jaywalk76

November 28, 2010. Late morning. Cold, clear and sunny. No snow last night, but a very heavy frost. A sparkling high-definition winter’s day, with everything at its sharpest and most intensely coloured. The horse pasture below the church is a white sheet of crystals. A jay flies low and settles on the ground. Not often encountered this year, though for the past week or so a pair has visited the garden, ever-wary and off at the slightest of movements. This must be one of them. The light is behind me and for the first time I see its true colours – both deep and pale pink, black and white, and that flash of sky in the wing, a pure azure more perfect in blueness than all other blues.

Beck brook is partially frozen over, as translucent and flawed as old glass. The feeder from Histon is sealed across, though further up, a clear stream of water flows between shelves of white ice. On the ground each blade of grass is a colony of towering crystals, and each leaf a crisp, curled shard of colour that shatters under the boot. Beyond the brook, in the middle of a winter-wheat field, the green just breaking through, is a solitary little egret, slender and white, hunched at the shoulder, standing on one thin black leg in the sun. Perfectly still, it doesn’t even swivel its head or long bill, as if frozen solid. Last seen, in this same vicinity, in early June. An hour later, when I have looped around, it passes overhead, towards the north, long neck tucked back, legs and yellow feet stretched out behind. It flies on stiff concave wings, never straightening or flexing them, holding the curve of the air. That each species has its own distinctive wing movement and flight pattern, as one would expect, is still endlessly fascinating, still wondrous to me.

In the patch of woodland along the brook, blackbirds aplenty scuffle through litter, and fly off with a protest into the undergrowth. There is a steady, slow-motion falling of leaves from above, a reluctant descent of minerals through air, from field maples and oaks. A couple of squirrels, in different locations, retreat to the biggest trees and eye me from on high, their thick, soft tails arched forward over their backs. I am on the lookout now for our local tribe of black melanistic squirrels, though these two show no sign of the tarbrush. I tarry for some time at the brook where it curves round to pass under the road-bridge. The sun has brought out the birds. On the bankside, robins, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, and a solitary redwing, with blushed flanks and a striking pale supercilium through the line of the eye, pass back and forth over the water, here clear of ice. These last are usually highly gregarious. A moorhen picks through the shallows. The clear light transforms this sombre, uniformly dark bird into a creature extraordinary, for it is exquisitely, subtly two-toned – deep grey-black above and paler slate-grey below, separated by a wavy white line; in front, a small red bill, behind, the double white tail, jerking incessantly. Then an unexpected delight. A kingfisher alights on a thin branch arching over the water, as kingfishers do. Facing away from me, I see only the iridescent turquoise-blue back but as it flashes away downstream it reveals its orange-red underparts. A little winged jewel. I’ve not seen one since mid-July.

Walking upstream I put up a male mallard. It flies high in a big sweeping arc and as it turns back towards me, five others, two drakes and three ducks, in tight formation, wing fast overhead in the same direction. It soon catches up with its crew, and off they go, united. A flight of mallard against a big winter sky – what could be more evocative, more symbolic, of an English winter, except perhaps the scent of woodsmoke? A single lapwing flies west on broad rounded wings – strange to see one on its own. Then five minutes later, half a dozen follow suit. Reaching the big fields beyond, hazed green with young blades of wheat, I find dozens more, scattered evenly over a wide area, working the frozen earth. Green-black bodies, white below, with distinctive wispy black crests, they look small against the great expanse. White gulls wheel lazily above, landing occasionally. The hedgerow harbours several dozen fieldfares which abscond one by one as I approach, making small noises of discontent. They keep looping forward into the next tree along, blue-grey and rust-red in flight, flashing white underparts and black tail.

A final epiphany thanks to today’s special light. Woodpigeons, as plump as college porters, sit in a pasture, larger than life, sunbathing. The commonest bird in these parts, easily overlooked, yet in coloration and marking, really quite stunning. That white wing bar in flight, for example. But up close, the degrees of blueness in the greys of head and wing shading into the magenta-pink barrel-chest, the splash of white and shimmer of purple and green on the neck, make this a most handsome bird.

