Rapha Mondial: Kings of the Mountains

Rapha Mondial: Kings of the Mountains

In our latest publication from the Mondial Archive, we examine the wildlife revealed through exploration first published in Mondial 001.

28 March 2018

The Rapha Explore campaign has traversed mountain ranges from south America to Europe, unveiling a whole new approach to dressing for adventure. In our latest publication from the Mondial Archive, we examine the wildlife revealed through exploration first published in Mondial 001.

A peregrine falcon smashes through a terrified flock of plovers; a goshawk goes undercover along a tree line and ambushes a feeding blackbird; a tawny owl lowers its feathered talons towards a shrew in the dead of night… Wildlife drama is never more explicit and it would be strange, unnatural even, were we not in awe of raptors. Diurnal and nocturnal birds of prey (eagles, hawks and falcons in the daytime, owls at night) are among the most widely recognised of the planet’s 10,000 species of birds. Worldwide there are about 190 species of owl, 240 species of hawk and eagle and 60 species of falcon. They are found from the top to the bottom of the globe in every habitat and in every country. Apart from areas of permanent ice cover there is nowhere on land that does not have birds of prey. Nature is red in tooth and claw but birds of prey are defined by their death-making business and they have spread everywhere in the world where they might make a living by killing other things.

It has made good sense for our species to admire, even envy, these carnivorous hunters for living as we cannot. As a result, over thousands of years of co-existence, as well as marvelling at their absolute skill at being themselves, their sheer functional killing-machine otherness, we have configured birds of prey in all sorts of imaginative and cultural incarnations. Doing so, we have narrowed the gap between them and us even as we have declared it.

The Ancient Greeks looked up and told the future by the way birds of prey flew overhead. The birds seemed to know the outcome of battles already – as if they could see further from their sky vantage (and indeed they could, for they knew there was likely to be carrion to eat when armies of men gathered). The Ancient Egyptians turned falcons into gods. Owls had prophetic skills too and were good for carrying human souls to and fro at night.

Neanderthal people wore eagle talons as jewellery 130,000 years ago and we continue to harness raptor power: every air force around the world has sought to co-opt the wings of falcons, supreme flyers, into their necessary myth-making. Falcons can fall on their prey from out of the sky and owls can reach into the dark. Watching them, or just knowing that they exist and are out there doing their thing, both shrinks and enlarges us. The human mind is bewildered (both amazed and rewilded) by what passes for an ordinary day in the lives of these apex predators.

Yet as much as we admire raptors we have also sought to eliminate them. No other birds have had to suffer such persecution. Every spring for many years men in Sicily climbed into hilltop bunkers to shoot at passing honey buzzards migrating from Africa into the European summer. They have mostly stopped now although men in Malta continue to blast at the skies to enlarge their masculinity by bringing down a hook-billed, clawed creature.

And less obvious attacks have had a disastrous effect too. Chemical poisoning and habitat loss have taken many species to the brink. But while much of the news about nature is bad these days, the recovery of some species of birds of prey tells a story that bucks the trend. The red kite has been successfully reintroduced to Britain and this magnificent bronze-winged raptor is now an everyday bird in many places.

Only 30 years ago the peregrine was listed as globally threatened in the Red Data Book for birds – a kind of obituary-in-waiting – but after the banning of various noxious pesticides and the outlawing of direct persecution such as egg-collecting, the species is back with a vengeance.


Californian team player with taste for London pigeons

Harris’ Hawk (San Gabriel mountains)

Harris’ hawks are found in the drier parts of the southern United States and through much of South America. Their co-operative hunting technique is very unusual among birds of prey: two to six birds gather at dawn in their desert hunting territory and split into smaller teams that leapfrog over or around one another to flush and ambush rabbits.

On other occasions they use a relay system, whereby back-up team members come forward to replace those who have tried but failed to catch prey. Team hunting like this ensures food enough for all and allows the bird gangs to catch larger prey than any one individual could manage.

