Tag Archives: blackcap

owlwalk38

May 7th, 2010. A dull day, weather-wise, chilled by a north-easterly breeze. I set out in a fleece, coat and cap on a clockwise circuit of the old airfield and barracks, a route I’ve followed many times before. In the Drift (a variant of ‘drove’, down which cattle were ‘driven’), a tunnel of green leading out to the pony paddocks on the western edge of the village, butterflies soodle up and down the cow parsley verges, sniffing each cluster of flowers in turn but rarely alighting. Warblers are out and about – chiffchaffs chiff and chaff endlessly, and a female blackcap (rich chestnut cap, not black) is busy debugging the hedgerow.

I meet Ron and his wife – 70-somethings, in rude health – half submerged in greenery, at work in their cottage front garden. I hail them, they me, beaming. We talk butterflies and they straight away invite me, a passing stranger, to take a look at their garden ‘out back’, almost leading me along by the hand. I expect an immaculate show garden, of the National Garden Scheme type that opens to the public once a year in aid of charity, or a self-sufficient cotter’s backyard laid out to vegetables and soft fruit, with chickens, bees and a pig perhaps. In fact it’s a wilderness. It spurns all garden conventions – there’s no lawn, no clipped hedges, no patio or decking, no flower beds, no garden flowers, roses or shrubs, and no vegetable patch to speak of. It’s unrepentantly naturalized, turned over to nature,  full of wild plants and flowers – white hedge garlic, pale blue forget-me-nots and red campions now – and what most people call weeds, under a canopy of apples and other small trees. Not overgrown or neglected, just … ungardened. Ron leads me along a path of sorts between brick outbuildings (swallow nesting) and wooden sheds, a caravan, greenhouse, various middens, overgrown ponds, and, here and there, small clearings planted with beans and peas and strawberries, like patches of swidden in a rainforest. He now and then points out plants, and gently runs his hand over leaves. Their work is limited to some judicious thinning out and pruning,  the sowing of wild flower seeds, and nurturing what’s there, whatever it is. They nurture the wild.  He shows me a couple of old horse-ploughs, used by his father-in-law up until the early nineteen-fifties, near enough a hundred years old, he says, and the iron still as good as when it was forged. I don’t know what to make of it all. It’s a haven for wildlife, and a haven for Ron and his wife. An island of heresy in a sea of suburban conformity. It’s a surprise. More surprising though than the garden are the gardeners. Their welcome, their joy in sharing, and their love of the wild are as rare as their garden. It has been, for me, an uplifting, humbling and salutary meeting.

I take the lane to Longstanton. The hawthorn, whitethorn or may is finally in flower, here and there. Soon the countryside will be sprung again with its white festoons and honeyed scent, just as all the other brightening blossoms – cherry plum, cherry, apple and blackthorn – have faded. A second coming. Blue flowers have arrived over the past few days – bluebells here and there in coppice and woodland, the pale forget-me-nots, and bluest of all, alkanet or bugloss, a traditional dye-plant, a naturalized garden escape (the name is Arabic – from Middle English, from Old Spanish alcaneta, diminutive of alcana, ‘henna’, from Medieval Latin alchanna, from Arabic al-hinnā’, ‘henna’, apparently because it was used as a substitute dye).

A songthrush is giving voice at the end of a barely-leaved oak branch. I count a series of at least seven different combinations of notes and sounds, brief  liquid stanzas, each one enunciated clearly, in turn. Not so much a song as a vocal exercise. There is a commotion of geese coming from the hidden lake on the airfield, now completely screened from the road. As I contemplate negotiating the easiest access point (see pic) a large bird flies off, away from me. At first I take it for a heron, it’s that sort of size, then as it banks I know it’s a bird of prey, brownish, with somewhat ragged wings. I get about 3 seconds before it disappears over some trees. Are there buzzards here still? I have a feeling, though, that this is no buzzard at all but a bird unknown, and I set off in pursuit. It has flown towards the village, but when I get there I am unable to find it. It’ll draw me back another day soon.

The breeze picks up, suthering through the trees (one of Clare’s words), and the air turns damp. Longhorned cattle hunker down in a field, with their backs to the wind. There’s a smell of rain before a skat or light shower wets the land and my coat. It’s soon over, but the sky is darkening. Not since the snow have my hands been so cold. They plunge into pockets. More like the end of winter than the middle of spring. From the vantage point of the guided-busway embankment I watch a hovering kestrel, hanging in the air, facing into the wind, beating its wings deeply, head down, tail fanned out and depressed, remaining exactly in place for minutes at a time, then sliding sideways, and hovering anew. In ten minutes of hovering, it does not stoop or plunge once.

Then, an unexpected encounter, a first. About 20 yards from the track of the guided-bus-to-be, within the old airfield and out in the open, is a large, triangular, wooden nestbox set on a post about ten or twelve feet from the ground. I’ve watched it many a time and never seen the slightest sign of occupation. As I pass by I don’t even give it a glance. But out of the corner of my eye, there’s a movement, a blur, a glimpse of something alive. By the time I turn, it has slipped away silently. I instinctively know it’s a Little Owl, though I’ve not seen one for years. I settle down behind a screen of bushes to await its return. Five very still minutes later I’m rewarded. A second owl emerges from the hole of the nestbox onto the landing platform, and scowls straight at me. It knows I am here. The frowning eyebrows are comical. It gives me a definite ‘look’, reprimanding, then launches into the greyness and is gone in the blink of an eye.

