren’t rare. They were beautiful though. My dad once described a greyhound as purely functional, born to run, to chase down prey, nothing wasted. I think that’s the quality I admired in falcons and hawks though I couldn‘t articulate it at the time. Every feather, every ounce of being necessary, nothing superfluous, all functional, all tilted towards speed, power, stealth, and survival.

One Spring Sunday afternoon we were lying under a mature pine tree overlooking some hole or other on the golf course, I forget which. Later I learned it was a dog leg par 4. This information still doesn’t mean much to me, truth be told. What it meant to me as a kid, what it meant to loads of kids round our way, was no end of fun. You think they’d learn. Some of them did but many more didn’t. Mystified golfers would take a punt on getting over the trees. No matter how good their stroke, give us kids 30 seconds or so to locate it and the ball would be heading back towards them, accompanied by pearls of youthful laughter. Give us a couple more years and this became prime hunting ground for golf balls that were resold back at the club house. It was raining. Not too hard but a soaking rain. Nothing to do but sit it out. The grass smelt good and the air clean. Through the rain, into view darted the dark shadow of a bird. The silhouette unmistakably that of a killer .It disappeared into the branches above us. Bigger than a Kestrel. Could it be… Our eyes widened and we wondered what to do next. Go out into the rain, see where it was perched or stay still see if it took off again? After a few minutes curiosity got the better of us. With trepidation, we ventured out from beneath the tree, oblivious to the rain. Two pairs of eyes scanned every branch of that pine tree until we located a nest. Fairly large. A Sparrow Hawk’s.

We watched it for several weeks after school. Teas wolfed down, uniforms changed and bikes ridden down our street, through the ginnel to the football pitches, past the gatehouse of Templenewsham, along the avenue, past the house then onto the golf course. We didn’t see it every evening but we knew it was there. A female. We could feel her presence.

She took off one evening as dusk approached. A few quick beats of her wings and she was gone. Low and fast over the brow of the hill. She wouldn’t leave her nest unguarded for long. We knew that. But for how long? That we didn’t know. How could we? At that young age, enchanted as we were by this regal creature, our understanding of time was rudimentary at best. The Timex on my wrist marked the minutes and the hours at a speed totally at odds with my concept of elapsed time. Were my father alive today he would, I’m confident, readily bare witness to this fact. Strange as it may seem, as I turned the corner into our street late, almost nightly, my watch and my grasp of hours past would fall into perfect lock step. The anticipation of facing the old man filling me with dread. So there we stood. Two 10 year olds, staring up at a pine tree. The prize an unguarded nest the contents of which we only dared to speculate upon.

Nothing was said. It was just understood. We had to know. Sadly, the middle aged me cannot account for the actions of the 10 year old. Too much real life has gotten in the way in interim years. Pine trees produce sap. Once you penetrate the lustrous green you’re faced with a maze of densely woven limbs each one, it seems, weeping sticky residue. Your hands are sticky in an instant. Your hair. Your sweater. Your jeans. Your trainers. It gets everywhere. It’s the price extracted for the privilege of getting amongst a pine tree’s bows. If anything, pine trees have too many branches to make them good climbing trees. Even at 10, you had to stay close to the trunk. The thin branches unable to support your weight further out. We pushed on through, spitting out bark and pine needles and sap. Above me profanity. Cursing when you’re 10 has so much more resonance. I pulled myself up opposite my friend. Our eyes leveled above the rim of the fantastically constructed nest. The tree swaying as we switched footing. And there, in the brown bed of twigs and mud and moss lay a solitary egg. Greenish blue shot through with flecks of brown. Not quite an inch in length. Almost as wide. The most beautiful thing my young eyes had ever seen. Such was the simple nature of my youth.
“Don’t touch it!”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“She’ll abandon it if she smells you.”
“I know. Come on, lets get down.”

We hurried on down. Elated. We both ran across the open grass bent down at the waist. Keeping low. We rolled to the ground then lay flat on our stomachs in the undergrowth, eyes fixed on the tree. Implicitly we both feared she would abandon the nest should she realize it had been disturbed. Regret crept in. If the clock could have been turned back I’m sure we would have both wanted to relive the last few minutes over. On the ground.

It felt like an age. It was barely more than a few minutes. If that. She came back into view as swiftly as she had departed. She flew tree high and shot right past the pine housing her nest, choosing to settle on the branch of an oak tree about 25 feet away. Our hearts sank. What had we done? We could see her in outline, faintly, in the fading light. Then we’d lose her. Time stood still. Staying low to the ground we willed her back to her nest. Making silent deals with God such was the gravity of the situation in our young minds. Nothing. She didn’t return, nor did she flee. That had to count for something? I wish I could describe some epic return, some circling maneuver, some cautious approach but the truth is, after a while, she simply flew from the oak tree to the nest. Had she sensed our intrusion? Or had she chosen to take temporary respite in the oak tree impulsively? Obviously, we’ll never know but, to the 10 year old me, the fact that she’d returned to her nest meant everything.

(Originally published in the East Leeds Magazine).