15th March, 2010. 6 a.m. Striated sky, sun risen, but diffused by cloud. The road hisses with early morning commuter traffic. The rooks at Westwick House are busy building. There is a great hubbub, and much to-ing and fro-ing. Every bird, it seems, has a twig in its beak. I watch one carry a stick about a half-mile to its nest, even though the ground near at hand is littered with them. But what do we know? Birds are active in the bushes and hedgerows – among the less common (round here, at least, so far this year) I note songthrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tit (Clare calls them bumbarrels) and yellowhammer, along with many unidentifiable, brownish flitty ones (twite? corn bunting?). In the middle of an expanse of arable far away are two hares which lope away on spotting me. They are very wary of humans, and uncommon here it seems, this being only my second sighting this year. I follow Beck Brook / New Cut towards Rampton, and put up at least four different pairs of mallard from the stream. A last group consists of two males and a female. Invariably they give themselves away by quacking loudly on take-off, and invariably it is the female that leads them in their wide, circular arc of a flight. A heron lifts off from the steep inner bank of the waterway, followed closely by a ghostly pale barn owl in much the same place as I saw one 9 days ago. It must be the same bird, or its mate, and as it flies away from me, it is clear that its back is more sandy-orange than I had noticed before. It flies low along the edge of a field, silently, with big slow wingbeats, and eventually disappears into an ivy-clad tree. It is past seven, the sun is now out, and it is a bright, shiny day, so this is my second sighting here of a barn owl in broad daylight. It seems they are not purely nocturnal or crepuscular. A greater spotted woodpecker dashes from a thicket and hides behind a tree. In the last piece of pasture before the Rampton-Cottenham road are hundreds of winter migrant fieldfare scattered evenly over the field, all engaged in that curious start-stop fieldfare routine – three or four steps forward, then stock still in an upright stance for a few seconds, then forward again. A kestrel swoops down from a telephone pole and glides right across the field above the fieldfare, a couple of feet from the ground, scattering them one after another. They are not unduly alarmed and the kestrel makes no attempt at a kill. He is just having fun it seems. I turn back through the village, and up Cuckoo Lane, before branching off towards the guided busway and home. Two lapwings are cavorting and swooping and dashing and changing direction abruptly in a mesmerizing aerial display. Skylarks are in full voice over the airfield (collectively known as an exaltation, which is just brilliant), their last brief season before the bulldozers and the builders move in.
Monthly Archives: March 2010
13th March, 2010. 7 a.m. A dull look to the day, overcast, like beaten pewter, but mild. I go east, and work anti-clockwise around the old airfield. Instead of watching the landscape, and being alert to peripheral flutters and flurries, I try to focus on sound. This is no dawn chorus, played out earlier, just the everyday morning soundscape of the sub-rural fringe. In the foreground, of course, the usual trilling songsters – today they are blackbird, robin, great tit, chaffinch and song thrush – punctuated from afar by the strident calls of rook, and murmurings of sore-throated wood pigeon. There is a great deal more going on, only we are half-deaf to the natural sounds around us and have all but lost the skills to identify or describe them. Even the bird books struggle with inadequate onomatopoeic jibberish. How to describe now, for example, the unique, staccato, fly-by volley fired off by a gang of jackdaws, or the curious grinding noises made by roosting starlings, as if they were chewing on grit? Out in the open, I am thrilled to hear, especially at this early, sombre hour, the sustained liquid outpouring of skylarks high in the air. The great lid of cloud has been blown southward and the northern half of the sky is now clear. The day brightens. The laughing cackle of a green woodpecker (called also, in various dialects, eccle, hewhole, highhoe, laughing bird, popinjay, rain bird, yaffle, yaffil, yaffler, yaffingale, yappingale, yackel, and woodhack, many of which are clearly onomatopoeic; see eekle on Land-Words page) reaches me from far away, and at the far end of the old airfield a group of lapwings are cavorting and swooping on broad blunt wings, whistling their far-reaching, plaintive two-note calls. Out on the watery flats beyond, gulls cry. The farmyard track on the edge of Long Stanton wheezes gently with collared doves. And below all these top-notes, the near sounds and far sounds, the ones we know and the ones we don’t know, is the deep, dark, rumbling substrate of A14 traffic, several miles to the west, all day and all night, like a dull, persistent ache that once recognised refuses to go away.
