Tag Archives: Canada geese


October 13th, 2001 – the first time I’ve been out in this poor patch of England for six long weeks. Poor because it has been largely deprived of its natural wealth – its variety, complexity, fecundity, wildness – and reduced to something considerably meaner and less productive, or so it seems to me. Still, as I have discovered over the year, there are remnants of glory even here, unveiled on occasion, when you least expect them, though perhaps not today.

I walk fast for five miles, up the no-through road to Longstanton, along the green ways and droves to Rampton, through the village, then upstream along the high bank of New Cut/Beck Brook to the medieval trackway called Cuckoo Lane which takes me over the only rise in the district and down through Lamb’s Cross farm to the Cottenham-Oakington road and back home – a route I’ve taken many times before of course, all on road or track. No furtive fence-hopping or field-creeping today, no bush-whacking, ditch-leaping or tree-climbing today, no idleness, recklessness, no derring-do.

It is a dull, overcast day, dry and cold. It has, evidently, been somewhat wet this past month. Pastures and meadows carry a lush pelt of green, growth having outpaced the grazers. In places the track is still muddy and puddled. Water in the open ditches is hidden under a loose skin of algae, electric green with nitrogen run-off. In the brook it lies milky and still. Apart from the cold, not much has changed. Only the horse-chestnuts, diseased, have turned and shed most of their leaves prematurely. From afar they autumn the green with orange and bronze. On the ground their leaves lie curled and brown and gather in drifts. Field maples are beginning to yellow. Haws have softened and coloured a deep wine-red, while the flask-shaped hips remain firm and crimson, awaiting the frost. Most of the elderberries are spent – I have missed their harvest. On the verges the occasional white yarrow and a few yellow hawkbits, dandelion-like, are still in flower. In the hedgerows the late-flowering ivy has finally opened its yellow-green globes, unleashing a strange, potent musk.

A herd of two dozen geese (Canadas) crop the turf in the old airfield, all facing the same way, long black necks arched to the ground. I nearly fall over a diseased rabbit, drunk and disoriented on myxamatosis, its bulging skull visible under a thin membrane of skin. I look around for a weapon with which to despatch it but it creeps away out of reach. Later I come across an injured wood pigeon, broken-winged, but such is its fear of humans that it beats frantically through the hedge to escape my kind clutches, and I leave it be to avoid further distress. It will probably not last out the day. A handful of goldfinches, with red, black and white face-masks and bright yellow wing-flashes, is flung up into the air, like a magic trick. A kestrel beats over, long-tailed, and then, in an adjacent field, another hovers above the brown earth before sliding away on the slope of the air.

All the arable here, in the lower part of the district, has been ploughed and harrowed and worked to a more or less fine tilth, ready for sowing. The sight of bare soil, beautifully combed and even and smooth, wrapped round the land, fills me with a strange delight. I think because only thus, cleared of crop and cleaned, do we see what a truly wondrous creation it is. Only thus is its glory revealed, as a living, breathing organism, and its potential unearthed. The soil hereabouts varies subtly from adjacent field to field, and sometimes within fields – from rich chestnut brown through to a yellowish ochreous tan and a paler, more greyish khaki – not though the black fenny soils that lie a few miles to the  north. The grey shapes of wood pigeons hunch in the ploughland, amongst them a single, pure white dove. Spurning the comfort and predictability of some suburban dovecote, it has decided, or been persuaded, to go native. There is much activity in the fields today – farmers dismount from their 4 x 4s and kick a clod or two, great yellow sacks of seed, like giant punch-bags, are hoisted by tractors into hoppers, machinery is trundled and dragged across the land. Only the fields by Rampton Drift which bore barley this year have already been sown, with rape, now six inches high and here and there precociously flowering.

On my way back along the high bank of New Cut that channels Beck Brook towards Rampton, three silent shapes sit on the stream. They are juvenile Mute swans, the size of large geese, with smoky grey plumage blotched white. Black tear-tracks curve down from their eyes to the base of their pale beaks. There’s no sign of the adults. They show some momentary interest but are unperturbed by my presence and continue bobbing for black strands of weed on the bed of the stream. Now swans are commonplace, I know, especially on the larger rivers and waterways, but this is the first time I’ve seen them on our little Beck Brook. So I sit down and watch them awhile. They are surely the most placid of birds.

