Monthly Archives: June 2010

earlymorningwalk48

June 28th, 2010. 6.30 a.m. A gorgeous morning. The sun is well up and climbing into a clear blue sky. It promises to be another blazing day but it is still deliciously cool at this hour. Am hardly beyond the houses at Westwick when a lone muntjac saunters across the field track just 10 yards in front of me with that characteristic muntjac head-down, hang-dog, forlorn air. Surprisingly, it is completely unaware of my presence and ambles off into a thicket. As I’ve discovered, these little deer are not uncommon round here but I’ve not seen one so close to the village before.

New flowers everywhere, not many whose names I know. Bright red poppies, with tissue-thin petals that fold in the slightest breeze, stipple the verges of road and rape field. Among them, three pure white forms. Lining the ditch of the trickling brook from Histon, just two feet wide and two inches deep here, is a dense growth of meadowsweet, with frothy, creamy, sweet-scented flowers, a favourite strewing herb of Queen Elizabeth I. Containing salicylic acid it has long been used as a painkiller and is the original source of aspirin. Wild privet is in flower too, sickly sweet. Bindweeds with large white or pale pink trumpet flowers, or bright candy-pink with white stripes, are now clambering and creeping over the land. Red clover is just beginning to open. Again and again I am struck by the marked localization of many plant species, occurring only in discrete patches here and there across the district.

Two fledgling swallows are perched close together on a telephone wire. An adult swoops up, hovers momentarily, and regurgitates insect mush into their gaping mouths without landing, then dashes away. Four lapwings fly northwards. A female blackcap shouts from a treetop. Unidentified warblers are picking through bushes in silence.

One of my favourite spots is a large scrubby area to the north-west of Histon church, a former medieval field of the old abbey farm, now abandoned to nature and colonized by encroaching stands of ash saplings, willows, alders and brambles, a haven for birds and other wildlife. I am drawn by the sound of a rapid, agitated, high-pitched piping repeated almost non-stop – ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki – the cry, surely, of some bird of prey. I discover three kestrels and spend over an hour tracking and back-tracking in pursuit. They perch with their backs to the sun on prominent dead branches in a line of trees between the scrubland and a field of wheat. With some painstaking stalking I get quite close, twenty feet from the birds, till they take off and fly away with rapid, shallow wingbeats to another observation post down the line. Kestrels are sexually dimorphic, the male and female being quite distinct. One is definitely female, the other two probably juveniles. The male is nowhere to be seen. Their red-brown, strikingly barred backs and tail are toward me but they know I am here and swivel their heads round 180 degrees to keep a yellow eye on me. Their short, curved beaks are flesh-coloured.

It’s been nearly three hours. By the time I reach home, the sun is burning down and I am sweltering. The specimens of flowers I’ve picked and pocketed to be identified have collapsed beyond recognition. I resolve to carry a camera and photograph them in future.

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villagecircuit47

June 22nd, 2010. Summer solstice. The longest day, and the hottest this year. A silver-blue sky marbled by one or two high swirls of cirrus – mares’ tails flicking at invisible stars. The sun beats down all day unimpeded. Youths peel off shirts, and flesh sears on barbecues. Sheep cluster around water troughs. All is still. The bright green lustre of high spring has drained from the land. Grasses in flower bronze the verges, and in the meadows the cut hay lies in windrows, silvering in the sun. Summer at last, just as the days are about to contract.

Having been away for a week, I take a short, sweaty stroll round the village bounds to see what’s happening. The brook is milky, unmoving, solid-looking. No fingerlings nose the taut skin of water, no hidden mallard or moorhen or little egret sends ripples over the surface. A single, electric-blue damselfly rests on a stalk, a two-inch sliver of the most intense, fluorescent blueness imaginable.

I see two kestrels, one on each side of the village, so different birds surely. After short flights, both settle on prominent perches overlooking open land and preen desultorily, occasionally shaking out their feathers. They are in no hurry to move it seems. A couple of plump partridges take off across the horse paddocks with their comical, stiff-legged, upright gait, as if running for a bus. I have not often mentioned these ground-loving birds but on reflection they have nearly always been present on my walks, though not nearly as numerous as the bred-and-released pheasants of course. A green woodpecker clamps itself to a telephone pole, and a single pink and blue jay hurdles a field hedge in front. One of our most colourful birds but not at all common round here.

Of wild flowers, I come across a lone bush of sweet briar or eglantine, with deep pink roses and scented leaves, and a single plant of feverfew whose double, white, daisy-like flowers have a raised, lemon-yellow boss in the centre. As its name suggests, feverfew provides a valuable herbal remedy but I cannot harvest from a single plant. Elderflowers, however, abound, and a basketful is soon gathered to make a sparkling summer cordial.

