Tag Archives: hare

peewitwalk46

June 15th, 2010. Late afternoon/evening. Cold for June, but the evening sun is out and I am soon warmed. The willows by the brook are shedding downy seeds by the thousands, which drift to earth like snow falling in slow motion. Milk thistle is in purple flower, and mallow. White clover is out, and the first scraggy bramble blooms. Dog rose and elder still dominate the hedgerows.

I go west to the big open fields between the village and the A14. It is unusually, and disturbingly, quiet. The river of traffic a mile away is barely audible, for the breeze is blowing from the east and I am upwind. With some trepidation I make my way to the lapwing field, a great stretch of fallow stubble, set aside it seems, where I have been keeping an eye on a few pairs of this red-listed bird since March. I don’t know what to expect. Through a gap in the hedge I slowly scan the field from one side to the other, astonished. There are at least three dozen iridescent dark green and purple lapwings on the ground (which constitutes a desert of lapwings, according to the the 15th century Book of St. Albans), and a few are wheeling and plunging about in the air. Many are juveniles, half the size of their parents, but fully-fledged and airborne. They have, evidently, bred with some success in this bare, open, unfrequented spot. Mingling with the lapwings (or peewits or green plovers as they are sometimes called) are gangs of starlings. A hare, the colour of the earth, lopes across the field unhurriedly, stopping frequently, followed by another. Three mistle thrushes, the first I’ve seen hereabouts, stand upright at the edge of the fallow, gazing at the sky. Their chestnut-spotted breasts shine like shields in the sun. I break cover to continue my walk and as soon as I move the lapwings take wing, shrieking one-note alarm calls instead of their characteristic two-note pee-wit, pee-wit. They hang suspended in the air till I’m gone.

I turn south and make my way through the wheat fields, along banks, ditches, verges and the occasional hedgerow. No footpaths here. Meadow Browns precede me, though they rarely alight long enough for me to get a good look. I should carry a butterfly-net. Here and elsewhere the wheat has been grazed back ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty feet from the edge of the field, as neatly as if it had been mown. The depredations of rabbits. The loss to the farmer must be considerable. Approaching Girton I come across another lapwing field, the same as the first, unploughed and unsown, largely bare earth, stubbled with the weak stems of some previous crop. Here there are at least 75 lapwings on the ground, sitting or standing. This little district seems to be something of a lapwing haven and I wonder if these two fields have not been especially prepared and set aside for the bird. They are curiously free of all vegetation. A wild far-carrying cry from above heralds a cruising buzzard, on the look out for young lapwings no doubt, and several adults spring up into the air to chase it away. The buzzard flaps on, lazily, shrugging off its persecutors.

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dawnwalk20

18th March, 2010. It’s 4.30 a.m., dry, and surprisingly mild. The sky is a sombre, pale indigo, with not a star nor moon in sight. At ground level, beyond the street-lights, I can’t see a thing. I have to trust my feet to find the way. If I happen to cross paths with the so-called fen tiger itself I’d never know it (this elusive beast – a large, dark, feline creature, much larger than a domestic cat – was filmed nearby just off the Oakington road in Cottenham in 1994, and reported by two police-officers at neighbouring Westwick the following year). I’m not at all sure why I’m out here at this hour. My head aches and my throat is raw. The monotonous noise-loop of traffic out on the highway is amplified in the night-silence, contaminating the land for miles around. A greenish glow hovers over Cambridge to the south.

At 5 exactly the first blackbird strikes up but the dawn chorus is reluctant today. Out in the fields it is a distant and desultory affair. Cock pheasants crank up and peter out. My passing flushes many from their roosts in trees and hedgerows. I make my way across fields to the old orchard, and settle down under an apple-tree to await the dawn. It doesn’t happen. Cloud layers in the south-east momentarily flush pink against mauve but the sun fails to show. It’s a dull and misty start to the day. Newly-ploughed fallow, the colour of milk chocolate, releases its odour into the morning. I walk the old track towards Rampton in search of some life, but even the barn radio at Lamb’s Cross Farm is unplugged at this hour. The cattle are bedded down in the yard, still and silent. Further on, four male runners run up behind me and pass by with a mumbled ‘g-morning’. They don’t look at all happy. They will scare off any creatures along the stream, so I turn down the drove towards home. The sky has imperceptibly lightened. A fresh breeze blows up from the south-west and I begin to feel cold. I am underdressed and hatless. I wish I had stayed in bed.

And then, as has happened so many times before, I am taken by surprise. I have two close encounters, one after the other. First, on the track, not 40 yards away, looking straight at me, is a brown hare. I have previously seen them only from a great distance, in the middle of fields. We stare at each other, unmoving, for a good few seconds. Through the bins I look into the face of an ancient and mysterious creature. There is something of the kangaroo about it, its stance, the way it carries itself. Its ears are indeed enormously long and pointed, black inside. Its fur is thick, coarse-looking, greyish, mottled. Deciding I am no threat, it moves unhurriedly into the sprouting arable beside the track, sniffs and paws the ground a bit, then moves off at a slow lope on long ungainly hind limbs. This is no mad March hare, leaping and boxing in intoxicated ‘hare-brained’ love, but a treat all the same, for they have declined by more than 80% during the past 100 years, and in some parts of the country have disappeared altogether.

