Quest for a nest on Dartmoor

PUBLISHED: 14:07 30 July 2014

Rugged Dartmoor

Rugged Dartmoor


Matt Parkins goes in search of Dartmoor’s ravens

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This article first appeared in the July issue of Devon Life. Make sure you never miss an issue by taking up one of our great subscription offers. Learn more at

I’m walking beside a small moorland river where it tumbles over rocks and winds its way through gaps before heading to the ocean at one of Devon’s grand estuaries.

A few more steps and the landscape opens up where I’m out on the moor in a magnificent natural amphitheatre. I’m looking for my favourite bird – just visiting to sit and watch its antics.

Gliding buzzards mew as they catch the air currents, lazily leaning to one side to make a sweeping turn. I see a peregrine gently climbing but not yet using its devastating hunting speed. The silent killer rises higher and higher, I look away for a second and I’ve lost him against the vast blue sky.

There are other invisible birds here too, notably the skylark. This tiny bird sings its heart out with the most catchy, chirpy rhythms. But can I see it? It’s up there somewhere, filling the valley with excitable melodies. Only when it starts to parachute down do I spot it; tiny wings tucked back, it glides to the ground. Then silence. Now it wants to attract attention away from its nest amongst the grass and reeds.

The bird I’m here to see today has just made itself visible on the skyline. In fact there are two of them; a pair of long-term companions. Catching the soft summer breeze they swirl around the tors occasionally settling on the granite boulders. They fit in so well in this environment, even their genial kronk call is at home here.

The gruff, granite edged sound can hardly be described as a song, though they are classified as passerines along with all the song birds. Long sweeping wing beats take them across the valley, landing among the rocks and tussocks on the other side of the river. The sleek black figures are looking for something, picking up morsels of protein rich food, bugs and worms probably. Peacefully stepping their way around some grazing sheep, their dagger-like beaks glisten in the sunshine. It’s a powerful looking weapon but do they really deserve the bad reputation? The bill shape would suggest not, it’s not designed to tear flesh, but there are so many stories associating the raven with gruesome and morbid acts.

I continue my walk up river; hot feet are cooled by crossing the shallows before climbing the bracken and gorse clad moor on the other side. I’m going to make my way back to where the ravens were earlier. While watching them back in the spring I suspected they might be nesting in the vicinity. One brought a gift of food from a distant cache; I couldn’t tell if it was male or female, they are so similar. I think I’ll sit for a while and wait. With the sun on my back I’m not in a hurry to leave!

Though this is clearly their patch – not mine – they keep their distance. The pair is in constant communication, with calls and posturing. They drive away two intruders; no joy for magpies here. I continue to wait to see if they’ll take to the air. I was initially attracted to ravens by their flying ability; sometimes they appear to fly purely for the fun of it. I keep watching as they hop from rock to rock, an aerobatic display will be entirely on their terms, if at all. A common lizard keeps me company, eyeballing me for a minute before scampering back into its gap in the rock. I’m just turning my back to leave when I hear that unmistakable sound – it’s a raven in full flight. Arrowing towards me, it folds back its wings for a few barrel rolls and tumbles. Their repertoire of stunts is amazing. Taking it in turns to fly upside down, each time calling to their partner, they seem to say “look at me … watch this” before inverting then flipping back over and pulling into a steep climb. Fabulous!

Ravens are among the most intelligent birds in the world and very successful too; they have adapted to life in many continents and climates from Africa to Alaska. Their inquisitive minds help them to develop many skills you might not expect from a bird. While learning to use sticks and stones as tools they memorise new ways to find food.

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