Before reading the MA Wild Writing at the University of Essex, Stephen Rutt spent six months ringing birds on the Orcadian island of North Ronaldsay. Here he recalls two encounters with the wild.
It came suddenly. A lightning bolt from a clear sky. A crack that cleared the waders from the coastal fields and emptied the east coast of the island of anything that could fly and fear. Oystercatchers, redshanks, godwits, crows. About a thousand greylag geese. Two hooded crows — one on each wing tip — harassed it lower. It circled over my head. I could see a breast bulging with muscle and long, stocky wings. Half-remembered ID features vanished from my head. My mind spun like a slot-machine: goshawk, goshawk, sparrowhawk? It had to be both; it couldn’t be either. A sparrowhawk is a reasonably common migrant on North Ronaldsay; a goshawk is thrillingly rare and out of place.
It took three minutes from its arrival, to its disappearance in a cloud of terrified birds, according to the times stamped in my photographs. The evidence is incontrovertible. It was a pixel-perfect goshawk.
It spent three days on the island. It was seen three times. Even in a place with few trees these hawks remain elusive, tricky to find. It was last seen drifting off, high to the south, over the firth to the island of Sanday, beyond where the crows would dare to harass it. Without it the island seemed less. Smaller and safer. The miracle of megafauna is that they alter everything. The crows seem jumpier. The geese more hidden. The atmosphere is electrified and it transmits that charge to the watcher. Everything gets triple checked. The sky is keenly scanned. The second time I saw it, I got a heart attack from the shock and defibrillated from the excitement. Its presence as it flew around in its own raincloud of redshank and oystercatchers is its own vivid surreal excitement. As Helen MacDonald says in H is for Hawk, it’s like having a dinosaur appear in front of you.
We crowd into the tiny ringing hut. Dusk. A dying car battery is hooked up to the light that flickers. Mark – the warden – holds a bag. Inside the bag is a sparrowhawk and Mark feels for it slowly, deliberately, avoiding feet and bill. Instructions are terse. I remove the bag around his hands. Time slows.
The first thing I see are its feet. Yellow. Feet too big for their thin legs, hanging half-cocked. Black talons, hooked like a crook, hanging as if half-poised to grip relentlessly. Remorselessly.
A hawk moves at different speeds to humans. It operates at a faster frame rate and in unbelievable clarity and detail. It transfixes me with its eye. A luminous yellow, flickering. A brighter, deeper yellow than should naturally be possible. I see the tiny adjustments it makes to its iris, to its direction and looking at us who have temporarily taken it hostage. I see it thinking — no not thinking — I see its instinct to bloodlust in that eye. The bright heat of action and coldness of a killer. It gazes at every pore in my skin and the awe in my eye.
Its eye is set in, under a furrowed white brow of intent and set just back from the lethally hooked bill. Made to rip and tear and cut through feathers and skin and warm blood. It was a young female: a chocolate brown plumage on the black, with creamy fringes to the feathers. A male sparrowhawk was trapped earlier that was significantly smaller and lighter. There is talk that the male is prettier: blue on top and barred orange underneath. But I’m not sure what the point of a pretty hawk is. It is not meant to be so.
From it we took its measurements. Wing length from elbow to wing tip: 241mm. Its weight: 345 grams — a well fed, large hawk. Presumably from the far north. From us it took a light metal ring, pliered to a flush fit on its thin yellow leg. The ring has a unique identifying code on it and will be entered into an international database. The next time it is trapped, or perhaps found dead, the code on the ring will be read and reported back and ornithology will have one extra data set.
Mark releases it into the night. It slips away, black against the indigo night sky, to the north. I remember to breathe.
I am reminded of H is for Hawk again. Sparrowhawks are described as pet cats to the goshawk’s leopard nature. It’s true. But even a sparrowhawk can fill a room with fearsome presence.
Stephen Rutt is an MA Wild Writing student at the University of Essex. East Anglian by upbringing, Stephen has spent six months in Orkney, been tick-bitten in a Hungarian marsh and floated in a boat in the mid-Atlantic in search of birds. As well as an obsession with winged things, Stephen has a BA in English from Stirling, and has had writing published in Earthlines, The Harrier and the East Anglian Daily Times. He blogs at stephenrutt.blogspot.com and tweets @steverutt.