Further along, walking up Cuckoo Lane, I am alerted by the unmistakable cry of a bird of prey. A hundred yards away, two shapes dash and duck and jink through the air just above the ground, a couple of feet apart. A wood pigeon is being hunted down by a hawk or falcon of sorts. I get a two-second glimpse, that’s all, before they are hidden by trees. But in those two seconds a door is opened and wildness floods the world. My heart races. Then all reverts to normality. I don’t know the outcome. But surely a kestrel, the most common bird of prey in these parts, would not take a pigeon. It must have been a larger hawk of some kind, though I have only seen snatches of what I take to be sparrowhawks. The thought that this might be a peregrine will keep me out and about till the end of the year.


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August 6th, 2010. 4 a.m. I walk out of the village through wet and deserted streets, King of the Road. It’s raining steadily. A low blanket of cloud covers the sky and eclipses the dawn. Except for a faint glow to the south from the lights of the city all is dim, as murky as pond water. A week of showers has softened the land and I can once again smell the earth, the odorous earth. I linger awhile beside Sparrowhawk Copse but there’s not a sound, not a peep. In the far distance the lights from a delivery truck strobe through a  hedgerow.

I walk up the guided-busway to Histon then along puddled tracks to my now favourite place, the scrubland. A single, disembodied kraawwk is shouted down from the cloud, close overhead, startling and pleasing. Who could deny that this is a greeting – from one creature to another, crossing paths in the wet, lonely dawn. It was a heron perhaps, for not long after I disturb one from a ditch and it flies low and slow up the black line of water, shedding raindrops. A cock crows somewhere far away. That’s it for the dawn chorus today. Ten Canada geese fly out of nowhere, heading south, very low and in close V-formation, uncannily silent. Out in the overgrown scrub I gather plump, glistening blackberries, oval blue damsons, ‘the plum of Damsacus’, and round cherry-plums full of juice. These last fall into my cupped hand with the lightest of touches. I am soaked through of course, but no fruit tasted better, wild and rain-washed and straight from the bush.

I make my way homeward. The rain eases off and the clouds disassemble, revealing clear blue sky high above. At my approach mute woodpigeons spill out of each tree in turn, in twos and threes. Their quills thrum with the first few wingbeats then ease into silent flight mode. As I pass Beck Brook, at one of its widest spots, a full four feet across, there are a couple of sploshes, loud in the dawn, and a V-shaped wavelet ripples the channel between blooms of pondweed – the bow-wave of a water vole, ever-elusive. Sometimes all we are offered is a glimpse or a trace – of vole, or sparrowhawk, or the divine. It is enough for now, enough to whet our appetite, to ramble on, seek further, drink deeper.

hedgerow harvest - blackberries, damsons, cherry plums


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July 31st. 2010. Rain during the night, ending in a soft mizzle this morning. The ground has had a thorough soaking for the first time this summer. The evening is clear and very still. I walk along the guided-busway in twilight. As my dark shape breaks the skyline of the embankment forty rabbits streak from the middle of a stubbled field towards the edge, as if they had sprung from the earth and the clods themselves had grown legs. For a moment the ground shifts ahead of me.

In a corner, amongst a patch of teasels, is a twining white bryony with deeply-lobed, vine-like leaves and pale scarlet berries the size of peas, glowing in the half-light. They are the first berries of the season, but very poisonous. It is said that fifteen berries will kill a child, though I cannot imagine a child eating even one, so foetid the smell and bitter the taste, so I’ve read. It was often called mandrake in parts of Cambridgeshire, its enormous fleshy tuber credited with all the powers of the true mandrake and passed off as the real thing by unscrupulous hawkers. Like all the so-called poisonous plants it was a favourite amongst the old herbalists.

An unbroken ribbon of rooks passes over towards the south-east in ones and twos and small groups, muttering quietly to themselves. They fly high on a steady course, winging dark against the sky. After counting one hundred I give up, and still they come. Through the binoculars I can just make out, at the limit of vision some two miles away, those near the head of the column disappearing into the night. They could be streaming out from the rookery at Westwick but that is out of sight from where I’m standing. And where they are heading is a mystery. Perhaps to a funeral. It was a Fenland tradition of the last [19th] century that rooks always knew when a gamekeeper had died and would form into a long line to fly over his coffin as it was being carried to the church.