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squirrelwalk75

November 27th, 2010. 7.00 a.m. A grey weight of cold hangs heavy over the morning. Everything is dusted with snow, the ground hammered with frost. There’s more light below than above. Ragged flights of gulls – common and black-headed – emerge out of nowhere, in twos and threes and dozens, sculling steadily overhead towards the dull bloom of light in the south-east. A pair of jays retreats into a thicket of hawthorn. A fox sees me first, and bounds away over the pasture, as if the ground was too cold for her paws, her thick brindled brush, white-tipped, almost as long as her body, flowing behind. At three hundred yards, she stops and turns to look back at me. For a few moments we are two beings conjoined. Now, at the beginning of winter, she is well-fed and in fine fettle.

It is very cold, cold and still. I am ill-dressed for the weather. My ungloved hands find cold comfort in pockets. The dense mesh of hedges and bushes harbour small birds – blackbirds, chaffinch, a greenfinch and goldfinch, I’m happy to see. But it’s too cold to linger long. Water in the ditch is frozen over, the ice powdered with snow and marked by the drama of slid prints, the larger probably rabbit, the smaller probably stoat. Cock pheasants strut gingerly across frozen ploughland. On the ice-rutted droveway, a young lad approaches, eight or nine, struggling with his bike. He stops, wants to talk, share his early morning adventure. We have a strange conversation.”Nice day, in’ it”? “Yes, very cold though”. “Not very nice if you have to bike 30 miles”. “30 miles? Where on earth are you going”. “Three times round the village”. More like 3 miles, but for him it’s probably closer to 30. “Why?” I ask. “I’m having a race with my friend”. “And where is he?”, I ask, looking up the track. “Oh, he’s still in bed”. And off he goes.

At the farmyard, Longhorn cattle bellow into the morning – foghorn cattle. They stare at me, pointed horns curving crazily in drunken asymmetry. Collared doves, as smooth as milk, purr round the barns. In the next field, Belted Galloways, black barrels of beef with white midriffs, as woolly as sheep, huff clouds of warm cow-breath into the cold. I walk a slippery road through Longstanton. On the gates of a house – NO COLD CALLERS. That counts me out, then. Back down the no-through road towards home. Out in the open fields, a buzzard is on the tail of a rook, not hunting I’m sure, probably just irritated by the smaller bird. They twist and turn a few feet above ground until the buzzard gives up the chase, flaring its great wings in a banking glide and settling onto a fence post. It broods… a brown, indistinct shape hunched against the cold haze.

In the hedgerows and trees I notice nests everywhere, betrayed by the fall. A branch trembles in front. Not six feet away a squirrel is easing through the dense tangle of stems and twigs. A large grey, wrapped in fabulous fur, with shiny black almond eyes. It swims through the thicket, sometimes over-reaching itself and swinging down on one hind claw, its tail entwined on a nearby branch. It slips into a briar, picks out a rose hip, and holding it in both paws gnaws at it tentatively. I watch closely. How will it deal with it? But it is not to its liking and it chucks it away. Further on, two more squirrels, smaller and paler, are wrapped, like lemurs, round stems of young ash-trees. They skip up to the very ends of the slenderest twigs to pick the last of the ash-keys and break out the seeds. I don’t see many squirrels round here. They’re a treat to watch, and worth a little more time in the cold.

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Warning

It’s not a good idea to eat rose-hips straight from the bush! I have discovered what most people probably already know – attached to the seeds are fine hairs that can lodge in the lips, mouth, throat…. very irritating. To make a syrup or cordial you must strain the liquid through layers of cheesecloth and to make a fruit paste, puree or jam you need to remove the seeds first.

