April 8th, 2010. A glorious spring day, with the first real cumulus clouds of the year ranged evenly across the sky, their flat bases all at the same height above ground, like meringues, suspended. It’s past six before I get out and now the sun is lowering and has lost its heat, and clouds have coalesced across the eastern sky. House sparrows twitter in the eaves of village houses, something not worth mentioning a few years ago, so common were they then, but now, it seems, they are as rare as hedge sparrows. These are the first I’ve noticed this year.
I head for the big western fields – noisier, being nearer the river of traffic, but slightly elevated, more open and expansive. Besides I want to check on the lapwings. Their field has not yet been ploughed, I’m glad to see, and there are at least seven of them on the ground or making short swooping flights. So far, so good.
No buzzards to be seen, as I had hoped, but a flock of some 40 small waders, flying fast with very rapid wingbeats, passes over, then wheels round, and flies back, over and over again, across the sky, reluctant to leave this great stretch of fallow. I cannot identify them – they are small, grey, with no distinguishing marks on the tail or underwing. Their wings are relatively long for their body size, and pointed, swept-back like those of swifts, and their tails are tapered. As they pass overhead, I can hear their gentle mutterings. They are unremarkable birds – except that their synchronized flying is mesmerizing. I sit down on a bank and watch them for a good twenty minutes. It is not just that they all turn abruptly together and dive, or wheel in perfect harmony, or now bunch together then spread out to advance in echelon formation, it is that all of a sudden, and all together, with split-second parade-ground timing, they cease beating their wings as one and hold them outstretched, gliding, gliding, gliding, then just as suddenly, resume rapid wingbeats together. The Red Arrows are impressive alright, but this is an astonishing virtuoso display, and one that is probably played out every evening over thousands of fields, or mudflats, or beaches all over the country, by many different species of birds.
I walk back with the sun behind me. The land is almost autumnal with breaking colour – shimmering catkins, fattening buds and bursting sheaths, unfolding leaves and a flourish of blossom bathe the hedgerows and copses in a haze of silver green, ivory, copper and rust, with here and there the deep purple of last year’s bramble leaves and the pure white of cherry and blackthorn.