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peewitwalk46

June 15th, 2010. Late afternoon/evening. Cold for June, but the evening sun is out and I am soon warmed. The willows by the brook are shedding downy seeds by the thousands, which drift to earth like snow falling in slow motion. Milk thistle is in purple flower, and mallow. White clover is out, and the first scraggy bramble blooms. Dog rose and elder still dominate the hedgerows.

I go west to the big open fields between the village and the A14. It is unusually, and disturbingly, quiet. The river of traffic a mile away is barely audible, for the breeze is blowing from the east and I am upwind. With some trepidation I make my way to the lapwing field, a great stretch of fallow stubble, set aside it seems, where I have been keeping an eye on a few pairs of this red-listed bird since March. I don’t know what to expect. Through a gap in the hedge I slowly scan the field from one side to the other, astonished. There are at least three dozen iridescent dark green and purple lapwings on the ground (which constitutes a desert of lapwings, according to the the 15th century Book of St. Albans), and a few are wheeling and plunging about in the air. Many are juveniles, half the size of their parents, but fully-fledged and airborne. They have, evidently, bred with some success in this bare, open, unfrequented spot. Mingling with the lapwings (or peewits or green plovers as they are sometimes called) are gangs of starlings. A hare, the colour of the earth, lopes across the field unhurriedly, stopping frequently, followed by another. Three mistle thrushes, the first I’ve seen hereabouts, stand upright at the edge of the fallow, gazing at the sky. Their chestnut-spotted breasts shine like shields in the sun. I break cover to continue my walk and as soon as I move the lapwings take wing, shrieking one-note alarm calls instead of their characteristic two-note pee-wit, pee-wit. They hang suspended in the air till I’m gone.

I turn south and make my way through the wheat fields, along banks, ditches, verges and the occasional hedgerow. No footpaths here. Meadow Browns precede me, though they rarely alight long enough for me to get a good look. I should carry a butterfly-net. Here and elsewhere the wheat has been grazed back ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty feet from the edge of the field, as neatly as if it had been mown. The depredations of rabbits. The loss to the farmer must be considerable. Approaching Girton I come across another lapwing field, the same as the first, unploughed and unsown, largely bare earth, stubbled with the weak stems of some previous crop. Here there are at least 75 lapwings on the ground, sitting or standing. This little district seems to be something of a lapwing haven and I wonder if these two fields have not been especially prepared and set aside for the bird. They are curiously free of all vegetation. A wild far-carrying cry from above heralds a cruising buzzard, on the look out for young lapwings no doubt, and several adults spring up into the air to chase it away. The buzzard flaps on, lazily, shrugging off its persecutors.

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giantshillwalk45

June 8th, 2010. Late afternoon. It’s been a grey, damp day, with breezes and occasional showers. The sky is layered in cloud, the lowest being dark and big-bellied. When the sun does from time to time emerge, it turns warm and sultry. The water in the brook has risen a little over the past few days, brownish, the bed obscured. No mussel hunting today. I decide on a longer walk, following the brook downstream into the parish of Cottenham, further than I’ve been before in this direction, hoping to catch sight of the barn owl that is known to frequent these parts.

At Westwick, on the edge of Oakington, a single little egret starts from the brook and veers off out of view, legs trailing like a ballerina. It is at least half a mile downstream from my previous sightings of a pair. Still here … that’s good … summer residents now, impossibly exotic in our English meadows. A little further on, a female mallard with at least 6 ducklings. A late brood, surely, for the ducklings are still infants compared to others I’ve seen hereabouts. Moorhen skulking by the water’s edge. And in the loft above, a lone buzzard is being harrassed by a rook half its size. The rook is dogged in its pursuit, scolding and lunging at the larger bird, slowly driving it out of this bit of airspace.

I walk through Lamb’s Cross Farm. Thin radio music drifts from the barn as usual. The farmer emerges – 50’ish, wiry and stubbled, unsmiling, but talkative. He is a grass farmer, breeding steers for the table, and growing some barley and silage to feed the cattle in winter. Tried potatoes but the lumps of ironstone in the ground broke the harvester. He tells me of a field on the left of the Oakington road as it leaves Cottenham where lightning often strikes because of the presence of ironstone. We talk soils, and how they vary from field to field, and even within fields. He and his wife also run several small factories elsewhere, processing kidney beans, chick peas and other pulses, some of which, surprisingly, are grown locally here in East Anglia. Chick peas in Cambridgeshire?

