Tag Archives: great spotted woodpecker

rainwalk43

June 1st, 2010. It’s warm, overcast and wet, with a steady, persistent, light rain … drops heavy enough to patter the leaves overhead. This is the first time I’ve deliberately set out to walk in the rain. Walking in the rain is special. It waters the soul, as well as the soil. I’m soon fairly wet, despite a cap and waterproof jacket. The long grass soaks my boots, and jeans up to the knee. The going is softer. The wet has not deterred the songsters at all – blackbirds, song thrush, goldfinch, robins, tits, all singing in the rain. The land is bathed, blessed, as are we.

I’ve been out of my patch for ten days. What a lot has changed … yet nothing has changed. The May or hawthorn is over, except for the red, and now the discs of creamy-white elderflowers are beginning to take their place in hedgerow and copse. They will be my first wild crop. Earlier in the season I experimented with jack-by-the-hedge or hedge garlic in salads but they tasted of leaves, with a very faint garlicy odour. Palatable only if you really have nothing else to put in a salad. Ramsons are better by far, but I’ve not seen any round here. Pink dog-roses are just opening and I see here and there they have formed great bushes and will be spectacular in flower. And a few scarlet poppies, too, bedraggled in the rain.

I make for the brook, which has risen a little from its lowest level. The vegetation is so dense now that there are only a few places where I can get close enough to see the water. Almost immediately I startle a pair of little egrets, winging away so white against the green corn. It’s good to see they’re still here, and surely nesting? On the footbridge, I meet Rose. Her keen eye spots a couple of freshwater mussels in the muddy bottom below. An indicator of good, clean water, she says. She tells me she has also seen crayfish here, the American crayfish, which is muscling out our native crayfish. On parting, she directs me to the part of little Histon brook where she has seen water voles, and bids me listen out for their ‘plops’.

On the way I visit a little copse of full-grown ash-trees where I’d previously seen a great spotted woodpecker. The undergrowth is thick, trunks and boughs lie here and there hosting bracket fungi, hard and solid to the touch, firmly anchored to the wood. I become aware of a persistent, high-pitched note repeated rapidly and endlessly, like the alarm on a watch. I can’t make out whether it is near or far, high up or at ground level, inside or outside the copse. It continues non-stop, on and on. Then the loud and unmistakable alarm chucks of an adult great spotted woodpecker sound over my head and looking up I see her land in the tree I’m under and spiral up the trunk with a large insect in her beak. She leads me to her nest, one of three perfectly round and ivy-enshrouded holes one above the other about 15 ft up the main trunk. The sound was coming from right above me after all … baby woodpeckers  misbehaving.

Dryad's Saddle bracket fungi or Pheasant's Back mushroom, neither poisonous nor particularly edible

The wheat in the field is two-toned  – silver green stalks and underside of leaves, grasshopper-green ears and upper surface of leaves. The rape flowering is nearly over, yellow no longer dominating the countryside. The rain eases. A single skylark rises and bursts into song, fluttering heavenward. It beats its wings frantically, yet makes little upward progress, as if it had left the brakes on. Slowly it ascends. Then another answers the challenge from an adjacent part of the field, and begins the long song-flight upwards. They are duetting, and sound-marking their territories.

I walk back along Histon brook, here more of a drain, almost choked with vegetation. I can barely see the water. I can’t imagine water voles living here, there doesn’t seem to be enough water to keep a water vole happy. Then, as my attention shifts elsewhere, I hear the tell-tale plop of vole entering water, more of a splat really, something flattish hitting the surface. And then another. Yes! It must be. I watch and wait, still and silent, but don’t have their patience. I move on. The rain has stopped and all is adorned with droplets. The ewes in the parkland have been shorn, some sporting stylish shaved patterns, as is the fashion. The unshaven lambs, with their tight thick coats, are almost as big as their mothers. They shelter under the trees, expecting more rain.

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sparrowhawkwalk35

April 27th, 2010. Heard the first cuckoo of the year, calling its name, at 8 this morning in the lulls between traffic. About a mile away, towards the brook. A rich, resonant, far-reaching two-note call repeated over and over, the quintessential sound of spring, as if the season had been distilled in an oak barrel and was now spilling over (spring overwhelms, and writers must be forgiven for indulging in a little purple prose or hyperbole at this time). In the late afternoon I take a long, slow, circuitous ramble to Histon, with many still stops, reaching into the evening.

