Tag Archives: dunnock


December 20th, 2010. Mid-morning. A 4-mile loop up the feeder brook to Histon and back along the medieval trackway. Dead still, dense fog, very cold at – 7°C. Snow on the ground. I step out into a wonderland. Each twig and sprig and stem is ermined in white, velveted like deer horn, wrapped in a soft fur of frost quite unlike the spikes of ice that bristled from every surface a few days ago. Above the main trunk, trees are all white. The weeping tracery of birches and willows is draped anew in frost-foliage. Each leaf of holly and ivy is rimmed with a perfect band of silver. Beyond the snow-covered foreground, beyond the white lattice of branches, there’s nothing – no distance, no horizon, no sky at all, only fog all around and above. The world has no edge. It disappears altogether at two hundred yards. I don’t expect to see much.

The guns are out today. Pheasants at hand are shaken by the muffled pop-pop of shooters at least a mile away. All the pheasants in the district are on the move it seems, and I see more today than ever before. One mad-eyed cock pheasant sprints past in front of me, leaning forward like a cartoon road-runner, tail feathers streaming behind. Two cocks and three hens muddle around in the middle of a field, uncertain where to go. How do they know they’re being hunted? They’re well away from the killing zone, yet they’re flummoxed with fear. Ghostly squirrels bounce through the air on invisible branches and send down a shower of crystals. A travelling troupe of long-tailed tits, at least four of them, follow in Indian file and alight in a bush to perform acrobatics for me. They always delight, these diminutive black, white and pink performers, spending most of the time upside-down. Always busy, always on the move. I don’t believe they ever sit still. Later, a mile further up, I come across another party of them, seven strong, working the branches, but I think they must be the same birds, moving southward.

The brook here is a sunken ditch, still running, but in a straitened channel between parallel ice-shelves. A white apparition flies out of the fog on big wings, nearly three feet across, and alights in the ditch. A Little Egret. I am screened by trees, and creep forward to get a close look at this bird which I’ve seen in the locale several times during the year but always from a distance. It is hunting. It moves slowly upstream, in the freezing flow, lifting each yellow foot clear with each step. It scrutinizes the water, then stabs with its black 8-inch stiletto. It catches something, but whatever it is, it’s small and gone in a gulp. The bird occasionally ventures into deeper water, but is clearly reluctant, testing each step, and quickly retreating. I approach too close. It starts, and flies, trailing black legs and distinct yellow feet. It is not pure white, as all the books say, but has an orange-buff tinge to its back. It settles 50 yards up, and searches the water again. Long plumes trail from its chest. Its crest plumes will develop later, in the breeding season. These plumes were once more valuable than gold, fetching £15 an ounce or 28g (about £875 at 2000 prices), each Little Egret producing about 1g of plumes. My 1987 field guide gives the bird as a rare vagrant from southern Europe. Not any more. They have colonized the south of Britain. They are here in the snow-fields of Cambridgeshire, in the harshest of winters.

The fog lifts a little. I walk back along the ancient hedge-lined track. Blackbirds flit ahead. They are ubiquitous now. It’s a blackbird winter. They like nothing better than to hurdle the hedges, just skimming the top, black against white, with tangerine eye-ring and beak. Fieldfares and redwings accompany them, but alight on the high branches and hedge-tops. The redwing is misnamed – the only red in its plumage is the orange-red stain on its flank, like a seeping wound. A dunnock skulks in a snow-covered thicket of bramble – a small, plain, retiring bird but only the second I’ve seen in the district all year, and for that, as precious and as interesting as an egret or long-tailed tit.

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December 17th, 2010. 7.30 a.m. Clear and calm, but very cold. Day-old snow, refrozen overnight, holds the land in its bite. All is arrested, freeze-framed. I walk north. On either side, the white fields of winter are flattened under a huge weight of sky, empty and still. Trees and bushes are etched black against white, all bare save for the oak. At eight, a simmering sun pushes above the south-eastern horizon, then cools and creeps low into layering cloud. I turn east along the droveway to Rampton. There are birds here but they are reluctant to fly. Fieldfares burst from the bottom of hedgerows, in ones and twos, holding out till the very last moment. There are dozens of them. They whirl away, whimpering quietly. When the sun breaks free, they station themselves in the hedge-tops, catching the meagre heat in their breasts. Redwings, too, though less numerous. A pinch of goldfinches fidgets and flies. Out in the shining fields, the winter flocks gather. Wood-pigeons, in their hundreds, crouch like smooth grey cobblestones in the frozen surf of the ploughland. A spangled necklace of starlings garlands the sunny side of a field hedge. A black army of rooks musters beyond. A single, small, white-rumped wader rises up from a ditch and flicks away silently to land further up. It’s a bird new to me, and I follow. It flies again on rapid, shallow wingbeats but I glimpse only a white underbelly and longish bill. It could be a green or curlew sandpiper, but I’m guessing.

While I’m scouring the fields though binoculars, I become aware of being watched. I turn and glance up the track. There, not fifty yards away, is a vixen, staring straight at me, caught in mid-stride as she crosses. She doesn’t move. And neither do I. She is lean and light, winter-hungry. Her fur is not as deeply-coloured nor as dense as I expect, her brush not as bushy. She is on high alert, wired, but I find no fear in her face. What does she see? Perhaps she is young, and this her first direct encounter with Man. We hold holy communion for a full ten seconds, then she breaks free from my gaze and disappears into a hedge between fields. I try to follow her progress, checking both sides of the hedge through the lenses, but she is nowhere to be seen. No birds scatter, no grasses part, no rabbit screams.

