Ravens, sorcery and snow

Raven flying above snow, California, Yosemite National Park, Taken 11.16 Copyright David Hoffmann

Ravens don’t hang about. No sooner have the late afternoons begun to nudge towards daylit early evenings than they start to flex territorial muscles.

Stroppy is the word for what follows: diving down at the head of a trotting dog fox on a dead-straight mission with the vixen at the far end of it, roughing up a passing heron (which showed a passable turn of speed in response), swerving into a fast climb to torment one of the neighbourhood peregrines (a road to nowhere if ever there was one, for the falcon twisted, dived, vanished, and reappeared in a ferocious dash at the tail of one of the ravens).

It is rarely dull once the juices start flowing in raven country.

The sun bounced off the high, snowy slopes. The ravens flashed glossy shades of inky blue-black whenever they burst out of the deep shadows of the gully. It repeated the trick again and again in a series of rapid circles from the gully to the open glen, each circle punctuated with hoarse, falsetto guffaws and short upside-down sprints.

These were followed by swoops and climbs of fluid grace, the two birds apparently flowing into each other so that, for a breathtaking moment, it was as if the two fused into a single bird. Then, they burst apart again and the illusion was wrecked and the watcher was smiling.

A kestrel was working the sunlit side of the glen, a shimmer of copper a-tremble on an airy stance, fan-tail a-flicker, black wingtips working in tandem with the wind, the head-down hunter of a nature writer’s winter dreams and a short-tailed field vole’s nightmares.

It began to descend by jerky flights of uneven and invisible steps and landings, a pause on every landing, until it was no more than a dozen feet above the tops of the pines, eyes intent on the slightest waver of mountain grass that might signal a vole about to lose its nerve and break cover.

Ravens do not approve of kestrels in their nesting glen. The circling game was suddenly abandoned in pursuit of higher purpose. With wings half-closed, one of the ravens made a missile of itself, aimed itself at the kestrel, and headed down a shaft of sunlight at speed. It was closing fast when the oblivious kestrel crash-dived feet-first into the grass.

The raven pulled out a yard above the grounded bird, powered back up the air, back-flipped at the apex of its climbing curve, completed the roll with a second right-way-up flip and dived again.

The kestrel saw it coming this time and sped away low over the floor of the glen looking more like a hawk than a falcon.

The raven abandoned the chase. It is often harder with a raven than any other native bird to pinpoint the blurred line between pointed aggression and pointless high jinks for the sheer hell of it.

This one rose in a long curve that took it back into the lee of the mountain then straightened out into a shallow climb aimed directly at the crag where refurbishing last year’s nest had already begun. There it vanished among overhangs, boulders and shadows.

A bruise-coloured cloud bore down on the glen, the unambiguous shade of snow in the offing. It announced itself with a series of icy flurries that soon thickened across the headwall. Yet the sun still shone, and where they coincided, sorcery followed.

I put the binoculars on it just to watch the snow’s dance among sunbeams, and slowly a snowbow began to arch palely across the headwall. It seemed to prove too much of a temptation for the ravens.

They suddenly appeared together high above their crag, and it looked for all the world as if they were charging the arch of the snowbow with a black counter-arch of their own, with the idea of putting a black breach in it. For there was a moment when the two birds, not a yard apart, were ablaze with the bow’s bands of pale colour so that it looked as if they had broken it in two.

Five times they did this from different heights and different angles. Of course, the snowbow would be advancing before them as they flew, but if they were not mimicking that glorious gesture of nature, I don’t know what else they could possibly have been up to.

The snowcloud smoored the sunlight. The snowbow withered. The flakes thickened and the snow began to reach into the very depths of the glen. I edged into the lee of a rock to wait, for already I could see the far edge of the cloud where the sky paled in the north.

I wondered where the ravens went. Then a rock 20 yards away said “kruuk”, and there was a raven sitting on it that was not there seconds before, yet I had not seen it arrive.