Tag Archives: green woodpecker

thawwalk78

December 4th, 2010. 4.30 a.m. 7 miles, at least. It’s surprisingly mild after a very cold week… damp in the air, damp underfoot, thawing. There’s a metallic taste to the air.  I make for new ground, a lake – probably an old gravel-pit – about a mile outside my usual territory. It’s very dark, stars and moon blotted out. The lights of the city to the south, and from the villages round about, project a dull glow into the low crumpled cloud. I walk up the concrete strips of the guided busway – it’s too dark to take a path or farm-track. The going’s not easy. The packed snow and ice, partially melted, is especially slippery. I walk past high chain-link fencing crowned with barbed wire – a food-processing plant, humming and steaming through the night, arc-lights blazing, steel hoppers, silos and flue-pipes gleaming, ranged barrels stacked high. There’s no-one about. Then under a road bridge, graffitoed and sour, smelling of old tyres and asphalt. Out into open country again, past coppice and plough. Not a bird, not a creature abroad. I cut across pastureland. It’s like walking through tundra – low hummocks of grass set in a bog of crackling ice and snow. Beyond, the glint of water. But between me and the lake are a hedge and a spiked angle-iron fence. In the icy conditions there’s no way I’m going to try and climb over. Not at six in the morning. I track the fence until I come to a gap just wide enough to squeeze through. Open water, willow-fringed, hard up against the embankment of the A14, grinding with a never-ending flow of container-trucks to and from the east coast. But it’s too dark to see anything on the water. I wait for the dawn. It’s a long time coming. In fact, it never really arrives. Imperceptibly, over the course of an hour and a half, the dark turns a few shades paler. Then it’s day, as good as it gets.

The lake is disappointingly empty of bird-life. I was expecting to see some new waterfowl but only half a dozen pairs of mallard scull round the edges, like couples out for a walk. A peninsula of ice juts out into the water, and right on the edge sit perhaps one hundred gulls – mostly young black-headed gulls with a dark spot behind the eye, and a few larger lesser black backs and juvenile herring gulls mottled brown. They are mostly quite still and silent. Strutting and skidding between them are moorhens. The ice looks too thin to take all their weight. Out in open water, removed, are two black cormorants. One is fishing, sitting very low in the water. It tucks its head close into its long bent neck before diving, and then goes straight down. It stays under for about 15 seconds before emerging not far away. I watch it dive several times but it doesn’t appear to catch anything. The other is perched on a buoy in heraldic pose, with wings limply held out in a hands-up position, or held out to dry. It looks primordial, with a strange stump of a tail and ragged, greasy plumage. A prototype bird, reptilian, unbeautiful. These are, no doubt, the same cormorants I’ve seen flying over, three miles to the north. Now I know where they’re headed, and some of the passing gulls too. A snipe, or a jack snipe, propels from the bankside and whirs away at speed on a blur of short, pointed wings.

It turns colder, bleaker. The long walk back, though, is a warm feast of birds – song thrushes, unsinging, and plenty of skittering blackbirds; solitary robins; chaffinches; magpies; a pair of pied wagtails; great tits, blue tits, a party of long-tailed tits, and the glimpse of a coal tit. A charm of goldfinches – at least 50 birds – swirls overhead, uncertain where to go, finally dropping down into an alder just up ahead. They work through the female cone-like catkins, extracting the seeds. I’ve never seen so many goldfinches. The tree sparkles with little gold flashes. Then, for the first time, a single goldcrest, picking through ivy – a tiny, nervous jewel of a creature, twitching and flicking so rapidly I can hardly see it move; it just appears in a slightly different position each time, like old jerky newsreel.