I turn into the old rutted trackway and leave the birds behind. They seem to prefer these lower northern fields today, and become fewer and fewer as I walk south, slightly uphill, into the pallid light of a faltering sun. I am accompanied only by the squeak and crunch of my own rhythmic tread, the hollow ring of puddle-ice, and the shatter of crystal as I break through the surface. The frozen, whipped mud is as jagged as lava. In three miles I see little. A covey of red-legged partridges, seven of them, scurry between furrows, then flush into flight and descend in a long, low glide to the other side of a field, landing at a run. The rusty spikes of willowherb, thrust through the snow, tremble with a trio of dunnocks picking through the last of the seedheads. This is the first time I’ve seen these unremarkable but now rather rare hedge sparrows – small, brown-streaked birds with mouse-grey heads and breasts – and it is a small triumph that they have appeared in this place at this time. A kestrel sits atop a dead stump with its red back to the sun, but before I get within two hundred yards it launches into the freezing air and takes a long, unhurried flight over the wimpled snow-fields, the still black cut of the brook, the copse, the church-tower, the village of men, the streaming highway and on over the fenland farmland, far into the north.

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21st July, 2010. 6.30 a.m. Through the fields to Girton, across to Histon by way of a footpath, then back to Oakington on the track beside the guided-busway. A great wave of deep purple cloud, twenty miles long from east to west, rolls out of the north like a breaker, its advancing front curling dark against the light, its trailing edge thinning and foaming until it dissolves in the early morning sky. Within half an hour it has vanished over the southern horizon, leaving in its wake a blue day of sunshine.

I explore a narrow strip of abandoned, overgrown orchard sandwiched between the plastic-wrapped tunnels of a strawberry outfit and a field of fallow. A potential bivouac site for the future. Attenuated apple and plum trees reach for the light above a thicket of brambles, nettles and thistles. Hard nuggets of jade-green plums, powdered with bloom, hang overhead. Blackcap, chaffinch and greenfinch skip through the interlaced branches, and I fancy I see a dunnock or hedge sparrow, a rarity now. Rabbits scupper ahead. But I can go only so far, without a machete, and have to back through a blackthorn hedge into the light and air of open country. It’s no place to sleep.

Across to the roaring fields, roaring, that is, with the black noise of A14 traffic a mile away. The lapwing field has been turned and broken, its greasy, grey-brown clods faceted and glinting in the sun. Ploughing delayed, and a crop relinquished, I’m certain, for the sake of the birds. I’d like to meet this farmer. In fact I catch sight of him later from afar, already hard at work harrowing the other lapwing field below Girton, but it’s out of my way and I’ve no wish to stand in front of oncoming agricultural machinery in the middle of a field flapping my arms up and down like a lunatic. Not today. Interestingly, the adjacent field is sown to wheat, and between the crop and the grass verge is a bare strip of ground a couple of feet wide which here and there along its 300 meter length is populated with borage, the well-known culinary and medicinal herb. It must have been sown deliberately, surely?  Its sky-blue, inverted, down-turned flowers are truly extraordinary. The plant hails originally from Aleppo, Syria, according to Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, and is now naturalized across most of Europe. Gerard tells us that “Those of our time do use the flowers in sallads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the minde … Syrup made of the floures of Borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phreneticke and lunaticke person”. Natural Prozac then. I must return to gather a bag-full some time.

At Girton the bed of Beck Brook is as dry as a rambla in the Andalusian hills. Lying on the road is a baby hedgehog, just five inches long, dead, blood still leaking from a wound in the neck. One black shiny eye looks up at the sky. Its nose is still moist. I pick it up by one of its damp, putty-soft feet and lay it down in the shade of a hedge. It’s the first hedgehog I’ve seen this year, dead or alive. One used to frequent the shed in the garden and join the cats at their bowl but it hasn’t appeared for a while.

The gentle, murmuring collared doves are everywhere now, always in pairs, always in love. A couple is dancing, on the ground, in a farmyard. They circle each other closely, spreading and flattening their wings, then they spring up together, a few feet into the air, clapping their wings noisily as they do so. This is repeated over and over every ten seconds. The courtship of doves is a prolonged, intense, energetic affair – fifteen minutes later, when I must move on, they are still dancing, showing no sign of fatigue.

It is a brilliant morning, the sun now at about 40 degrees from the horizon, pouring down a pure light that sharpens the mind as well as the eye. I can see further today, and deeper. The far horizons, where the land lifts gently to the sky or where trees break the skyline, are as clear as the flowering grasses before me. Near at hand, windrows of golden hay lay soft on the land, still to be gathered. Butterflies are out and about, including a Peacock, almost black on the wing but spreading its rich red-velvet wings when at rest, revealing the four large peacock-feather eye-spots that give it its name. Also a single bright lemon-yellow Brimstone, not seen since mid-April. Underfoot, even the smooth concrete track of the busway sparkles with colour. As I near home, children are making their way to school, skipping and chasing and clapping and laughing. A day to be alive.


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