Scarlet field poppies line the verge between road and unfenced field, interspersed with pink, purple-veined mallows, two feet high. Along the steep, deep inner bank of the brook downstream, where it has been canalized, species are ranged in strict succession from the water’s edge. First rushes and reeds, then sedges and grasses, and then ox-eye daisies half way up the bank. The latter are not as scarce as I had thought. They also occur in drifts on the edges of fields and along the guided-busway. But now is the season of the pink-flushed, deliciously scented dog-rose adorning every hedgerow, individual flowers spaced evenly over each bush. Some of the briars clamber high into trees. There will be plenty of hips to gather in the autumn.

This part of my patch is inhabited by at least one pair of green woodpeckers and the ash-trees hereabouts are neatly drilled to prove it. The distinctive undulating flight of these birds seems to be caused by their intermittent wing movement: they scull hard for 4 – 6 wingbeats, ascending slightly, then they fold their wings in and coast head-first, bullet-shaped, losing height as they do so, then scull again, and rise. As if riding waves.

I follow Beck Brook, here called New Cut, downstream beyond the Rampton – Cottenham road. One bank is almost wholly colonized by hawk’s beard, a bright yellow, dandelion-like flower, but tall, on a stalk. The only patch of this I’ve seen. Many wild flower species seem very localized, confined to particular spots with a certain desirable combination of aspect, soil, shade, dampness, drainage and plant association. Such as the silver-veined milk thistle, encountered only at one corner of one particular field.

It’s too early for barn owls, so I turn back through the village of Rampton. A light shower sends me scurrying. I take shelter under the trees at Giant’s Hill just outside the village, not far from the church. Essentially a substantial, irregular, treed island mound, hardly a hill, surrounded on one side by a wide, overgrown moat and on the other by an outer bank. The site of an unfinished 12th century castle apparently, though the genius loci and popular name suggest a site much more ancient and mysterious. A magical place indeed. I straddle a great horizontal trunk of willow, overlooking the moat and reedbed. There is a promise of kingfishers but in spite of the rare wetland habitat I see nothing worth noting. Wrong time of day, perhaps, or weather. I must come back at dawn or dusk and wait.

The wheat is still very green, fully grown at 18 inches, with big tight ears of seed, the barley light golden green, with long awns splayed out like a fan. Now that the crops have grown up, I see that there is almost as much barley as wheat grown in the district. John Barleycorn is still alive and well. Returning along the dormant guided-busway track I’m glad to hear skylarks still singing defiantly above the yet-to-be-built new town of Northstowe. There is no sign of the little owls nesting in the airfield, though I don’t tarry long.

And then a newcomer crosses my sky, just as I approach home and wonder at the absence of birds. It is large, dark, with big wings, flying at about 50 feet. Gooselike but differently shaped. As it passes I can see its yellow hook-tipped bill, its white chin and cheeks, all black body and wings, and wedge-shaped tail – a cormorant. Far from any coast or estuary, or any large river or wetland, it seems out of place. It appears lost too, unsure of what direction to take, almost doubling back on itself. The evening has cleared and the sun comes out, low now, highlighting banks of cloud stretching to the horizon. The cormorant flies on, into the sun.

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iriswalk44

June 4th, 2010. Late evening, on the third consecutive blue-sky summer’s day. I take a short walk around the southern outskirts of the village, stopping at three or four favourite sitting-spots by the brook. Nothing disturbs the dark, still water, and I put up only a pair of mallard – the male takes wing first with much splashing and remonstrating, then five seconds later the female, equally vociferous. Their ducklings are hidden out of sight.

There are just four small patches of wetland in this district of 12 square miles (not counting the brooks and ditches, and the forbidden lake on the airfield), all of them the beds of former ponds or pools in an advanced state of succession, little bogs really, spongy and dank in the midst of remnant coppices, surrounded by fallen trunks and boughs. They hold water in winter. In one damp bottom, hard by the brook from Histon, arched over by great willows many of which are almost horizontal, is a patch of yellow iris or yellow flag, bright in the gloom, each with three down-curving buttercup-yellow petals as bold as any tropical flower. John Clare calls them water skegg or flags. On one is a small, round, part yellow – part green spider, as if it was in the process of changing colour to match the emerging flowers. I look out over the parkland below Westwick House, loud with sheep. On the ground are rooks, and a green woodpecker, staring. It has a nest somewhere in this coppice of old willows. It flies low over the meadow, in undulating flight, then makes a steep vertical ascent upwards to clamp onto a trunk 20 feet above the ground. A pair of rich brown and dark grey moorhen, with red face-shields nodding and white undertail bobbbing, stray far from the water into the grass. Green legs in green grass. These birds are exquisitely coloured. We forget how beautiful some of our common birds are. Next time you see a moorhen, take a closer look.

