November 13th, 2010. Mid-morning. I take a short walk, an hour and a half, in my own Hindu Kush. It’s a lovely autumn day, somewhat cold of course, being mid-November, but bright, with the gentlest of breezes out of the west. The sky is divided almost exactly in two – to the south, a grey, overcast layer; to the north, bright and blue; between, a long, shredded line of white cloud, curving across the sky from one horizon to the other, like foam on a beach; from the south, above the grey, the sun slants down on the village, sharpening edges and colours. I head north towards Longstanton. On one side the hedge is deep blood red. Stripped of their leaves, the hawthorns have revealed their abundant fruits. The hips, too, hang thick from the briars. I try one, then another, then two or three more. They’re quite edible now, turning to a fragrant paste in the mouth, with a sharp tang and plenty of crunch from the pips, like a wine grape.
As often happens, I am led astray by a bird. A hawk comes out of the trees on my right, and flies overhead and across the field at about twenty feet. All I see is the exquisitely barred underparts – body and wings – red-brown on grey. Because it’s flying away from me I can’t see its head or the length of its tail… slightly larger than a kestrel, and with a slower wingbeat…one, two, three beats, then a glide… and so on. On reaching the hedge dividing two fields, it dives low and flies along one side just two or three feet above ground. Classic sparrowhawk behaviour. Yes, it’s the elusive sparrowhawk again. I’ve glimpsed them four or five times this year but never close enough to make a positive identification. I’m over a wooden field-gate, and across the stubble in no time. I make my way up the hedgerow, through teasels and grasses, putting up rabbits and blackbirds. But there’s no sign of the hawk. Two hundred yards up, the hedgerow comes to an end. All around are open fields, in stubble. It’s warm in the sun. Peaceful and warm. In spite of the traffic out on the highway, there is a special calm and quiet here. I stand still for a full twenty minutes. There are birds in the fields, but nowhere near. A few fieldfares, a flurry of yellow and brown siskins, and far, far away, some fifty lapwings mark time in the air, as if suspended, their big rounded wings beating in unison.