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rosehipwalk74

November 15th, 2010. The first hard frost of the season last night. At 4.30 p.m., when I manage to get out, it’s already dusk. The sun has set and the light is dim. It’s a clear, cold night in the making. I had intended to gather rose hips and chestnuts today, but there’s little chance of the latter since I haven’t noticed any sweet chestnut trees in the district, and finding the trees in the dark, let alone nuts, is clearly out of the question. Rose hips are on, I know where to find them. I walk up the B-road, commuter traffic in full flow, bright lights looming up fast, red tail-lights receding. Sometimes I feel like the last pedestrian on the planet. The rooks at Westwick stand sentinel on the tops of tall trees, still and silent and black against the evening.

I turn into the old trackway, into tranquility. On my right, beyond field after field of ploughland, a long spread of marmalade sky rests on the far horizon. Up above, a ragged three-quarter moon. It’s too dark to see any nightlife though a fox or an owl would make my day. The track is muddy, churned by tractors and horses and I have to pick my way through the worst of it. On either side now, a black latticework of hedgerow. I soon find the dog roses, and begin plucking the dark wine-red hips. Despite the frost, some are still hard and won’t come away from their stalks. But there are plenty of soft ones, and for ten minutes or so I gather the miniature flasks of vitamin C and drop them into a plastic bag. Too late I realize the bag is getting no heavier, it’s ripped at the bottom, probably on some stray briar, and I’m just chucking rose hips onto the ground. So much for night-harvesting. I rescue a double-handful and call it a day. I’ll simmer them in honey and throw in a chilli, to strain and make cordial.

It’s a dark, silent walk up the trackway. A roosting pheasant rockets out of the hedge like a firework. The rustle of wings, and dark thrush-like shapes bolt one-by-one from overhead trees, jinking through the dark. I think it’s a flock of over-wintering redwings. Reaching the village, I walk past thatched, timber-framed cottages next to the church, the remnants of the old settlement on the highest rise of the land. Yellow-lit windows. The flicker of televisions. Inside the King Billy IV, a cluster of mates nurse their beers. Out of the village, I turn north on a farm-track, led by my foreshortened moon-shadow. The way is obscure, but the puddles are silvered and shine in the dark. The stars are out. I locate the North Star by means of the Plough and follow it home. I listen for night sounds. Only two break the black silence. First, a couple of harsh calls overhead. Must be fairly big birds, not rooks or geese, or anything I’ve heard before. Then from the midst of a field, from the ground, two or three shrill pipings, answered nearby, then silence. The sweet silence of night, out in the fields.

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autumnwalk73

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.

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mornwalk72

November 7th, 2010. 6.30 a.m. Clear, calm and cold. Just above freezing, I’d say. There’s no frost on the ground or the grass, but a fine white film slicks  the tops of the wooden fence posts. I step out, and for the first time this year I don’t know which way to turn. I’ve taken every possible combination of routes, many times over. It’s a fine morning for a walk alright, but my heart’s not in it and my feet are heavy. I head towards the light, in the south-eastern quarter. It being a Sunday, the road is mine. Jackdaws and rooks are about. The cattle up on the airfield are lowing, the sound carrying loud in the morning, yet I can barely hear the traffic on the A14 away to the west, the usual unrelenting, rumbling undertone of these parts. There’s no perceptible breeze so it’s not that at all. In Kashmir a measure of distance is the call of a cow. Hmmm. The brook is carrying a good amount of water, clear, flowing slowly but steadily into the ocean 30 or 50 or 100 cow-calls’ away. I kick through fallen leaves. An old willow has been stripped to the bones of its branches, and most trees are now looking thinner, showing more sky…their fat has returned to the earth…except for the ash and the oak, still fully-leaved and clothed in green. As I pass beneath trees, I wake woodpigeons. The hollow whoomp-whoomp of their quills as they launch into flight fills the morning. Out in the fields they are beginning to gather into their large winter flocks. The grass is soaked and my feet soon feel the wet. A lone jogger, on the other side of a field-hedge, trundles by, breathing hard. I walk up the muddy edge of a field, sown with winter wheat perhaps, a million single green blades breaking through the brown weight of earth. Lone black rooks sit solemn and still. In the distance, mist blurs the trees on the skyline. A country of clouds in the low southern sky hides the sun but above them is bright silver-blue. I check out the woodpecker copse, the clear-running ditch from Histon, the kestrel windbreak behind Westwick House, the cherry-plum thicket, but only blackbirds scold and tut at my presence. Back on the village road, a bread-delivery truck rushes past. A single black squirrel, or very dark brown, skips across the guided-busway. More common in the village just to the south, in Girton, I’ve rarely seen these melanistic mobsters in these parts, though last year one came into my garden. Come to think of it though, I’ve seen only a handful of greys in my whole patch this year. I’ve seen more muntjacs than squirrels. Approaching home I hear the once familiar, once even irritating, persistent chirping of house sparrows. There they are again, those drab and recently despised gutter-snipes and eaves-droppers. Only a handful still have a precarious foothold on the nation’s fascias. Once not worth a look, I now stop and stare.