6th March, 2010. It being a Saturday, I decide to go for a longer walk. 10 miles, 5 hours – with many distractions along the way. In the large pasture on the edge of the village, where yesterday I counted 160 fieldfare and redwing, there are no birds at all. Different day, different time of day (it is midday), different weather – today is cloudier, with a fairly cold northerly breeze, though it is bright and lovely, and warm when the sun breaks through. There are certainly fewer birds about, and less song. I head north up the guided busway.
A flicker at the edge of vision makes me stop. From the end of a 4-inch diameter corrugated plastic drain-pipe, sticking out of the embankment on which the busway has been laid, is a little brown face with a wet, pink nose and white chin. The face cranes round to look straight at me, dark ears erect. It is a stoat… or a weasel. Without seeing its tail I can’t tell the difference. It retreats deep into the pipe. It is a perfect hide-out from which to survey the killing fields below. I like the way it has appropriated this random human artefact, made it its own.
Further on, an exaltation of skylarks fills the sky, trilling ecstatically without let from high up in the blue, wings a-quivering. At times they hover and glide like miniature kestrels with wings held out and tails splayed, showing white outer feathers. Then they cease their singing and plunge headfirst towards the earth like kamikaze pilots, wings folded, pulling up at the last moment and landing nonchalantly near their mates. These are males … consummate performers, show-offs … larking about. The skylark is red-listed, its numbers having halved in the last 40 years due to the growing practice of sowing crops in autumn rather than spring, so it is good to see them here.
In the grass at the edge of the airfield sit 7 lapwings, dark green above and white below, the first I’ve seen here, but they are skittish and rise quickly on rounded wings, crying out their country name, a plaintive and penetrating pee-wit, pee-wit, pee-wit. These too have seen a catastrophic crash in numbers over past decades.
I turn into Rampton Drove and spot a wind-hover, not 200 yards from where I saw one a few days ago so it is doubtless the same bird, or its mate. I follow it for 20 minutes, as it works the stubble. It hovers some 20 feet up and coasts to the ground frequently, up and down, up and down, occasionally perching on posts. It doesn’t stoop, and makes no kill. A pair of partridge explode under my feet, whirring off like clockwork toys, kicking up a fuss.
I head further north, up the medieval trackway called Haven Drove that is a continuation of Cuckoo Lane. It is a broad green way, built up above the level of the surrounding fields and partly hedged. On one side, far from any road, lies a pile of fly-tip which stops me in my tracks – it consists of toddlers shoes, velcro-strapped, little plastic wellies, baby clothes, some broken trucks, plastic toys and a large, naked, blue-eyed doll with articulated joints, staring up at me. Why kids’ stuff and nothing else? Why would anyone want to haul it all the way up here and dump it? It could all quite easily fit into a bin. There is something very sad about this particular pile of junk, so carelessly discarded.
Dozens of fieldfares, all grey rumps and black tails, loop ahead of me from tree to tree, chattering like blackbirds. They are heading north. The trackway passes straight through the middle of Belsar’s Hill, an Iron Age earthwork that once guarded the causeway that led over the fen to Aldreth on the higher ground beyond. Tradition has it that it was the Conqueror’s HQ in his disastrous campaign against Hereward the Wake. It is hardly a hill, more a large oval embankment with an outer ditch, still showing clearly in the fields though now much worn down. I leave the ancient causeway for another day, and head back. I walk on long, straight, lonely one-lane roads, raised above the fields, linking one isolated farmstead to another. This is wide open country, ditched not hedged, with big skies and far horizons. Fenced paddocks, horses, newly ploughed ground.
