I see him most days: a silhouette against the clouds, a movement in the bright sky, a hunched shape on the electricity post. My first thought is falcon, to be rapidly filtered as I take in size, shape, speed, location, but even if I never get a clear view of the orange-brown back, one thing brings a species-name leaping to mind: he hovers on the wind.
Kestrels are a common birds of prey: they hunt confidently on so much small prey on road and waysides, field edges and motorways, that they can be overlooked. But the kestrel I see near where I work in Sayalonga is resident and I see him so often I feel connected to his hunting pattern. I work and he works, but his work is his life. The demonstrations of falconer José Manuel, which I enjoyed in Salares in September, were a reminder to me of what I know of hawks and why they are never truly tame. Born to hunt, the bird’s drive to do so is an irresistible urge, whetted by hunger; it is the activity hardwired into the bird’s genetics, its nature. The falconer flies a hungry bird and it returns to the hand for one reward alone – meat. The fed bird won’t fly (or won’t return). So my Sayalonga falcon’s endless patience in balancing above the vineyards and weeds to find finches, rodents, beetles or reptiles is driven by hard need.
Life’s not all about the belly though. When I walked from Saylonga to Cómpeta in September, a pair of the birds went tumbled through the air above the valley, catching each others claws and crying with hard high-pitched sharp calls, in courtship display. Romance!
I can’t help romancing, either. He’s beautiful, my Sayalonga kestrel, from the gorgeous pattern of blue-black head and patterned brown-orange, to the endless grace of his movement in the sky. He turns into art in my head – Kes in the coalfields, Wart turned into a kestrel by Merlin in the Sword in the Stone. Shown below, Gerald Manley Hopkin’s beautiful poem The Windhover – which is the old English name for the kestrel – is a gloriously inflated piece of writing but it catches something of the raptor’s perfect grace. Yet for all this art, I know I’m getting carried away: I’m just watching another lovely bird flying over the hillside again.
To Christ Our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.