Tag Archives: jackdaw

lastwalk81

December 31st, 2010. Misty, mild, damp and dull. A dismal winter’s afternoon for a final walk. I go north. On the edge of the village starlings whistle from treetops. Collared doves fan their pale wings and croon. A heron lifts off from a garden gnome-pond, majestic against the paltry, painted statuary. Each time I look up, lines of gulls furrow the cast of grey high above – all flying northwest, as they do at this hour each and every day. Still they come. Far out in the foggy fields, gunshots empty the afternoon. There are few creatures about. The way is muddy, black with sodden leaves. No snow remains, and only the deepest ruts still hold ice. From a hidden coppice an eruption of jackdaws crackles like fireworks and subsides just as suddenly. The Detention Centre lies desolate behind barbed wire and playing fields, closed down, the seekers of succour sent elsewhere or back home, where they least want to be. A graveyard of dreams. No more the sound of Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghan and Somali tears and laughter here. Mute wood pigeons roost in leafless trees like strange grey fruit. The hedgerows too are silent.

I reach the guided-busway, busless still, two slick concrete tracks curving off into the dimming afternoon, a swathe of folly through the countryside. Somewhere far off, a pheasant hiccups into life then winds down, answered by others across the track. On my right, the old airfield, fenced and forbidden. No Northstowe new town yet, thank God, a brief reprise – there is perhaps one more skylark spring to come. The flashing orange light of a security truck creeps past in the gloom, defending the ill-gotten gains of the land-grabbers. On my left, from the curl of the stream beyond, an excitement of ducks breaks the silence of the fast-falling dusk. First one, then two, three and four parties of mallard, five to nine in each band, fly west, overhead, dark duck shapes pinned against the sky. Spring’s last wild brood.

A year has passed since I first set out on this journey round the village fields. A year to discover what was here, and what was not. We’ve come full circle now, the seasons and I, back to the beginning, where we started. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time”. Knowing nothing when I first set out, I had few expectations, and I can say that now I know a little for the first time. I had prayed for some special encounter, some final revelation, some hope to end the journey but this has been one of the emptiest, most uneventful walks of the year. It is as it should be, for I do not want to give the impression of a place brimming with beauty and light and life, although, at times, it did briefly seem so. This poor patch of England, let’s face it, is an undone place, impoverished, bereft of almost all that is wild and worthy and free. The natural has for the most part been emasculated, suppressed or banished altogether. It has been replaced by the bland and unbeautiful, an ersatz and infertile reality. Only fleet remnants remain, caught out of the corner of the eye, when least expected. It breaks through, despite the weight of arrogance and ignorance and greed. It will abide. But for now, it is a flight of ducks against a darkling sky. That’s all.

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autumnwalk70

October 29th, 2010. Pre-breakfast, 2 hours. I walk out into a dim, mild morning. The wind is up, blowing steadily from the south-west, and the leaves are coming down. Windfall. Pavements and paths are strewn with yellow hearts and orange lozenges. The wind has stirred the birds and a swirl of jackdaws and rooks, a hundred strong, are romping and roiling in the turmoil, climbing and plunging, surfing the airwaves, purling round and round against the pink south-eastern sky. The tall poplars by the brook howl with wind-music. I go north up the misguided-busway, still bus-less, a year overdue and who knows how many millions over-budget. A steady stream of gulls, in ones and twos and small parties, meanders southwards, flying low, labouring against the buffeting wind. This evening they’ll fly back north again, fast and easy with the wind behind them. A flight of ducks, necks outstretched and muttering quietly, passes rapidly over towards the east then veers round to land up ahead, gliding in smoothly on outstretched wings then all stalling suddenly with a flurry of wing-beats before gently setting down in the grass. A lovely sight. I soon catch up with them. They are sixteen mallard, sitting together in pairs, the females petite and polite next to their magnificent mates. Are these the ducklings I saw in late spring, scattered up and down the brook, now come together, fully-grown? They just sit there, all facing into the wind, not feeding or preening, just sitting it seems.