Below the bridge that carries the guided busway over the brook, I scan the water for life. It’s not long before I spot a freshwater mussel, and then another and another. If Rose had not pointed them out to me further up the stream on a previous encounter, I would not have seen them at all. They have been right in front of my nose all the time. They are the colour of the greenish mud on the stream bed, in which they’re half-buried, and it is only their smooth oval shape that gives them away. They are dispersed here and there in this part of the brook, many half-open. I retrieve two from the mud, both open and empty. Presumably they have been eaten. By water vole, or heron, perhaps. Freshwater mussels are generally considered to be unpalatable, though the native peoples in North America utilized them extensively. Impossibly, they smell of the sea.

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rainwalk43

June 1st, 2010. It’s warm, overcast and wet, with a steady, persistent, light rain … drops heavy enough to patter the leaves overhead. This is the first time I’ve deliberately set out to walk in the rain. Walking in the rain is special. It waters the soul, as well as the soil. I’m soon fairly wet, despite a cap and waterproof jacket. The long grass soaks my boots, and jeans up to the knee. The going is softer. The wet has not deterred the songsters at all – blackbirds, song thrush, goldfinch, robins, tits, all singing in the rain. The land is bathed, blessed, as are we.

I’ve been out of my patch for ten days. What a lot has changed … yet nothing has changed. The May or hawthorn is over, except for the red, and now the discs of creamy-white elderflowers are beginning to take their place in hedgerow and copse. They will be my first wild crop. Earlier in the season I experimented with jack-by-the-hedge or hedge garlic in salads but they tasted of leaves, with a very faint garlicy odour. Palatable only if you really have nothing else to put in a salad. Ramsons are better by far, but I’ve not seen any round here. Pink dog-roses are just opening and I see here and there they have formed great bushes and will be spectacular in flower. And a few scarlet poppies, too, bedraggled in the rain.

I make for the brook, which has risen a little from its lowest level. The vegetation is so dense now that there are only a few places where I can get close enough to see the water. Almost immediately I startle a pair of little egrets, winging away so white against the green corn. It’s good to see they’re still here, and surely nesting? On the footbridge, I meet Rose. Her keen eye spots a couple of freshwater mussels in the muddy bottom below. An indicator of good, clean water, she says. She tells me she has also seen crayfish here, the American crayfish, which is muscling out our native crayfish. On parting, she directs me to the part of little Histon brook where she has seen water voles, and bids me listen out for their ‘plops’.

On the way I visit a little copse of full-grown ash-trees where I’d previously seen a great spotted woodpecker. The undergrowth is thick, trunks and boughs lie here and there hosting bracket fungi, hard and solid to the touch, firmly anchored to the wood. I become aware of a persistent, high-pitched note repeated rapidly and endlessly, like the alarm on a watch. I can’t make out whether it is near or far, high up or at ground level, inside or outside the copse. It continues non-stop, on and on. Then the loud and unmistakable alarm chucks of an adult great spotted woodpecker sound over my head and looking up I see her land in the tree I’m under and spiral up the trunk with a large insect in her beak. She leads me to her nest, one of three perfectly round and ivy-enshrouded holes one above the other about 15 ft up the main trunk. The sound was coming from right above me after all … baby woodpeckers  misbehaving.

Dryad's Saddle bracket fungi or Pheasant's Back mushroom, neither poisonous nor particularly edible

The wheat in the field is two-toned  – silver green stalks and underside of leaves, grasshopper-green ears and upper surface of leaves. The rape flowering is nearly over, yellow no longer dominating the countryside. The rain eases. A single skylark rises and bursts into song, fluttering heavenward. It beats its wings frantically, yet makes little upward progress, as if it had left the brakes on. Slowly it ascends. Then another answers the challenge from an adjacent part of the field, and begins the long song-flight upwards. They are duetting, and sound-marking their territories.

I walk back along Histon brook, here more of a drain, almost choked with vegetation. I can barely see the water. I can’t imagine water voles living here, there doesn’t seem to be enough water to keep a water vole happy. Then, as my attention shifts elsewhere, I hear the tell-tale plop of vole entering water, more of a splat really, something flattish hitting the surface. And then another. Yes! It must be. I watch and wait, still and silent, but don’t have their patience. I move on. The rain has stopped and all is adorned with droplets. The ewes in the parkland have been shorn, some sporting stylish shaved patterns, as is the fashion. The unshaven lambs, with their tight thick coats, are almost as big as their mothers. They shelter under the trees, expecting more rain.

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