Other birds come in threes today – I encounter three jays, three green woodpeckers, three kestrels, and three little egrets, each and all in different locations. One jay rattles harshly, raising and lowering its crest. The green woodpeckers mostly keep to the ground. I follow a kestrel along a row of bare horse-chestnut trees. Sleepy and cold, it is reluctant to move. I get within 15 yards of the bird. Through binoculars each and every feather that makes up the intricate spotting and barring and rich coloration of its beautiful plumage is revealed. It stares straight down at the ground from on high, watching intently. From time to time it turns its head to look directly at me, reproachful, as if I was intruding on some intensely private affair. Which I am. It tolerates me for a while, then with a shrug, launches into a long glide, and it’s away.

The three little egrets stand in the midst of a sprouting field a little to the south of where I last saw one, very white against the snow-furrowed earth. They are preening. I’ve not seen two together, or three, in these parts. Later a pair of them fly past me, low, on big slow wings, and settle into a ditch up ahead. A passing dog-walker flushes them into the air and they double-back to where I first saw them. I follow the ditch down to its junction with Beck Brook. From the stream, unexpectedly, another little egret rises at my approach. Is this one of the three I saw earlier, which had somehow slipped by me, or is it a different bird? They seem very exotic to me, these little egrets, belonging more to African swamplands than wintry Cambridgeshire fields, and it’s good to know there are at least three in the neighbourhood. A few yards further on, a grey heron lifts off from the brook with a slow whump-whump of wing, majestic, nearly three times the size of the egrets, and fearsome, with glaring eye and snake-like neck. It wheels away into the cold mists of the morning.

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winterwalk77

December 2nd, 2010. 7.00 a.m. A four mile pre-breakfast ramble yields little. I step out into a murky dawn, the lightest of powder-snow falling. The brook is black and still, as dense as oil. Two-day old snow stipples the wide, empty fields, clods showing through. We missed the best of it here. Only the tracks and paths show pure white, packed by the passage of tractors and feet. Gulls float overhead, silently, making for their feeding grounds in the south. Away in the shrouded woods, a jay shrieks once…twice, and a blackbird pinks on and on in distress. The sky brightens imperceptibly, turning pearly grey, opalescent, in reflected snow-light. The crunch of my footfall is loud and disturbing.  Fieldfares flee from the harbouring hedgerow, and a green woodpecker makes a dash for the trees, torpedo-like when it folds its wings close between rapid beats. The snow is falling a little more thickly now, coming out of the east at a very low angle. Visibility’s poor. Nearby, from an overgrown hedge dividing two fields, a magpie chatters loud in alarm. There’s always a reason. It breaks cover and flies up to a telephone wire, long tail streaming, then a flash of brown hawk scythes low over the field and jinks into an orchard, settling into an old apple tree. I can’t tell what it is, but I can just make out its shape in the branches. I double back to the field entrance to get a better view, but it’s away at the blink of an eye, a fleet shadow against the diminishing morning. The snow turns almost to sleet, and it’s a dreary day out in the fields.

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walk69

October 24th, 2010. Late afternoon, again. A bright cold day, with high cirrus and even one or two piles of cumulus in an autumn-blue sky. I take the long muddy track past the spent strawberry tunnels – half a square mile of plastic slowly deteriorating, muffled snatches of Slavic from the last lonely workers within – and across the green weed-field beyond, one of the few to have lain fallow all through the year. A family’s out walking, the small boy behind pushing his bike through the grass – it’s rare to see anyone venturing out off the roads or paths. The big lapwing field is now down to rape, striped with seedlings. This western side of the village is bathed in the wash of A14 traffic but it’s open and I can walk in the last of the sun, now just a finger or two above the horizon.

Skirting the deserted golf course I strike south towards Girton, perched on its slightest of ridges. From this direction you can see why it was settled, just a few vital feet off the fen. A strip of sown borage between the verge and the field is still in striking blue flower. I disturb a kestrel from its post in a hawthorn and it quietly flips over the hedgerow into the golf course. A hundred yards further up, I unnerve it again, and this time it flies low and slow across the sweep of brown field in front, barely two feet above ground, sharp-winged in the light, eventually settling into the earth itself, looking small and insignificant in the clod. It defecates forcefully, ejecting a hot squirt of mouse and small bird, then flies up to its watch in the hawthorn once more. But the fields are otherwise utterly empty. It is only on the closely-mown turf of the driving range, just below Girton, that I see a few birds. A handful of fieldfares and redwings, last seen in mid-March, and a scattering of active black-and white wagtails. Migrants, taking a break. Among them a resident green woodpecker, its black mask gazing at the sky, red nape and olive-green back lit by the lowering sun.

