The following piece appeared on the Caught by the River website on 28th August 2015.
August begins, as these things tend to, on the first of the month: Yorkshire Day—the anniversary of the occasion on which God, in His infinite wisdom, said, “Let there be Yorkshire!” thereby creating His very own county. Or something like that. Sprinkle that one with paprika and barbecue it, so-called ‘home’ counties!
I’m woken by a loud, insistent banging on the dining room window. Philip, the bolshie pheasant, has chosen today of all days to return to our garden after a summer’s debauchery. He’s looking pretty knackered, minus his long tail-feathers. He must be moulting. An ashtray of peanuts soon perks him up. Ten minutes later, he’s banging on the window again, demanding a second helping. Oh what the hell, it is Yorkshire Day after all!
I always think of August as the lethargic month. The real action of summer is mostly over. Flowers have bloomed. Animals have bred. The swifts are on their way back to Africa. The swallows and martins are topping up with insects, getting ready to follow. On the Moor above my home, the resident grouse are keeping their heads low as the annual blood-bath approaches.
On my way to visit my dad on the Wirral, I call at one of my regular haunts: the marshes on the Dee estuary at Burton. There’s an unseasonably warm south-westerly wind. It’s disconcerting. Anyone might think it was summer. Not before time, it’s been a total shocker so far. I walk along the track at the edge of the marsh towards the Iron Age promontory fort at Burton Point. Hundreds of newly shorn sheep graze the marshes. Stray tufts of wool hang from the track-side vegetation, barely distinguishable from the goldfinch-laden thistle-heads jettisoning their downy payloads into the breeze. Further along, in the carr copses, the bulrushes are also covered in white, downy seed-tufts. Great reedmace, the experts used to insist we call them, although they seem to have given up on that nonsense for the time-being. To add to the general whiteness, the cream-white meadowsweet is in bloom. It’s a flower that harbours fond memories. One of mum’s favourites. And here’s some pretty purple flower I don’t recognise. My guidebook later informs me it’s common mallow. Not marsh-mallow, despite this being a marsh. Go figure. One to add to my small but burgeoning wild-flower-identification repertoire. Learn a handful of flowers, and impress your friends as something of a nature expert.
I pass the disused sandstone quarry and climb the slope at Burton Point, disturbing two women sunbathers of a certain age. I pretend not to have seen them, as they hastily re-adjust clothing. Instead, I turn to take in the view across the marshes towards Wales. It’s sweltering. Several small formations of Canada geese pass low overhead, heading out on to the marshes. They seem more active than usual this afternoon for some reason. I train my binoculars on one group, and watch as the lead bird tumbles from side to side, spilling air from its wings, trying to get some other sucker to take the lead. Suddenly, without warning, all the geese start honking and scatter. From their midst, a much smaller bird heads straight towards me with powerful, determined wing-beats. A juvenile peregrine—a female, judging by the size of her. I drop my binoculars, grab my camera to fire off a few quick shots, then pick up my binoculars again as she banks north and flips upside-down to make a half-hearted grab at a startled egret. Just a practice run, I guess, although the egret seems to think it was real enough. I don’t care, I’m still chalking that one up as my second ever attempted peregrine strike.
A few days later, the so-called Glorious Twelfth lives up to its name, weather-wise at least. It’s blistering—way too hot for this sun-grouch—but I head up to my beloved Moor anyway. It would be discourteous not to. August is the time when the moors temporarily set aside their famously grim countenances and put on a bit of a show. In a month named after a Roman emperor, the Yorkshire Pennines don their finest imperial purple regalia. Foxgloves, thistles, harebells, herb-Robert, purple-loosestrife, tufted vetch, assorted willow-herbs, and even the evil Himalayan balsam all try to enter into the spirit of the occasion, but the real star of the show is the heather: for a few short weeks each summer, the moors take on an ostentatious pinky-purple hue as far as the eye can see.
The sensory overload of a hot summer’s day hits me as I head across the Moor. The smell of honey and baking earth. The buzzing of insects. The grasshoppers rasping away in the moor-grass, pretending to be rattlesnakes. The muffled throb of a distant tractor mowing hay in the fields below. A grouse making its bouncing-ping-pong-ball call beyond the brow of the hill. Butterflies and bumblebees. Blinding sun. Stifling heat. But no gunshots. It might be the first day of the grouse-shooting season, but there’s no sign of any wild-bird baggers to spoil my walk. Not today, at least.
A kestrel hovers above the edge to my left. You often spot them up there, making the most of the updraught. Not that there will be much of an updraught on a day like today. It’s rare to walk on the Moor in summer and not see a kestrel or two; but it’s much rarer to walk on the Moor and see any other species of raptor. In almost a quarter-century of walks up here, I’ve seen but a handful of buzzards, two little owls, two short-eared owls, three merlins, one hobby, one peregrine, and absolutely no red kites or hen harriers: a damn poor show for an area you’d expect to be teeming with raptors, if you ask me. I mean, not a single hen harrier in getting on for 25 years, with all those plump red grouse just sitting there for the taking! Hen harriers are a missing pleasure of August. One might almost think there was something keeping them away. And it’s not just up here: the hen harrier’s virtual absence from all the moorlands of Northern England is an utter mystery. Or so said a grouse-moor gamekeeper I bumped into a few years back, who clearly knew a thing or two about birds.
I reach the top of the rise and head towards the trig point. A small bird lands on the track fifteen metres or so in front of me. Did I just catch a flash of white? Could it be? Yes! My first wheatear on the Moor this year! I’ve been worried sick! Admittedly, I haven’t been up here quite as often as usual this summer, but I would normally expect to have seen plenty of wheatears by now. Undoubtedly one of my top-ten birds. Ask me about them some time: I’ll bore you rigid. I love wheatears. They’re such incorrigible teases. What they like to do, you see, is—oh, here we go…
The wheatear flits five metres further along the track, then turns to look back at me coyly over its shoulder. It’s giving me the come-on. It’s definitely flirting! I edge forward five metres. The wheatear flits away another five, turns, and bats its eyelids. I take a few photos, nonchalantly edging closer between shots, but the wheatear is on to my ploy. It flits forward again, maintaining a just-too-respectable distance. It’s the story of my life, as far as birds are concerned. I’m sure they think this is some sort of game: flit, flirt… flit, flirt! And then, as we reach the trig point, the wheatear has had enough. It heads off low across the heather, flashing its eponymous ‘white-arse’ as it goes. Like I said, incorrigible.
I reach the trig point and touch it to make my ascent official. A streak of bird-shit adorns the top of the whitewashed concrete pillar. Not the traditional white bird-shit, but a bright purple slart. It’s good to see the wheatear has also entered into the spirit of the season. The bilberries must be ripening.
Postscript: A little over a year after writing this piece, I eventually got to see a hen harrier on the moor.