October 19th, 2010. Late afternoon. Cold, grey and damp. The sky is uniformly overcast, except at the lit edges of the world where cloud-shapes take form, rimming the pale horizon. It’s autumn. Days of wind and rain have dislodged leaves which now lay brown and black and wet on the ground. Trees are turning – the sycamores burnt orange, field maples pale yellow, limes browning at the edges, while the silver birches have shed most of their foliage. The sky is alive with autumn migrants.
In the village I meet Bob the thatcher, bespectacled and beaming, in spite of the weather. He and his mate are repairing the roof of a cottage and have already put up a new ridge, the crowning glory of the thatcher’s art. Some of the decayed thatch is reed and some of it is straw, and has to be replaced like with like. He’s only been thatching for five and a half years and it takes five years to pick up the basics he reckons. Still, they’ve done a beautiful job. It will last 50 years. They’re booked up till next August, all over East Anglia. The techniques, tools, materials and artistry have not changed for several thousand years, except now the reed is imported from Eastern Europe and China whereas before it was local.
I set out for the big open fields on the western side of the village, where the winds sweep through unchecked. My hands are soon chilled, my nose running. But there are birds about. Following Rose’s directions, I soon find the buzzard’s nest in one of a pair of small, lonesome ash-trees, an untidy pile of sticks in a flimsy fork not fifteen feet above ground. It hardly looks big enough to accommodate a fully-grown buzzard and offspring. But it must be the place. I can see why a buzzard would nest here. It is about as far away from any road or track or footpath that a bird could find round here, almost completely undisturbed I would think, except three or four times a year when the farmer comes to sow or reap or plough, cocooned and remote in his tractor. Within one hundred yards I find four pools of feathers – pigeon kills. And then, further off, the slow brown weight of a buzzard lifts into the air, beats its great wings three or four times, then glides, beats again three or four times, and glides again, and settles into a hedgerow tree. I follow. It’s soon on the wing again, and joined by its mate. A pair of buzzards! They don’t fly far, and soon perch, four feet apart, in the bare branches of a dead tree overlooking the empty fields…hunched shapes, tawny against the evening. I approach across the open, just to see how close I can get. Not far. Within two hundred yards, one of the pair sails off, effortlessly, winging low over a field, scattering pigeons and starlings by the hundred. The other sits still, unmoved.
Parties of gulls, slim-winged and fleet, fly north in untidy formation, ten, twenty, fifty at a time. Underneath them, flying south-west and low, thrushes and larks, unidentifiable, pass by in successive small flocks. The autumn migration is on. The big fields here are in stubble still, unploughed, perfect for stop-overs. Far away, at least two hundred lapwings sit in a field amongst rooks and pigeons and seagulls. I approach along a field-track to see what else is aground. All of a sudden, the lapwings rise as one, four hundred black and white wings (at this distance) beating slowly upwards. I fear I have been incautious and spooked them. And then a small dark hawk-shadow passes through them, like an arrow, low and intent, focused on what I don’t know. It disappears in a flurry of birds. It was not me after all, but the thought of a hawk that set off the lapwings.
I am on my way home when a strange goings-on catches my eye. I am passing along the edge of the horse pastures and notice five ponies together, noses down, following a tumbling, whitish, indistinct shape that is, with difficulty, trying to escape their attentions. I take it for a large cat, perhaps. The creature, and the ponies, reach the edge of the field not far from where I am standing. The ponies stretch their necks through the railings, uncommonly curious. What could it be that has so mesmerized them? I have never seen horses behave in this way. And then I see what it is. Crouched in the grasses and brambles beyond the railings, on the edge of an overgrown ditch, is a large bird, grey and white, with a long powerful bill, lungeing fiercely at the snuffling muzzles. The bird struggles to get away, pushing through the tangled growth with difficulty, probably injured. That would explain its strange tumbling gait across the pasture – it can’t fly. It settles, half-hidden in the ditch and I get a closer look. It is a great crested grebe, perhaps 18 inches long, an immature adult, with grey back, white neck and face, long straight pinkish bill, and a distinctive dark head-crest, parted in the middle to form two stylish tufts. Being immature, and outside the breeding season, it lacks the handsome chestnut ruff of the species. This is the first great crested grebe I’ve seen here, and being a water bird it could only have come from the forbidden lake on the old airfield, half a mile away. What is it doing here, and how was it injured? Its story though will never be told. My impulse is to catch it and hold it, but it is inaccessible from my side of the ditch without considerable effort and it would try to escape from me anyway, making its injury worse. Besides, it would not hesitate to take out my eye with its dagger. Reluctantly, I leave it. A fox will eat grebe tonight. Perhaps I’ll come back in the morning and see how it (or the fox) has fared.
Postscript: I did in fact return next morning but there was no sign of the bird, not a feather…