The hawk’s social skills honed for hunting also allow it to be easily trained, so the Harris’ hawk is now the most common bird of prey used in falconry around the world. An operation to clear or at least reduce the feral pigeon population of London’s Trafalgar Square used Harris’ hawks as feathered vigilantes.


The gyrfalcon thinks nothing of dive-bombing bears

Gyrfalcon (Rockies)

A gyrfalcon is the north wrapped in feathers and made into a bird. It is the largest of all falcons, and found around the globe in the bald and shivering head of the far-northern hemisphere. The gyrfalcons’ bulk, their strength and their variable plumage, running from tundra brown to ice-cap white, nicely match their circumpolar home. Nothing has an easy life where gyrfalcons live, including the falcons themselves. Some populations spend parts of their year hunting over sea ice. Most are forced south in the winter.

Their prey is mostly other birds – grouse are preferred – but they will take mammals too. They don’t stoop like peregrines (who only hunt birds) but arrive from the side with extraordinary and devastating power. They are famously fearless (a hardcore falconer’s favourite) and think nothing of dive-bombing bears that come too close to their nesting scrapes. Chinese emperors used to hunt swans with gyrfalcons. Canada’s Northwest Territories, Iceland and the United States Airforce Academy have all claimed the gyrfalcon as their bird, wanting something of its power and success in the tough boreal latitudes. Greenland and Canadian gyrfalcons are whitest in plumage, those from Iceland are commonly grey, and those from northern Europe and Russia darker still. The meaning of the bird’s name is uncertain: gyr might come from a Germanic word for a vulture, referring to the falcon’s size, or from gyre, a own circle, and describing the species’ habit of high, wheeling ight.

In the falconry of Britain, where the gyrfalcon in the wild occurs only as a rare vagrant, the bird was the preserve of kingly falconers. In the middle of the 8th century two gyrfalcons were presented to Ethelbert II, the Saxon king of East Anglia. In 1212 or 1213, King John flew gyrfalcons in Lincolnshire and took nine cranes. Imagine that: a half- tamed ice lord sprung out of the north and smashing into nine lanky assemblages of legs, necks and broad-beating, panicky wings.


A peregrine falcon can descend at more than 200mph

Peregrine falcon (Pyrenees)

Peregrines are the largest and most charismatic falcons across much of their range. They are found in the wildest parts of the world, where they fully live up to the epic scale and wilderness severities of mountains and deserts. Today they are also happily thriving in many urban environments, having turned factory towers and office blocks into their breeding cliffs after discovering that city pigeons taste as good as any wilder meat.

Nonetheless, though they are known to be our neighbours in towns and cities, a peregrine can be a scene-stealer. Any encounter will make a day. To watch one tip over from flight into fall far above you and accelerate like a dark and heavy anvil, hurtling down through the sky and hammering apart a flock of gormless pigeons, is to see a sublime storm of life, something that survives of the Earth’s old ways. It doesn’t matter whether this happens above a city park or far away from the trappings of man. The stoop is all, and carries in its gathering force the sense of a smack delivered from a god on high.

Stooping peregrines are the fastest animals: a hunting falcon in level flight travels at 60mph, a diving bird reaches more than 200mph. These slate-and gunmetal-grey raptors are astonishing geniuses of control, able to connect with their prey often only feet above the ground and pulling up out of a stoop with a heavy dead mess in their claws.

Mostly their stoops fail, the pigeons clatter away, but crossing paths with a hungry peregrine falcon will always charge the energy of the moment and leave you fizzing.


Eagle owls are merciless nocturnal hunters

Eagle owl (Alps)

There is almost certainly an eagle owl closer to you than you’d imagine. These giants of owldom are widespread but rarely seen. The Eurasian species is found across the whole joined continent from Spain in the west to China in the east. The American great horned owl, a very similar bird, occurs from Arctic Canada to Argentina.