I pass through the churchyard at Girton as a single tolling calls the villagers to evensong. Feral pigeons, white and grey, huddle on the shutters of the squat stone tower. The church is white and lit within, as empty as the fields. In the recreation ground only a teenage girl sits still and solemn on a swing. I cut through the ‘community woodland’, with paths and benches set in an impenetrable thicket of ash saplings, and set off along a very muddy and slippery ‘permissive footpath’, between wire fences, across the fields towards Histon. A woman and her dog pass hurriedly by. Nothing moves in the fields. Over in the west, the far horizon is a Chinese landscape of castles on forested mountains set between deep plunging valleys. The sky behind is softly layered in a spectrum of colours – deep orange merging up into yellow, then into green, then into indigo blue. Dusk soon overtakes me and the light is sucked from the land. It is a long three miles back home without the company of light or landscape or creatures, but I pick up on the concrete strips of the guided-busway, which will guide me, if not buses, back home. In the east, not high above the heave of the earth, a more-or-less full moon appears, bright but tiny, a mere farthing in the darkness. I hear only the sound of my breathing and tread of my feet. I become aware of a vague shape in front, a figure approaching, a man in fact, who soon emerges round-faced and stocky, of oriental extraction, beside me, and without breaking stride we exchange a ‘gd’evening’ and pass on, each fading back into our separate black nights as if we had never existed.

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sunrisewalk61

August 2nd, 2010. Just after 5 – the sun’s up but shuttered behind a bank of lilac-grey cloud streaked with fire. The morning is hollowed by a massed choir of woodpigeons all round the village, each uttering its own unique version of the deep, guttural, five-note call of the species – coo-COO-coo, coo-coo. Individually, the voice of a woodpigeon sounds unpracticed and laboured, muttered rather than spoken, sometimes breaking off abruptly after the second syllable as if the bird just couldn’t be bothered. It is a coarse, rustic sound compared to that of the sweet-talking collared dove. Yet, en masse, in a thousand different pitches and tones, these woody breath-notes coalesce to a great soul-soothing murmuration that spreads peace and tranquility over the land. And this from a bird so commonplace that we barely give it a thought (except as a bane to the farmer, and as meat for the pot).

I am captivated by another bird sound this morning – that of the white-eyed jackdaw, one of my favourites, not least because each year a pair nests in my chimney. Jackdaws are sociable birds, always cheeky and cheerful. They remind me of Italians, with all due respect. They salute each other with sharp, staccato calls that have a distinctive echoing quality, ‘tchak-ak’, ‘tchow-ow’. I always assumed that this puzzling phenomenon was indeed an echo of some sort but I now think, in some cases at least, it is really a split-second response from another jackdaw. If so, this is truly remarkable. A gang swirls by, releasing a volley of greetings that sound like the shots fired in some old arcade game, a kind of fly-by shoot-up for fun.

A wandering muntjac breaks the curved skyline of the harvested rape field, making its unhurried way to the cover of an adjacent slip of wooded scrub where it will lie up for the day. It is probably the same animal I saw in this field some days ago. I come here because it is one of the few spots in this flatland where there is an uninterrupted view for several miles from south-west to south-east. In my corner of England, where we are usually hemmed in by hedgerows and windbreaks, a clear prospect of two or three miles seems like a blessing, as good as thirty miles elsewhere.