A final encounter on the guided-busway, this cold evening, as I approach home. A mother mallard is waiting on one side, looking back anxiously, accompanied by a single duckling. Four others are coming up behind, but they are stuck behind the concrete ledges that form the sides of each trackway, six inches high, three times the height of a duckling. They have to overcome four of them. Time after time they attempt to climb, clamber or fly up the sheer, smooth wall in front of them. The mother duck clucks out quiet instructions, and at one point she is on the point of going back to give them a hand. Then one manages it and achieves the next one with relative ease. The others, one by one, get the hang of it and struggle over each obstacle. It’s a slow, painful process, with many a fall. Eventually they’re all over, she gathers them together and dusts them off, and they all head off through a gap in a fence. They’re going east, towards the brook. They’re a hundred yards from the water, over a ditch and a meadow, and they’ve come from the airfield. It must be their very first walk, from the field where they’ve hatched to their new home on the stream, as is the practice among mallard, a journey of at least 200 yards, full of hazard and drama, as we’ve seen. They’re half way there and night is falling.

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maywalk37

May 4th, 2010. For the sake of brevity, notes, not notions or narrative, I tell myself. The best thing about England, surely, is the weather. Other places have wilderness, we have weather. Loads of it. It deserves to be celebrated. For the past month – dry and warm, with many glorious, sunshiny days. For the last few days – spring showers, during the day and night, big clouds, and a sudden fall in temperature. It has been cold, jersey-and-coat cold, even scarf-cold, if you’re out, borne on a chilly north-easterly blow. All’s been in motion – clouds, trees, grasses, litter. Then this afternoon – calm, a mostly blue sky, and sun again, warm in the lee of a hedge. Summerish even. I’m out.

I check first the lapwings in the fallow to the south-west of the village, fearing that it might have been ploughed and the birds displaced. It hasn’t and they’re still there, though I can only see two on the ground, in different parts of the field. They must be nesting by now. Their long crest plumes are blown over sideways, giving them a rakish, dissolute air. A male blackcap, the first I’ve seen this year outside the garden, is busy deep in a hedgerow, sounding like a loud, very squeaky wheelbarrow being pushed at a run. A scarlet-faced goldfinch, with brilliant golden wing bands, sits on the topmost twig of a bush.

I follow the brook for a mile upstream. The water has risen a little. My sudden appearance flushes a pair of mallard. Then, at the confluence by the copse, cruising, is a mother mallard with four ducklings, surely the same family I’ve seen before on this stretch. If so, they have all somehow survived. 100 yards upstream, seven more ducklings, excitedly scooping up insects from the surface, whirling around like bumper cars. Strangely, no parent to be seen. They are alone, but not abandoned I hope. When they become aware of my presence, they bunch together and remain quite still on the water, unsure of what to do next. Pale yellow faces and breasts, with a dark band running back from the brow, over the head, and down the back, with an elegant black eye-stripe and single spot on the cheek by way of mascara. Dark bodies blotched pale yellow. Then one breaks away from the group, heading downstream, and the others all follow. A flotilla of fluff. Upstream, another female with four ducklings, and further on again, three drakes splash off and wing away muttering. These are wild mallard, not city park or village pond ducks, on a quiet, unfrequented stretch of the brook. How can this sunken slip of a stream support so many wildfowl? Next a grey heron lifts heavily out of the ditch, is mobbed by a rook, and circles wide over adjacent fields, slowly, legs trailing behind and great wings flapping untidily like washing on a line. I’ve seen one before in this neck of the woods so it might well be locally resident. It seems to be waiting for me to move on, which I do.

The lush growth of grass and herbage make for more difficult walking. A few butterflies ply the stream edge – Orange Tips, a single pale lemon-green Brimstone, and a lovely brown Speckled Wood, with creamy yellow markings and ‘eyes’ with black centres. I am growing fond of butterflies. Their vulnerability to the human enterprise and consequent scarcity, their role in the web of life, and exquisite coloration and detailing make them worthy of our closer attention.

A strange scent has been nagging at my nostrils, at once sweet and sour. Lightly rancid, you could say, faintly flowery, faintly foul. Of course! It must be the oils emitted by the rape-seed flowers, in huge fields all around. Some people loathe the smell, others react to it badly, sneezing and streaming. En masse, the bright yellow flowers dominate large swathes of countryside at this time of year, a yellow invasion, reviled by some as a blot on the traditional landscape. But up close, in small doses, the plant is showy enough to earn a place in the herbaceous border, I’d say, if I had one. Swallows, swooping low over the flowering sea, seem undaunted, and skylarks still lark in the crop.

The big winter flocks have long since dispersed, but a sizable gang of starlings or starnels, some 30 or 40 strong, work through a pasture, rising and settling as one. When they glide down together on short triangular wings, they’re like miniature delta-winged aircraft. I walk an asphalted footpath that leads along the back gardens of Histon and its conjoined twin Impington, urbanised villages, dissected by traffic. Chain-link fencing, four-letter surveillance. Neighbourhood watched. A collared dove, with round black eyes outlined in white, blinks a white eyelid. Terraced streets, then onto the main road to Cottenham. Even at 6.30 the commute’s still in full flow.

I branch off down a long Mill Lane into clear country. I’m at the eastern extremity of my territory here. It feels good – expansive, open, quiet, uncluttered. The farmer at Mill Lane Farm has been good enough to lay out a network of ‘permissive pathways’ (strange choice of word), in the absence of any public right of way, allowing walkers to tramp through his extensive lands stretching almost to Cottenham. Big fields, no hedges or ditches, wide skies. Too much for me today. I leave the pleasure for another time and turn homewards. It’s been a warm walk, and therefore especially delicious to slip through the dim, sub-aqueous, yew-shaded churchyard at Histon. In the meadows below the village, I stretch out in thick grass and look up into unbroken blue.

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