Back in the village of Rampton, I decide not to take the same, more direct, way back, but a slightly different longer route, even though I am hungry and footsore. I’m glad I did. I’m walking on the high embankment beside New Cut, the downstream continuation of Beck Brook, here fully canalized, looking out beyond a smaller ditch onto a narrow pasture edged by a strip of woodland that backs onto houses. A dark, indistinct, animal shape some 200 yards off catches my eye. Through the binoculars it condenses and sharpens into a magnificent dog-fox. The second in two days, in broad daylight, and in much the same circumstances. He is trotting along the edge of the field, stopping to sniff here and there, lifting a leg to mark his territory. He is in show-dog condition, with a thick coat of fur, reddish flanks and head, dark ears, greyish down the back, white underparts, throat and muzzle, and a great bushy white-tipped brush. I settle down on the bank and watch. He sits down at the woodland edge and watches. The watched becomes the watcher. We are about 100 yards apart, though I am above him. He knows I am here. Perhaps the glint of lens has alerted him. He moves off, but turns to look at me once again. He is not sure. Again he moves off, and turns. I get up to follow, and he dives into cover.
During this walk I have crossed paths with only a handful of people – a family taking the air, a woman walking her dogs, a lad cantering a horse, and a dozen or so hard-core cyclists. A little further on I meet Farmer Giles. He is out training his new gundog. He is stout, large-headed, unshaven and ruddy-faced, a local man. Mother born in Oakington, father in Cottenham. Farmers for generations. His ‘farm’ is dispersed over several parishes – a field here, a field there, all down to arable. His pleasure lies in shooting – rabbit, partridge, pheasant. He is unimpressed by my fox – ‘bloomin’ critturs’, but he won’t be drawn further on this apparent prejudice. I suspect it is because they are both hunters and in competition, both lovers of pheasant flesh.
There is a final gift to come, bestowed out of the blue. A large white bird with big slow wingbeats is being buffeted by the wind, which has swung round to the east and is now blowing steadily. It is making its way slowly upstream, buoyant, wavering, hovering, now 50 feet, now 20 feet above the bank, looping back on itself, as if looking for something lost. At first I take it for a gull or an egret, but it is the wrong shape. I can barely believe it when I focus. It is an owl, a barn owl, on the hunt, on a bright and sunny afternoon. Moreover it appears to be almost pure white. It passes close above, and I get a long good look. That distinctive, blunt, wedge-shaped silhouette formed by the outsized heart-shaped face and small tapering body. Large white wings. White body, above and below, with only the faintest streaks of marmalade-orange on the top of its head and on its upper back. And the blackest of eyes, shining, that look straight at me as it passes. It flies about 100 yards upstream, then turns and makes its way back the way it came, slowly, following the water. It doesn’t land. So conspicuous is its whiteness against the land I can track it from afar, until it is but a speck in the distance. As far as I know, tawny owls are more common here (though I have only heard them calling, at night), so it is a real privilege to watch, not merely glimpse, the rarer barn owl, in the middle of an afternoon, and a very pale form at that. It is, to me, something quite out of the ordinary, probably never to be repeated. I take it as a special blessing.