The brook, and the two rivulets that feed into it locally, is barely flowing. Except in the shallowest parts the water seems hardly to move. So dry has the weather been for some weeks that the water-level has dropped by almost a foot, exposing bare mud below banks lush with growth. The water, curiously, is now a dull yellowish brown. Aquatic plants and rushes are growing apace and threaten to cover the surface completely in places. In the more open stretches tiny fish in ragged groups dart here and there, like kids in a schoolyard, and whirlygigs send concentric ripple-rings over the surface. There’s no sign of my snake.

Spring’s in full flush. In gardens and orchards pink apple blossom of some early varieties has opened in the last day or two, and horse-chestnuts are lighting their candles. Paths and tracks are sprinkled white with the fallen petals of blackthorn, like the aftermath of a wedding. Field verges and banks of the ditches and brook are now knee-deep in stinging nettles, deadnettles, cow parsley, hedge garlic, all sorts of grasses, and unknown burgeoning greenery. I wade through it all, releasing chlorophyll scents. Most shrubs and trees are now in leaf (except for the oak and the ash, perhaps, of which more anon). To me the loveliest of new leaves are the glossy, coppery hearts-hanging-down of the black poplars lining the brook, and the downy ivory-green butterfly wings of the whitebeam. Against all this abundance of bright, fresh greenstuff they are a welcome sight. How quickly we get used to green.

The gathering foliage renders birds and other creatures all but invisible. Except for the butterflies, more conspicuous now. They are hardly abundant, but several Small Whites, Orange Tips, and Peacocks cruise up and down the bank where I’m sitting, the latter resembling small bats with their dark brown underwings and fast, flitty flight. One alights on the back of my hand and rests awhile, spreading its gorgeous rusty-red, eye-spotted wings in the sun. The upper forewings of the male Orange-Tip are dipped in rich orange, ostentatious in flight, but when it stops to sip nectar it folds its wings upward to reveal pale, mottled, gauzy underwings which blend with the blossoms it feeds on. You’d never know it was there. White-bummed bumblebees barrel through the air and a mist of midges cavorts over the water. Suddenly, the lower air is alive.

In a tiny island of mature trees, fallen boughs and thick undergrowth in the midst of vast fields, I provoke a sudden, unfamiliar alarm call. Looking up, I see it is a great spotted woodie, ‘great’ being somewhat misleading, as this one is only the size of a starling. It is great only in relation to its middle spotted and little spotted cousins. It has no crimson nape, which means it’s a female, but, still, it is confusingly small for the species. Perhaps it’s a juvenile, though the season’s against it. I have come to realize that there are variations within species that don’t match the airbrushed pictures in bird books. I watch the woodpecker for some time, as it works round bare branches with desultory tapping. I want it to ‘drum’, but it fails to perform.

Further on, in a great field of green wheat below Histon, my attention is caught by a pale form gliding into the crop. At first I take it for a female pheasant, but when it rises I see it is a hawk, clutching a catch in one claw. It is, I’m certain, a sparrowhawk, the first I’ve ever seen anywhere. It flies with rapid, shallow wing-beats low over the field then rises up to perch on top of a telephone pole where it hunches to tear flesh and feathers. For a full twenty minutes it eats with calm deliberate bites, then straightens up and broods over its territory. It is a long way away, at least 500 yards, and I need to get closer. The pole is in the middle of the cornfield but I figure that if I walk round to the other side I will be a little nearer, and moreover, the sun will be at my back, giving me a clearer view. So I set off, with one eye on the hawk. It is a long trudge around three sides of a square and, almost inevitably, the hawk absconds before I get there and disappears over a horizon of trees. It is gone.

But, instead, I meet Edouard, an engaging young man being walked by four handsome, pure-bred huskies with unnerving blue eyes and a touch of the wolf. Born and brought up in Spain, of English parentage, he is over here to gain an education of sorts. Not willing to be parted from his beloved childhood companions, he has brought his dogs with him. They are on long retractable leashes and at times they threaten to turn him into a maypole. Being up close to these no-ordinary creatures is some consolation, I suppose, for the loss of a hawk.

