‘She will go hungry today, but that will only sharpen her schooling. The wigeon will soon face a formidable adversary.’
Extract taken from At the Very End of the Road
By Phillip Edwards
Published by Whittles
Slowly the wind diminishes. Clouds begin to break. Greyness sloughs from the landscape. Sunlight paints colours in dazzling saturation – skeletal trees russet-brown, river leaden, saltmarsh neon-green, lagoons deep ultramarine, reeds bleached ochre, the mud a rich umber. The sea turns steely-blue. Flocks of shelduck shine against the wet silvery shore. A flock of dunlin land along the edge of the dark tide. Their white bodies gleam like a string of pearls on a jeweller’s brown display cushion. Abruptly they levitate again, misting the air, almost motionless, drifting on the wind, passing high over the point to the river, then slowly precipitating into denser sinuous lines that oscillate and dive, disappearing against the dark backdrop of the fields and trees of the far bank, before rising again like wisps of smoke, away to decorate some other stretch of shore. From the sorcery of the sky, a rainbow blooms over the eastern hills. Short and squat, swallowed by the dark clouds above, it refuses to be extinguished and its truncated form glows brightly in its moment of glory before succumbing to the inevitable, to be devoured by the cloud. Yet the rainbow is not done, and as the showers and light shift again, sharpening still further the colours of the land, another rises phoenix-like in its place, flaring into a full arch, polished by the rain, glowing for its ephemeral moment of prismatic perfection, then withering slowly as it too fades into the trails of the storm. Seaward, still far out in the bay, those chameleons of light, the kittiwakes, are now dark grey against the ice-blue sky and shining sea as they journey back to the open ocean.
The top of a neap tide is turning; the mud that has remained above the brown waves is full of waders busy feeding or standing roosting, the sea sprinkled white with shelduck. Tension suddenly courses through the flocks, heads turning, necks craning. A peregrine sweeps around the point pushing a wave of wigeon seaward. She is a female, hatched this year but now large and heavy and sleek, gleaming bronze in the low late autumn light, muscles rippling rhythmically as they power her wings. Waders spasm upward, the beach clearing in a moment as if some giant unseen broom has pushed away unwanted dust from a floor. She swings low across the beach, spreading her wings and tail, arcing lazily upwards over the sea, her dark-streaked white underparts glinting briefly in the sun. Wings sleeked once more, she dives back along the water’s edge, gaining rapidly on a great black-backed gull, its white plumage still muddied with immature feathers as if it has spent too long dipped in the dirty sea. She rapidly overhauls the lumbering gull but slows as she passes over it, slipping easily to one side as the gull turns its heavy beak and lunges at her, as if irritated by the impudence of her proximity. She turns away and replicates the entire manoeuvre, hanging briefly over the gull with just enough distance to evade the danger held within the swipe of its beak. She retires once more. When she comes again, she does so from a different trajectory, flatter, slower, her wings more bowed and ballooning, enveloping the air beneath them. The gull ignores her this time with utter disdain, bored like a parent with a fractious child, for it is secure now in the knowledge that its much smaller tormentor is not hunting but simply using it for target practice, learning how to approach in different ways at different speeds and different angles. Twice more she comes in slowly and just above the gull, hanging briefly over it at the perigee of her orbit, then angling away. By the final time, the gull has moved too far from the point, and she heads back low along the now empty beach and lands on the opalescent mud. She preens.
Ten minutes later she lifts into the light wind and heads seaward. Shelducks paddle heavily through the waves to avoid her. She swings slowly into wind and closes over one, coming to the point of a stall directly above it, talons extended. She drops gently. The shelduck crash-dives in a shower of spray as if surprised to have been picked as a target, and the peregrine bends away, flapping leisurely, gaining height smoothly. She turns again, wings fully outstretched, and curves back in a shallow glide. The shelduck flock is now fully alert and scatters quickly ahead of her approach, but she is fast and comes quickly above another one, adjusting her attitude rapidly to hang just above it. It too dives to avoid her unwanted attention. But this time she stays on the cusp of a hover, waiting for its re-emergence nearby, angling quickly back towards it, then sharply upwards as the terrified shelduck dives again. She climbs steadily to a hundred feet, shakes herself in flight, sending rolls of ruffled feathers down her body like a dog shaking water from its coat, and glides back towards the mud, practising the same hovering manoeuvre briefly over a startled cormorant drying its unwaterproofed wings at the edge of the shore, as if she just cannot resist.
She rests and preens for another ten minutes and watches nine grey plovers that have the temerity to land and feed nearby. Then she opens her wings and flickers seawards again, but this time with purpose. She remains low, ignoring the shelduck flocks even as she cuts a swathe through them, intent instead on the flocks of wigeon swimming slightly further out. She angles in across the wind and comes to a hover, stationary on motionless wings angled finely enough to let the wind hold her momentarily, legs extended. The flock scatters in a storm of spray. Ducks that never dive, dive.
Anything to avoid the horror. The peregrine rises and banks steeply on a tight axis and approaches again, slowly and from a shallower angle, closer to the water, her silhouette now less distinctive to the wigeon but her presence just as terrifying. And this time all the morning’s practising generates the outcome she was trying to elicit: the wigeon panic and take flight. Instantaneously she climbs on straining wings, forcing the air away behind her as she wrenches herself upward. The wigeon flock coalesces, tightening even as it leaves the water, the white on the males’ upper wings flashing like distress beacons in the weak sunshine. Briefly, the flock diverges from the rising falcon, but as she rolls out of her climb and dives, that distance closes like a rifle’s recoil. She plunges through the flock, black talons grasping, then slows and turns but holds no prey. The wigeon have jinked away at the very last moment and now the gap between flock and falcon widens progressively. She returns shoreward, her loose flight seemingly carrying an air of dejection that failure inevitably accrues, yet only through failure comes knowledge and while her youth means she still has much to learn, the morning’s experience indicates that she learns fast. She will go hungry today, but that will only sharpen her schooling. The wigeon will soon face a formidable adversary.
At the Very End of the Road by Phillip Edwards is published by Whittles, priced £16.99