Watching ravens

· life ·

Mr. Bsag and I have just got back from our holiday in Pembrokeshire. We’ve had a blissful time disconnecting from online stuff, walking (a lot), and feeling our shoulders drop and relax as we looked at the sea and watched the wildlife. Our idea of a perfect holiday is to be somewhere very quiet with easy access to the coast, with bonus marks for a wood burning stove for cosy evenings. The place we stay in western Pembrokeshire ticks all those boxes and — unusually for Wales — we even had great weather while we were away. I have had an incredibly busy year so far, so I felt ready for a break. I’m happy to be home (and very glad to be reunited with the cats) but I’m already missing the wildness. I’m trying to remember some of the beautiful things we saw in as much detail as I can. I want to be able to take those memories off my mental shelves to look at and console myself with when I inevitably start feeling hemmed in by all the concrete again.

There are lots of memories to choose from, but one of the most striking was watching a pair of ravens (Corvus corax) playing with the wind over the cliffs. I have seen ravens in the wild before (once, memorably, roosting on the UC San Diego Geisel Library building), but mostly they have been high in the sky and disappearing into the distance. This time, we were incredibly lucky to see a pair of ravens performing aerobatics over a cliff face and the inland fields in a high wind.

As we walked along the cliff path, they rode the wind up the cliff face side by side. When they had risen above our heads, they tucked their wings tighter to their bodies like black arrowheads, and shot inland, seemingly surfing into the off-shore wind. We watched amazed as they suddenly flipped over precisely 180 degrees and flew upside down for a few seconds before rotating back again and repeating the manoeuvre. It was like watching fighter pilots but with so much more grace and subtlety.

Over the next few minutes, they tied the wind in beautiful and complex knots with their flight. At one moment their movements were crisp, geometrical and precise, and the next they were slurring and slipping towards each other, almost touching outstretched wingtips before sliding gently away. They slowed and rolled languidly in opposing directions, reaching black feet out to each other, then carved graceful curves to part and rejoin. They flipped and flickered and shape-shifted. They skipped from vortex to vortex like a flat pebble skimmed on a calm lake. At times it seemed that they slowed so much they must stall and fall out of the sky, but just at that moment of falling they cut swift new paths through the wind waves, black calligraphy on the sky.

I could have watched them forever, but eventually they went beyond our view and the spell was broken.

You might like to listen to ‘Raven’ (featuring Jason Singh) in the Lost Words BBC Prom. The Raven section is quite short but starts at 30 minutes and 10 seconds.