Eagle owls look like giant sacks of dead leaves. Each is richly patterned in browns. Most live in montane or deep-forested landscapes but they are not averse to hiding out in the gaps we permit between ourselves: old mines and quarries make good homes and quasi-urban eagle owls are a feature of many European cities.

They might be nearby but they carry out their business – like most owls but even more so – at night and with extraordinary quiet. The tufts on their heads are not their ears, which are actually hidden in deep feathers and placed asymmetrically (to improve their perception of the location of sounds) around their facial discs. They are superbly sensitive organs. All owls live through their ears. Eagle owls are so silent that they seem able to mute the world around them. If you are lucky enough to glimpse one flying in the half-light of dusk or dawn you will feel this effect: a huge bird glides by on massive spread wings as if two carpets had been stitched to a dead log and the whole edifice levitated into the air. Eagle owls’ furred feet are like a snow leopard’s paws. Their eyes are like the glass doors of furnaces opening on to roaring frames. If you catch them in the day they can seem lost in bright sunshine. I once saw a pair blinking on a cliff and looking like a couple of old army generals wearing dressing gowns and slippers in the over-heated lounge of a care home. The same night I heard one of the pair call, and the sonic boom rolling out of the dark knocked me back into myself.


Barn owls seem to move by floating through the air

Barn owl (widespread)

Of any birds, barn owls give the best impression of ghosts. We shouldn’t really dally with them in this way, lending them our spookery, but it is hard not to reach for such a description. They appear at the edges of the day, they are dustily pale, they move, it seems, by floating through the air and they scream if provoked.

Barn owls occur more widely around the world than any other species of bird. They hunt out in the open, in the remnants of daylight, quartering fields and working over banks, roadsides and hedgerows. They live close to people, often in farm buildings or outhouses, sometimes in churches or temples. And no other owl is as whitely obvious as they are, apart from the human-shunning snowy owl of northern icy latitudes.

A barn owl is a good indicator of environmental wellbeing. The birds need rodents to eat and rough, unmanaged ground to find food in. Where we have permitted these concessions to nature a barn owl may well fly. And it is their flying that is the most bewitching aspect of all their owlishness. All birds’ bones are honeycombed to make them lightweight, but the barn owl seems to get as close to weightless as a bird might. If you meet one panning for a meal along a field edge, sculling up and down, winnowing the air, its effort seems to be all about holding its body down and as close to the earth as possible.


Kestrels appear to have the ability to stop in mid-air

Kestrel (widespread)

Kestrels are the roadside falcons. Unsprayed grassy verges, like linear meadows, are valuable additions to the new wild. What the Highways people call the “soft estate” has made a home for mice and voles, and kestrels have clocked verges, banks and cuttings as good places for their rodent prey. These birds have become our travelling familiars – the falcons we catch out of the corner of our eyes. What makes us look again is the seemingly impossible magic that they work with their hover. Flight alone is amazing to contemplate. But to see a bird apparently able to stop in mid-air and pull itself up against nothing and hold itself there seems miraculous. The hovering kestrel’s sky ballet is functional: holding still allows the falcon to scan the grass beneath with a deeper and more penetrating acuity. Witnessing the kestrel’s windborne ease, it is hard not to see its hovering as a display of something triumphant, as a version of ecstasy or defiance.

An old name for the common kestrel is the windhover (Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote an amazing poem on the bird called this); a still older name is the windfucker, and to watch a kestrel beating its wings to a blur in order to hold itself steady while riding the air is to see this old name declare itself over and again.

Thirteen species of kestrel live in most of the non-frozen places of the world. The common and lesser kestrel range widely across Europe, Asia and Africa; North and South America and Australia have their own species. Most hunt by hovering. Like many birds they can see ultraviolet light, which allows them to track voles by the brightly lit trail of urine the rodents leave along their grassy ways. Kestrels look rather homely and mild-mannered to our eyes. To a vole on a roadside verge, it is another story altogether.