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.