At my approach a kestrel breaks from the trees and circles round out of sight. From a distance its flight is like that of a woodpigeon, with deep rapid wingbeats, but its longer tail and more pointed wings give it away. I backtrack to find it, and as I turn a corner of the field it launches out again from the windbreak, some one hundred yards further off. It is very wary of me, this particular bird. It circles round in front again and settles in an isolated bush in the midst of the field. As it lands, the thin branch bends and springs back in slow motion. As I watch it through the binoculars, a commotion breaks out at the bottom end of the field. The noise is unmistakable. It is a green woodpecker, panic-stricken, and I just catch a glimpse of it diving low through a gateway being pursued by a shadow – a hawk-shadow hot on its tail. Then silence. I make for the opening, expecting, yes hoping, to see a hawk mantling over its prey. But the field is empty. It might though have killed on the wing and carried the limp green body into the trees. I am certain this is my elusive sparrowhawk. We are right by the willow copse where I think one rests up. I listen and listen, and then, from within, comes the faint sound of mewing – sparrowhawk, surely.  I have yet to get a clear sight of this bird.

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windhoverwalk58

July 28th, 2010. 5.30 a.m. A beautiful, beautiful morning with a dazzling sun in the north-east balanced by a white moon in the south-west and a huge curve of clear blue sky in between. In the still water below the bridge at Westwick I am so pleased to see, once again, a couple of large(ish) fish – this time a pair of the same, idly finning around. I don’t know my freshwater fish at all but having consulted some charts I’d say they are chub. They must be 8 to 9 inches long, with silver bodies meshed in diamond-shaped scales and distinctive dark or black dorsal fins and tails. No sign of the pickerel.

The great field of oilseed rape that reaches as far as the next village was harvested two or three days ago leaving a prairie of tough 6 inch stubble strewn with finely chopped straw. It is as if the landscape had been thrown open. I can see what I couldn’t see before, and walk where I couldn’t walk before. The gentle swell of ground is studded with rooks and wood pigeons, pheasants and rabbits. I circle around its three mile perimeter. Four green woodpeckers loop across to inspect a line of wooden telephone poles, working up each in turn, then passing on to the next. They clamp onto the smooth vertical surfaces like geckoes, and lean out as if they were abseiling. They are a bird that prefers to hang rather than sit.

Then a special surprise – a pair of kestrels or windhovers. While not uncommon round here seldom have I seen two together. One is on the ground, in the stubble, though it doesn’t appear to be feeding. The other swoops low and they both fly up and start hunting in earnest. They do what kestrels do best – they hover, with their backs to the sun, tails fanned out and pressed down, and wings steadily beating. They shine with light. I can see every one of their eleven splayed tail feathers, barred black and rust-red with a wide black terminal band. When they slide through the air to hover anew, I see their pale deeply spotted undersides and closely barred wings. Occasionally they drop lower, ten feet from the ground, but not once do they stoop for the kill. After fifteen minutes or so they abandon the hunt, and take to playing instead, swooping and gliding and cavorting together, and eventually settle in the dead branches of a tree at the edge of the field. I can do no better than quote Gerard Manley again, who said that this, The Windhover, was the best thing he wrote:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Oh yes. My heart in hiding stirred for a bird….

On my way back, coming straight towards me through the stubble is a lone, dog-like muntjac, looking lost now its cover’s been blown. I am downwind and it doesn’t seem to notice me. It ambles along, head down, sniffing at the ground. The sun polishes its red-brown coat as it moves through the morning. It is as smooth and shiny as a Hungarian Vizsla. I can just make out its short backward-pointing horns. At about 50 yards it looks up, sensing my presence, then changes direction and wanders off over the rise, looking dazed and confused. A morning of green woodpeckers, kestrels and muntjac, three creatures that above all others seem especially at home in this landscape, and which, for me, have come to particularize this patch of England.