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cormorantwalk71

October 30th, 2010. A beautiful afternoon, the finest of mares’-tails flicking a high blue sky, sunny. Yet in a three hour walk I see little of note. The land is lit, warm, coloured by autumn, and empty. Almost. I am just outside the village, on a track behind the last row of houses, when a large bird flies slowly overhead, not high, dark against the light. I know it from its unmistakable profile. It’s a cormorant. Only the second I’ve seen in these parts. To see one even is remarkable  – for we have no large inland waters nearby, only the small forbidden lake on the airfield and four miles away, out of my range, the flooded gravel pits at the Country Park. Could the cormorant be flying between the two? There are geese I know on the forbidden lake, and then there’s the great crested grebe I found the other day, wounded, beyond the horse pastures, that could only have wandered from there. Perhaps there are cormorants too, and other unknown treasures. I must find a way to visit.

I edge along the side of a large ploughed field. It has been worked right up to its bounding ditch and hedge, leaving no verge at all. The soil is wet and I am soon carrying a slab of mud on each boot. In the shade of an ash-tree, silver mushrooms have pushed up through the dark clod. I’ve never seen anything like them – brushed-metal capsules, immaculate. They only occur close to the ash – beyond, there are none. They must live together in some sort of symbiotic relationship. Out in the bare expanse only a few rooks, pigeons and gulls pick at the ground. I turn into Gun’s Lane, medieval mudway to Cambridge, lined with pale yellow blackthorn and reddening hawthorn. Up ahead a flock of two-dozen migrating redwings settle into a tree-top, but as soon as I get near, they take off and fly up the track into another. They are very flighty these birds, and won’t let me get anywhere near to get a close look. They keep to the tree-tops.

I walk through the scrubland, a pasture, the badger dell, and back down the long, straight line of water euphemistically called Histon Brook without seeing or hearing anything except for one or two woodpigeons. Not even a rabbit. Extraordinary. The fields should be flocked with migrating birds. The landscape has not been so empty all year. As I near the village, though, there is one single eruption of life. The sun is balanced on the western horizon, a blinding white light. I am surprised to hear, half a mile away, a once familiar hubbub. The rookery at Westwick is loud again. I thought it had been abandoned some time ago but I’ve not passed by for awhile. There is a commotion of rooks above the trees, restless, excited. Then they begin to stream outwards in small, loose groups, flying westward, straight into the sun, group after group, until the last one leaves the rookery and there are one hundred and forty rooks ( I count them) in a long, straggling column, making their way slowly across the evening sky. I go to the rookery and look up into the tall stand of sycamores, studded with nests. It is utterly quiet, deserted. Not a single bird remains. Why would rooks leave their rookery just as the sun is about to go down? Don’t they roost here at night? And where do they go? Not that I really, really want to know. I’m just glad to report that there are mysteries still in the world.

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