They appear out of the silence and snow without sound, without any sign of foretelling that I can decipher. Arriving as if by magic, they flare from reefs of pale and brittle reeds like they’d been pulled from a hat, or lance over the furrows and fields in a sudden, windswept whirl. The hen harriers ghost into view like fireflies at night, unseen until they glow so close. These winter months are marked by the wild signature of their flights. Breeding mostly in the far north of Europe, these raptors migrate from the bogs and taiga of their nesting grounds through the autumn to settle in the south until spring. Some winters we’ll see only a few take up the offer of tenure around the wetlands, patrolling the perimeter like lone sentries, but in other years, when fierce, chilling weather pushes the birds farther south, many more will come hurtling out of the cold skies to bracelet the lakes on the wing. But no matter how many pass the season in our midst, they always appear as if out of nowhere, falling out of the silence and snow, out of the weightless, misted air which settles like breath on a windowpane. As if these birds were shaped and gifted out of nothing.
The male hen harrier, or northern harrier as he’s known in North America, entrances me. As much as I marvel at the female that sweeps brown and tawny over the snows, parading the white ring that’s been thrown like a horseshoe around her tail, it’s her counterpart that I await with the excitement of a homecoming. Seeing one waver at the edge of the winter lake, pearl-white and grey with black fingers at the tip of his wings, pulls me deep into a pool of mystery. It took me some years to unravel my fascination for this particular bird, and when I finally did it was after waking to snow that fell densely across the valley. A low smouldering cloud lay draped across the mountains, pillowed above the village. Snow was banked against the dark stone like a frozen lean-to. The fields and slopes spread white into the distance, edged with pewter mist. The day carried the narrowest possible range of colour tones, like a sparse and simple etching. Dark trees were pinned to the bleached mountain ridges, grey haze clouded the sky, and chimney smoke corkscrewed though the drifting snow. They were the common tones of a mountain winter – white, black and grey – and it occurred to me then that the male hen harrier had made them his own. Ghosting over the snowfields strung with skeletal dark trees, the hen harrier appears as an aerial interpretation of the season, a spectral reflection, an amulet worn over the year’s cold, hibernal hours.
But seeing hen harriers haunt the white meadows reminds me that winter is alive, as well. Even amidst snow there are fires, sheltered flames kindled and coaxed from the frozen land, the murmurs of unseen sentience below the surface, locked up in the slowed and shallow breaths of hibernating butterflies and frogs, lizards and fish, all settled beneath or around us as we traverse the stark winter world. Black woodpeckers lower themselves from the high crystal forests to the relative shelter of the valley, their long, haunting cries curling through the chill air like smoke from the village chimneys. A dipper sculls through snow along the river. Moss fills with water to burst like a gleaming emerald meadow, secret lush crops in the cold, fallow fields. I follow the path of a bear leading her cub through the snow, chart the course of their dark foragings over stream and under bough, down the granite track that winds like a river towards the lake. A flock of goldcrests, one of the tiniest birds in Europe, takes up residence for a while in three stunted pines at the foot of the garden, their faint calls like long-forgotten school friends come back to whisper at the back of class. Whatever earthly presence is alive through winter is transfigured, made small by the vast silence of the season or concealed by dormancy, but it’s still there, glowing faintly as embers, or a light far out to sea.
On cloudless mornings after storms there’s a brief, but brilliant, span of time when the snow, a revelation of night’s creaturely happenings, is fired by the rising sun. It clips the mountains at such an angle that every crystal, unique in its tumbling and settled shape, burns with a glittering intensity, a cupped flame inside each one. I watch a harrier gleam like snowlight through the air. It could be winter itself that’s on the move, the white and grey ghost passing though, the ice and snow set to buckle and shift beneath it when it leaves for the north. I listen as the bird sweeps silent over a stone-walled meadow, over the blazing shards of snow, and hear the crackling of the fire to come.