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justanothersummermorningwalk55

July 18th, 2010. To Histon woods and back. Three hours, with much watching and waiting. A cool, quiet and lightly overcast Sunday morning, as gentle as a dove. Many small flocks about, family groups most probably. Yesterday, half a dozen rather scruffy long-tailed tits passed through my garden, practising acrobatics in the cherry and apple-trees. They worked each tree together, as a team, chattering in their thin, mousey voices, then moved on to the next. Today, three or four juvenile goldfinches (a charm of goldfinches?), with bright yellow wing patches but without the striking head pattern of the adult, are busy in a hedgerow hawthorn, and in the spinney by the brook, seven magpies fuss together – seven for a secret never to be told. A wedding party of swifts streaks over the road, squealing excitedly. I watch a green woodpecker fly up onto a wooden railing. It looks behind, as if waiting for something. Another soon flies up and joins it, a juvenile by the look of its indistinct, mottled plumage. The adult flies on, the juvenile following. I have the clear impression that some kind of lesson is going on here. I hadn’t realised just how familial many species of birds are  – parents and offspring, or just siblings perhaps, staying close together after fledging, at least during their first summer.

The ground that has been cleared by rabbits as they graze back the edges of the wheat fields is layered in droppings. They consume considerable amounts of grain to be sure, to the loss of the farmer, but in doing so they fertilize the land. Short-term loss, long-term gain, I’d say. All the road verges and many of the field verges round here have been shorn this past week, their wild flowers and grasses mown down in their prime. In a district of wall-to-wall field crops, species-poor pastures and manicured gardens the verges are often the only habitat left for many wild plants and the creatures that depend on them, not least the butterflies, bees and other pollinators, and the carnivorous insects that keep pests at bay. I am at a loss to explain this wilful vandalism, especially along roadside verges, but I think it may have something to do with a national obsession with tidiness. The countryside must be tidied up, i.e. controlled, at all costs. This is tragic. Both a short-term and long-term loss.

Having said that, I do see numerous butterflies today but mostly in the bramble patches of the scrubland below Histon and along the brooksides – Small Whites, Large Whites, Meadow Browns and Ringlets, a single Comma, and a couple of Red Admirals, the latter migrants from southern Europe and North Africa. To think that one of these may have sipped from a glass of sweet mint tea in Fez or Chefchaouen only days ago and is here now in front of me is more marvellous, to my mind, than men walking on the moon – and accomplished with more beauty, economy and panache. I find a new butterfly too – the small, brown-fringed, orange Gatekeeper.

In the lands of Abbey Farm at Histon are two groves of mature ash, linden, sycamore, oak and even a few pine trees. They are the closest we have in the district to woodland. Just as I’m about to enter the trees, a hawk dashes out and swerves back under the canopy. A two-second glimpse, a two-second thrill. All I see is a grey back and a heavily barred tail – it could have been a merlin, possibly a sparrowhawk, certainly not a kestrel. I quietly enter the wood and think I see it fly again, above the trees. Then again, just a flash of wing as it moves to another part of the copse. I follow. I spend so long looking straight up, through dark leaves into dazzling light, searching, searching, that I crick my neck and spin with kaleidoscopic retinal patterns. To no avail, it’s gone. Another tantalizing glimpse of the wild.

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giantshillwalk45

June 8th, 2010. Late afternoon. It’s been a grey, damp day, with breezes and occasional showers. The sky is layered in cloud, the lowest being dark and big-bellied. When the sun does from time to time emerge, it turns warm and sultry. The water in the brook has risen a little over the past few days, brownish, the bed obscured. No mussel hunting today. I decide on a longer walk, following the brook downstream into the parish of Cottenham, further than I’ve been before in this direction, hoping to catch sight of the barn owl that is known to frequent these parts.

At Westwick, on the edge of Oakington, a single little egret starts from the brook and veers off out of view, legs trailing like a ballerina. It is at least half a mile downstream from my previous sightings of a pair. Still here … that’s good … summer residents now, impossibly exotic in our English meadows. A little further on, a female mallard with at least 6 ducklings. A late brood, surely, for the ducklings are still infants compared to others I’ve seen hereabouts. Moorhen skulking by the water’s edge. And in the loft above, a lone buzzard is being harrassed by a rook half its size. The rook is dogged in its pursuit, scolding and lunging at the larger bird, slowly driving it out of this bit of airspace.