March 5th, 2010. After the dawn prayer, I’m out. At 6.15 it’s already light. Just above the south-eastern horizon a few slivers of crimson cloud, like bright slashes in the side of the day, herald the not-yet-risen sun. Otherwise, the sky is pristine silver-blue, rimmed all around by the sharp black latticework of winter trees. There has been a hard frost overnight, and shallow pools in the fields and ruts are once again frozen over. The ground crackles underfoot. Blackbirds, song thrush and great tits add some final embellishments to the dawn chorus, then all fall silent, waiting for the first rays. An extraordinary serenity descends over the land. I have to stop and savour the moment. Then a big red sun emerges, molten and brilliant, but without glare, so that I can look right into it. As it pulls away from the horizon it distorts and flattens into an ovoid, before becoming the familiar round ball of dazzling yellow fire. I decide to quit the beaten tracks and lanes and paths, and make out across the big fields that lie between Histon, Oakington and Cottenham. But it’s not easy to move freely through this part of the world – I am frustrated by unjumpable ditches, barbed wire, and thorny hedges and often have to double back. A pair of mallard are sitting on an iced-over slick in a piece of scrubland. They are reluctant to fly but when I get too close they take off silently, the duck first, then the drake, flying low. They are beautiful. I edge round a large field of arable, fringed with trees. I notice something up ahead, moving in the same direction. It has a strange loping gait. It’s a fox. Through the binoculars he looks small and unkempt, with a hangdog air about him, trotting slowly and diffidently along the rough field edge, stopping now and again to sniff the ground. He is about 200 yards in front of me, and is oblivious to my presence. I follow and gain ground – 80 yards. The white tip to his brush is not very distinct but the sun sets fire to his rich red coat. I cannot believe he hasn’t seen me, or heard me, or smelt me. He does look round once, but I am still, and then, incredibly, he settles down in the long dry grass and thistles, looking out over the field, taking in the sun. I crouch and creep forward. Through the binoculars I can see his slender fox-face clearly, close up, in profile, as if I could just reach forward and stroke him under his white chin. I am barely 20 yards away, to his right. If he turns this way, he’d be looking straight at me. He is relaxed in the warmth, untroubled, sleepy even. There is even some desultory grooming. I have to get closer. Inevitably, I am not quiet enough, he turns and sees me and in a split second he is transformed into a taut, fearful, wild creature, electrified, and in one movement turns and vanishes into the scrub behind, as if into thin air. Foxes are not uncommon of course, and have even become commonplace in some urban environments, and I have heard foxes bark at night round here, and glimpsed them in headlights, crossing a road, but I have never been able to observe a wild fox, up close, for some minutes, in broad daylight, simply being fox. It promises to be a great day.
2nd March, 2010. Walked out in the afternoon to Lamb’s Cross, then up Cuckoo Lane to Rampton, Rampton Drift to the guided-busway, then south to Oakington, 5½ miles. Like yesterday, a glittering spring-like day, brimming with light. The sky is high and clear and blue. More birds are about, and there is rejoicing in the air. A buzzard wheels slowly round and round very high above the village. Through the binoculars I can just make out its distinctive underwing pattern – brown then white then black wing-tips and trailing edges. A green woodpecker flies across a meadow and clamps itself to a telephone pole, halfway up, as if it was a fridge magnet. This is the second I’ve seen today – there was one in the garden earlier. Because of the distance between sightings I think they must be different birds, and different too to the one I saw the day before yesterday up on Cuckoo Lane by the brook. If so, they are doing well in these parts. Three tiny long-tailed tits flit about in a roadside tree. The farmyard and its hedgerows are alive with little birds – robins, blackbirds, blue tits and great tits, peach-breasted chaffinches, greenfinches and others too small and too brown to identify. There are larks on and above the fresh green fields, singing their hearts out, but difficult to see clearly and identify, just disembodied voices calling down from the sky. Much of the water has drained from the fields, and Beck Brook has fallen at least 5 feet since the day before yesterday, though it is still flowing steadily. As usual at this time of day gulls are streaming north-west, but today they are flying very high. I only notice them because the lowering sun catches their white underwings on the upbeat, so they flicker on and off like silver fairy lights in the heavens. A small flock of fieldfares flit by. No sign of my kestrel though. Wherever there is pasture there are individual song thrushes and redwings here and there on the ground – I watch one lean forward then pivot right back on its tail, head held high, steadily pulling a reluctant worm from the earth. The wartime pillboxes along the eastern edge of the old airfield, protruding from low mounds like strange grey mushrooms, have been squatted by rabbits. Each has become a warren to which its denizens scamper back when disturbed. In every direction rooks, in ones and twos and small gangs, are about their purposeful and mysterious business, running errands, hurrying to appointments and trysts this way and that across the sky. Suddenly all is in motion again – winter is receding and the earth rolls on.