Then, in the rough grass inside the old airfield, ambling towards me, is an animal the size of a thick-set boxer dog. It is a muntjac or barking deer. It heads straight towards me, and as I am downwind, is oblivious to my presence. I crouch and watch it through the binoculars. Again, I have seen one in the garden two years ago, grazing on fallen acorns, and occasionally crossing the road at night, and as roadkill, but never close-up in the daytime. It is by no means an elegant deer. It is stocky, with a somewhat hunched appearance, its haunches being higher than its withers. This one is grey-brown with what look like scars on its flanks. It is a buck, with two, short, backward-pointing antlers, and two black lines running down its forehead. We are separated by a ditch and a few strands of barbed wire. It passes to the side of me, walking slowly, head down, perhaps 12 yards away. It is soon downwind of me, and, sniffing the breeze, catches my scent immediately and disappears into the hedgerow. Muntjac are aliens from China, now naturalized over most of southern England and Wales, preferring forest and woodland habitat. To see one out in the open like this is, I believe, unusual. I wouldn’t have thought there is enough woodland or scrub around here to support them. They’d make a fine meal for a fen tiger.

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dawnsaunter19

15th March, 2010. 6 a.m. Striated sky, sun risen, but diffused by cloud. The road hisses with early morning commuter traffic. The rooks at Westwick House are busy building. There is a great hubbub, and much to-ing and fro-ing. Every bird, it seems, has a twig in its beak. I watch one carry a stick about a half-mile to its nest, even though the ground near at hand is littered with them. But what do we know? Birds are active in the bushes and hedgerows – among the less common (round here, at least, so far this year) I note songthrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tit (Clare calls them bumbarrels) and yellowhammer, along with many unidentifiable, brownish flitty ones (twite? corn bunting?). In the middle of an expanse of arable far away are two hares which lope away on spotting me. They are very wary of humans, and uncommon here it seems, this being only my second sighting this year. I follow Beck Brook / New Cut towards Rampton, and put up at least four different pairs of mallard from the stream. A last group consists of two males and a female. Invariably they give themselves away by quacking loudly on take-off, and invariably it is the female that leads them in their wide, circular arc of a flight. A heron lifts off from the steep inner bank of the waterway, followed closely by a ghostly pale barn owl in much the same place as I saw one 9 days ago. It must be the same bird, or its mate, and as it flies away from me, it is clear that its back is more sandy-orange than I had noticed before. It flies low along the edge of a field, silently, with big slow wingbeats, and eventually disappears into an ivy-clad tree. It is past seven, the sun is now out, and it is a bright, shiny day, so this is my second sighting here of a barn owl in broad daylight. It seems they are not purely nocturnal or crepuscular. A greater spotted woodpecker dashes from a thicket and hides behind a tree. In the last piece of pasture before the Rampton-Cottenham road are hundreds of winter migrant fieldfare scattered evenly over the field, all engaged in that curious start-stop fieldfare routine – three or four steps forward, then stock still in an upright stance for a few seconds, then forward again. A kestrel swoops down from a telephone pole and glides right across the field above the fieldfare, a couple of feet from the ground, scattering them one after another. They are not unduly alarmed and the kestrel makes no attempt at a kill. He is just having fun it seems. I turn back through the village, and up Cuckoo Lane, before branching off towards the guided busway and home. Two lapwings are cavorting and swooping and dashing and changing direction abruptly in a mesmerizing aerial display. Skylarks are in full voice over the airfield (collectively known as an exaltation, which is just brilliant),  their last brief season before the bulldozers and the builders move in.

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walkdontrun12

21st Feb.2010. My first tentative outing on foot since my knees went five weeks ago. To see how they stand up. Because, after a dismal, wet, snowy morning, the air has cleared, the sun is out and it’s a sparkling afternoon. I’ll walk it though, a couple of miles perhaps. Dozens of redwings are in the horse pasture, not bunched together at all, but spaced out evenly over the ground, the sun catching their cream and chestnut-striped breasts and smudge of red beneath their folded wings. White cloud-scribbles and criss-crossed contrails bleed into the high blue sky. Low above the eastern horizon the warmed air is blooming into cumulus pillows, precocious, presaging spring. Beck Brook is still brown and swollen within its deep-set banks, flowing quietly towards the North Sea. Not a trace of snow survives across the land. 200 yards away in the middle of a field, green with sprouting blades of wheat, two hares clock me and make for the shelter of the hedgerow, running smooth and strong. Cuckoo Lane is muddy and slippery – it would be difficult if not impossible to run on I think. Meanwhile my legs seem OK, twingeing here and there, and ankle-aching, but good enough for a walk like this. Back through the yard of Lamb’s Cross Farm as sun is close to setting. As usual, the tinny sound of a radio leaks from the dark cavern of the barn – Lady Ga-Ga this time – cold comfort for the tractors and the captive cows.

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