I walk through Lamb’s Cross Farm. Thin radio music drifts from the barn as usual. The farmer emerges – 50’ish, wiry and stubbled, unsmiling, but talkative. He is a grass farmer, breeding steers for the table, and growing some barley and silage to feed the cattle in winter. Tried potatoes but the lumps of ironstone in the ground broke the harvester. He tells me of a field on the left of the Oakington road as it leaves Cottenham where lightning often strikes because of the presence of ironstone. We talk soils, and how they vary from field to field, and even within fields. He and his wife also run several small factories elsewhere, processing kidney beans, chick peas and other pulses, some of which, surprisingly, are grown locally here in East Anglia. Chick peas in Cambridgeshire?

Scarlet field poppies line the verge between road and unfenced field, interspersed with pink, purple-veined mallows, two feet high. Along the steep, deep inner bank of the brook downstream, where it has been canalized, species are ranged in strict succession from the water’s edge. First rushes and reeds, then sedges and grasses, and then ox-eye daisies half way up the bank. The latter are not as scarce as I had thought. They also occur in drifts on the edges of fields and along the guided-busway. But now is the season of the pink-flushed, deliciously scented dog-rose adorning every hedgerow, individual flowers spaced evenly over each bush. Some of the briars clamber high into trees. There will be plenty of hips to gather in the autumn.

This part of my patch is inhabited by at least one pair of green woodpeckers and the ash-trees hereabouts are neatly drilled to prove it. The distinctive undulating flight of these birds seems to be caused by their intermittent wing movement: they scull hard for 4 – 6 wingbeats, ascending slightly, then they fold their wings in and coast head-first, bullet-shaped, losing height as they do so, then scull again, and rise. As if riding waves.

I follow Beck Brook, here called New Cut, downstream beyond the Rampton – Cottenham road. One bank is almost wholly colonized by hawk’s beard, a bright yellow, dandelion-like flower, but tall, on a stalk. The only patch of this I’ve seen. Many wild flower species seem very localized, confined to particular spots with a certain desirable combination of aspect, soil, shade, dampness, drainage and plant association. Such as the silver-veined milk thistle, encountered only at one corner of one particular field.

It’s too early for barn owls, so I turn back through the village of Rampton. A light shower sends me scurrying. I take shelter under the trees at Giant’s Hill just outside the village, not far from the church. Essentially a substantial, irregular, treed island mound, hardly a hill, surrounded on one side by a wide, overgrown moat and on the other by an outer bank. The site of an unfinished 12th century castle apparently, though the genius loci and popular name suggest a site much more ancient and mysterious. A magical place indeed. I straddle a great horizontal trunk of willow, overlooking the moat and reedbed. There is a promise of kingfishers but in spite of the rare wetland habitat I see nothing worth noting. Wrong time of day, perhaps, or weather. I must come back at dawn or dusk and wait.

The wheat is still very green, fully grown at 18 inches, with big tight ears of seed, the barley light golden green, with long awns splayed out like a fan. Now that the crops have grown up, I see that there is almost as much barley as wheat grown in the district. John Barleycorn is still alive and well. Returning along the dormant guided-busway track I’m glad to hear skylarks still singing defiantly above the yet-to-be-built new town of Northstowe. There is no sign of the little owls nesting in the airfield, though I don’t tarry long.

And then a newcomer crosses my sky, just as I approach home and wonder at the absence of birds. It is large, dark, with big wings, flying at about 50 feet. Gooselike but differently shaped. As it passes I can see its yellow hook-tipped bill, its white chin and cheeks, all black body and wings, and wedge-shaped tail – a cormorant. Far from any coast or estuary, or any large river or wetland, it seems out of place. It appears lost too, unsure of what direction to take, almost doubling back on itself. The evening has cleared and the sun comes out, low now, highlighting banks of cloud stretching to the horizon. The cormorant flies on, into the sun.

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