A tawny owl hoots from the trees that line the brook and a pale brown shadow flits down low over the ground and up onto a branch, but it is too far away to see clearly. Eight geese fly over from the north at about 50 feet, all abreast in close formation, silently, black against the deep indigo sky. Their pale rumps suggest they are Canada geese but identification is impossible in this light. As they pass overhead one calls down a single u-whonk in greeting. A farmer is harrowing a field in the dark, tractor headlights on. A babble of excited voices and shouts carries across the still night air from the detention centre on the other side of the old airfield – the detainees are either engaged in a spirited game of football or else they’re rioting, as they have in the past. I cannot imagine how they must feel, having ducked and dodged the authorities in a dozen countries and finally made it to the promised land, only to end up at Oakington Detention Center watching television and playing football, waiting to be deported back to what they risked their lives to escape from.

Back home, a single pipistrelle, no bigger than a wren or large butterfly, flickers up and down the dark garden, backwards and forwards, looping round at each end, twisting and turning through the apple trees, appearing, disappearing and reappearing at breakneck speed. At times it flies within two feet of my face and I try hard not to duck. Two hours later it’s still at it, weaving the air.

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30th March, 2010. 7 a.m. BST, 6 a.m. body-clock time. The sun has risen 20 minutes ago, but is hidden behind cloud. In fact the whole sky is overcast, a uniform silver grey. But at least it’s dry, though the ground is wet after yesterday’s rain. I head north up the concrete tramlines of the guided bus-way. Today, for the first time in months since I damaged my knees, I try a little gentle running… now and again… trotting really… 50 yards, 100 yards. A pair of Canada geese fly over at 50 feet, heading for the pond on the west side of the airfield, one conversing with the other… a slow, rhythmic  kerr-onk… kerr-onk… kerr-onk, like a child idly swinging a squeaky barn door back and forth, back and forth. Then, coming straight towards me from out of the north, is a pair of pure white mute swans, elegant in flight despite their heavy, barreled bodies, their great wings soughing through the air with each downward stroke, a sound as soft as silk. They pass on without a glance. The descending cackle of a green woodpecker or eekle echoes out over the fields. I am struck by the purposefulness of birds, their pure intent, their inscrutable comings and goings. The well-known hadith of the Prophet of Islam comes to mind:

If you really trusted in God as God should be trusted, God would sustain you as God sustains the birds – they go out in the morning hungry, and come back to rest in the evening full

There are many interpretations. For me, now, it’s this… every day’s a new day… go out each morning, and seek what’s waiting for you…  sustenance of every kind, signs, encounters, openings…. death even. But you have to be attentive to it, and open.

In a paddock down by the travellers’ mansions on the edge of Rampton, a skewbald mare, with long, dishevelled white mane and forelock, suckles a foal. The day darkens rather than lightens, and a mizzle sets in. The fields are wet underfoot, and soon my shoes are sodden. I have seen few starlings (colloquially starnels) this year, but a compact flock of some fifty is feeding in a field. They rise quickly, all together, wheeling in tight formation, and settle just as quickly, as one body. I walk on top of the high bank of New Cut hoping to see the barn owl, or the fox, that frequent these parts, but the wet is against it.

From Rampton I take the road to Cottenham. It’s eight o’clock, and the commuter traffic is almost non-stop. There is no way off the road. Barbed wire seals off fields and gates, and I am forced onto tarmac nearly all the way back to Oakington. Edging a field is a row of small scrubby trees in blossom, stars glowing white against the gloom – the earliest and indeed only wild blossom I’ve seen this year. They are myrobalans or cherry plums, Prunus cerasifera, and in the autumn I will return to collect their sharp red and yellow fruits. They were often planted as a shelter belt for orchards, and this row is the remnant of just such a one, as a few gnarled and abandoned apple-trees nearby testify. Along this stretch are one or two last remaining patches of orchard, still tended, pruned and harvested, in a district that was once full of them. From a distance, it appears that the apple-trees, incredibly, are in blossom, bathed in a pale green froth, but on closer inspection I see that each twig is covered in grey-green lichen.

It is drizzling steadily now. With no where else to go, no pavement or path, I run on the road into oncoming traffic. At Westwick, lambs and ewes are in the pasture by the brook. They’ve been out at least a week. Each lamb has been spray-painted, tagged, with a blue number. The number 18 twins are sticking close to their mother. Number 24 is lost, all by itself, and bleating. One of the number 15s is trying to eat a plastic bag. But mostly they are huddled close together under the canopy of a large tree.

