Country diary: peregrine and curlew, locked in flight

·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Neil Walker/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Neil Walker/Alamy

There’s an easy, arm-swinging path between Malham Tarn and Gordale, whose turf is spangled with tormentil and thyme. Today, however, I spurn it in favour of some jeopardy-hopscotch on the baking blocks of limestone. I’m here to look for flowers, and sure enough, below me, each potentially leg-breaking fissure contains a cool green microcosm, with ferns going about their business, and herb robert, cranesbills and harebells turning sweet faces to peek up at the passing giants.

The biggest of all the fissures is Gordale Scar itself. There is something fantastical about its scale and gradient, how the vertical walls close in as I descend, how the beck spills through a window in the rock and down an apron of tufa and moss. They all suggest I’ve shrunk like Alice after sipping the bottle labelled “drink me”, and now it’s my turn to peer up, wondering what gods might occupy the world above.

But as I climb back up to the top, a curlew calls, and two distant shapes appear over the other side of the scar. Something off-kilter about the movement makes me raise my binoculars to my eyes, and I realise with a jolt that only one is a curlew, flying chaotically, as though wearing wings too big for it. The other moves so smoothly it might be a cardboard cutout on a rail. A peregrine.

They cover the distance between us in seconds, and when the curlew tumbles again, the peregrine doesn’t even waver. It holds form and simply slides into the same airspace as its quarry – as though both trajectories were preordained. They pass overhead. I see the falcon’s chest change shape as its wings beat – just once – and yellow legs swing forward. The curlew twists, calls once more. Then a blur of grassy ground rises fast and swallows them both.

They’ve dropped behind a rise on the edge of the scar. I sprint 20 metres to the top. When I arrive, I can see only empty air all the way down to the valley bottom. The calling has stopped, leaving only the whirr and tick of grasshoppers, and the blood pounding in my ears

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