Up in the old woods that once belonged to the manor of Histon I hug an ancient, hollow-trunked oak that I’ve visited before (see picture in mornwalk26). It is 4 hugs round at chest height – that’s a girth of just under 23 feet or just short of 7 meters – which roughly translates to 500 years by my reckoning. The longevity of trees is truly humbling. It is no wonder that some people worship them. If you’re going to worship a living, created being,  it might as well be an old tree such as this. It’s outlived everything else. It has endured. Actually this particular veteran, surely the oldest on my patch, is marked on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree map, with a girth of just 6.3 meters. Next time I’ll bring a measuring tape. It is, I notice, in leaf, in the process of leafing at least, the first oak I’ve seen to be leafing, and this is significant, as I’ll explain in some later post, for predicting the weather this year.

I arrive back in my village in the late slanting evening to a susurration of pigeons, swallows swooping, church bells ringing, and the bleating of ewes, while a gang of their offspring career madly round the meadow playing follow-my-leader. The epitome of springtime in England. It’s a truly glorious evening… that is, one full of glory, glorifying… glorifying the Creator, the Divine.

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walk29

April 10th., 2010. Saturday. A high, empty, silver-blue sky, with just the faintest smear of cirrus over the west. I walk in sunshine for three hours. Horned cattle and their calves graze the old airfield. Horse-chestnut leaves have emerged, hanging limp like newly-hatched butterflies. I take the old track towards Histon accompanied by yellowhammers and reed bunting. A woodpecker drills wood somewhere far off, the sound carrying on the air as if amplified. I disturb two cock pheasants duelling at the entrance to a field. As they scuffle and scrap they growl at each other, like dogs, then catapult away when they see me, in opposite directions, protesting to the heavens. Skylarks are singing above both the rape and the wheat fields.

I walk through the northern part of Histon village. The allotments here are the centre of earnest activity. Old men arrive on bicycles armed with rakes and hoes, like peasants going to war. Plots are groomed and fretted over, laid with strings, and parted with drills as straight as arrows. Seed potatoes are lovingly placed in the bottom of trenches. Grown men (for it is mostly men, there being but a single female amongst them) are down on their knees, with a pinch of seed between finger and thumb, engaged in delicate operations.  Each works to his own, proud of his patch, eyeing his neighbour. Long live the allotments.

I cross the Histon-Cottenham road and walk on baulks between big fields. A lone tractor-driver, cocooned in his cab, is harrowing a field that stretches to the horizon. Man and machine move very slowly across the landscape, not much faster than a team of horses. It’s a more lonely life now, for sure, out in the fields. Skylarks still sing somewhere above my head.

I cross back over the road, to head home. I chance on a drove that tunnels through trees and leads to a travellers’ settlement, hidden well back from the mainstream. Drew is fixing a hole in the track and eyes me suspiciously. “What is it that you’re looking for?” he says, first off. This throws me. The directness of it. But the Irish countryman in him comes out when I talk of animals and birds and he recalls how last year he took the little children in the pony and trap down to the end of the drove so they could catch lizards in nets. We talk horses. I like this man. He shows me the way ahead over the ‘moor’ to meet up with the ‘Roman’ road back to Oakington. His ‘family’ spread consists of one fixed abode – a small brick bungalow – and about a dozen caravans. There are white vans of course, smart new sheds, chicken coops. Two coloured ponies are tethered nearby, cocks crow, fires burn rubbish, a dog barks, washing flaps on a line.

There are small overgrown pastures here, and I have difficulty getting through to open land. I bushwhack through a bank covered with fallen trunks, last year’s brambles and emerging nettles, collecting thorns and tears along the way. It’s worth the struggle, for on the other side a green lane runs along a field, and there, in an old gnarled, oddling apple-tree are a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers, working the bark, tapping here and there quite gently. Unlike green woodpeckers, which are extremely wary, these seem unconcerned by my presence. I watch them for some minutes, barely 20 feet away. Through binoculars I see every feather. They are strikingly black and white, these birds, the male with a crimson nape, both with bright crimson rumps under the tail, as if they had sat in a spill of red ink. This is a noteworthy encounter for me, having seen this bird before only fleetingly.

I now recognize this tract, having been here not long ago, stalking buzzard. I look up and sure enough, there they are, a pair of buzzards circling upwards, 200 feet, 500 feet, higher and higher, round and round they go, not a flicker of a wing, soaring elegantly with outstretched wings on a thermal fountain rising from the warmed earth. From my earthbound position, they are both moving clockwise, opposite each other, as if fixed together on a slowly spinning arm. As they rise their circling becomes tighter and tighter, the birds closer and closer, until at one thousand feet or more, reduced to mere specks in the heavens, they reach the apex of their flight and merge together as one.

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