It’s past nine when I get in…. a good, though uneventful, walk through the fen-edge, with a bit of running too. A shower, then breakfast, and I’m ready for work.

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28th Feb. 2010. Mid-afternoon. Air moist but rain-free, and not particularly cold, though I am well-bundled in case the north-west breeze picks up. Still walking, I dare not begin running again just yet. There has been a lot of rain, and every paddock and field has acquired glinting pools and lakes overnight. The parkland below Westwick House is a sheet of water and overflowing into a swollen Beck Brook, which is but a couple of feet from overtopping its deep-set banks. The big fields around Longstanton are as much water as land, and hundreds of gulls are swirling about or strutting by the water’s edge. I could be looking at mud-flats by the sea.

I head up the no-through road which skirts the old airfield, double fenced, bristling with warning signs, screened by a belt of low scrubby trees, and patrolled by security vehicles. I climb through the barbed-wire fence and stalk through the shelter belt, putting up bouncing rabbits. The ground underfoot is spongy and sodden. A hound barks not far off, and, for a moment, I fear I have been rumbled. But it is only the honk of a goose. The airfield is open parkland here and I come across a hidden pond, a couple of acres of deepish water, fringed with reed and bulrush. Some fifteeen black-throated Canada geese are cruising out in the open, or grazing the bank. The only other birds swimming are a handful of white-faced coot. I am surprised there are so few waterfowl as this spot seems quite undisturbed and rarely visited. I will come again.

I clamber back over the fence, through the back lane of the village, and past the black hole of the Detention Centre. The green lanes and driftways are muddy and slippery. The ditches are overflowing. It is not long before cold water seeps into my shoes. On an overhanging branch by the track there is a still, dark, squat shape. Too small for a wood pigeon. I’m sure it’s a bird but it doesn’t fly off as I expect. I raise my binoculars and only then does the shape take life and slip away over the hedgerow. It is a falcon. I scour the field to no avail, but then he appears 200 yards off flying up and away from me. Over some bungalows at the end of the lane, on the edge of Rampton village, he stops and hovers 50 feet up. It must be a kestrel, a wind-hover. From this distance I cannot see his wings move at all, it is as if he is suspended by an invisible thread, hanging in the air. He swoops away and lands on the top of a telephone pole 500 yards away. I follow but cannot get a clear sighting as he is against the light. He looks small and hunched on top of the pole. Three starlings sit on the wire not five feet from him, unperturbed – they simply ignore each other. He launches off and hovers again, facing into the wind, his splayed tail showing the distinctive black bar of a kestrel. After 20 seconds he gives up and, in frustration, scatters the starlings. He moves 100 yards down the lane, and begins to hover again, this time barely 15 feet from the ground. Then he drops straight down, and is lost to me behind a hedge. I hurry to find him, and as I get near, he rises and flips away into an orchard, dangling something slim and limp from one foot, a shrew perhaps. A successful hunt, probably the last of the day. I balance on top of a field gate, scanning the orchard. He is nowhere to be seen. Then, at the far end, I spot him in an apple-tree, just before he dips away, jinking like a peregrine, his red-brown back lit by the sun. He is only a kestrel, a small bird of prey after all, and hardly a rarity (though the first I’ve seen in this locality), yet thrilling all the same, a glimpse of the wild in this unwild place. And, as always, something of a gift.

I make my way south and homeward along a very wet Cuckoo Lane. Little Beck Brook is here like a deep grown-up river, 20 feet wide and the colour of milky tea. As I pass a lone old ash-tree by the track, there is a flap and flurry of wings like a wood-pigeon taking off. A green woodpecker undulates away, low over the field, showing its yellow-green rump. I look up into the tree, and there are three neat holes in the trunk about 15 feet up. I have discovered its nesting site. It must be the same green woodpecker I saw weeks ago in this vicinity. 200 yards further up the track are another three trees, two oaks and an ash. Again, I find woodpecker holes in the ash-tree, but none in the oaks. Perhaps the oak wood is too hard to drill. The parliament of rooks at Westwick House is in full voice as I pass in the fading light. It has been a good walk, 6 miles and my legs are fine, only a little foot-sore. And, surprisingly, not another soul about, even though it’s a Sunday.

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