I turn onto the stony track of Wilson’s Drove. The wind drops. There is colour once more in the land, the trees turning in earnest over the last couple of days, in tune with the first of the frosts. Field maple and sycamore, blackthorn and wild plum, linden and poplar, beech and birch are all now mottled yellow and gold, amber and orange, mustard, copper, brick-red, rufous, russet and rust, each to their own and beyond description. Mineral colours, matching the smooth brown fields all around, combed to perfection. A hedgerow sycamore, tall and proud, has cast a perfect half-moon of lemon yellow shards at its feet, on its north-eastern side, opposite the wind. Homeward, along Cuckoo Lane, muddy still. A covey of red-legged partridges whirs low over the earth, a cock pheasant torpedoes out of a hedge in high protestation, the flick of a hawk-wing sends me reeling again. Small, green crabs still hang from a bush, crisp and sharp at first bite, then furring my mouth. Fifty migrating fieldfares, undulating in flight, flash their grey rumps in passing. Down now though the farmyard at Lamb’s Cross, negotiating puddles and tractor-churned mud. A shorthorn bull with curly woolly coat, heavy and knee-deep in mud, shows the whites of his eyes. The radio still plays to an empty barn.

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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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windwalk54

July 15th, 2010. A day of wind, from start to finish, the windiest day this year. Clouds pour in from the west. Hats and caps fly, telephone wires thrum, big trees bend and bow alarmingly, roaring with pleasure. Jackdaws rush into the sky to ride the air-waves just for the hell of it, like surfers when the sea is up. Three black-headed gulls, the first I’ve seen for months round here, fly into the face of the wind, swooping low, tacking this way and that. It rained during the night – Oakington Brook carries water where it was dry a few days ago, and the main stream, Beck Brook, is up and flowing again. It is remarkable how quickly these little watercourses rise and fall during the year.

Spires of pink rosebay willowherb and bright yellow ragwort colour the corner of a field. The first thistles are over, the last of their down being dislodged by the breeze. A black cat, with white bib and front paws, incongruous in the scrub, freezes on seeing me, eyes widening. She crouches, slowly, lowering herself into the earth. We stare at each other, locked in the moment, until I move forward. In her own village territory or domestic setting she would probably ignore me, but here, out in the countryside, I am something to reckon with, to fear, and to wonder at. I often come across domestic cats on my forays, quarter of a mile, half a mile even, from the nearest habitation. I am always glad to see them. We have much in common – both interlopers, trespassers, wanderers from home, stalkers and hunters, seekers of the veedon fleece. They always seem surprised to see me, embarrassed even, as if I have caught them with their pants down, unmasked, exposing their truer, darker, wilder selves.

I disturb a heron in the sheep pasture below Westwick House. Its big wings unfold like umbrellas and fill with wind. It doesn’t glide far before settling again, easing down on its long, springy legs. It straightens up and stands as still as a post for ten minutes or more. From one hundred yards, it is a bare, dead stump in the ground – grey folded wings and back like fissured bark; the long, pale, serpentine neck like a bleached, twisted branch. I can just make out the black crest sweeping back from its yellow eye, watching me askance. On the brook, three mallard paddle down the runnel between the water-weeds. They are fully-grown but lack the markings of the male or the female so are probably juveniles, survivors from one of the many little flotillas of fluff I saw earlier this year. As I peer beneath the bridge at Westwick to try and catch a glimpse of the elusive pike, two dazzling blue bullets flash past me under the bridge, one behind the other, and disappear downstream. Kingfishers again! Three days ago I saw one for the first time ever in this district. Now two more, on the other side of the village, so probably not the same as the first. I couldn’t have missed them before – not in six months of watching and waiting. Surely not. Yet they are supposed to be more or less sedentary.

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mornwalk26

April 2nd 2010. Good Friday, Great Friday, or, better, Black Friday. 6.30 a.m. The sky is low, broken, sunless. The land is still. The roads and ruts are pudged and plashed with yesterday’s rain. A Venetian jackdaw greets me from a chimney pot – ciao! I peer over the bridge and a moorhen skitters up Beck Brook, walking on water. A pair of mallard sit in the middle of the sheep field as if about to take tea. There is a great hullabaloo over at the Westwick rookery, and 40 jackdaws burst out of the canopy protesting loudly. Their relationship with rooks is complex and intriguing. I don’t understand it.

Birds are more active and vocal today. Among those spotted for the first time this year are several pairs of goldfinch, a single resplendent male bullfinch, and a number of amorous, black-faced reed buntings chasing tail, literally. True to form, they flit up and down the sunken, flag-filled ditches and rarely venture beyond. This is not to say that these birds have not been here awhile, just that I haven’t noted them before. Worth mentioning too are song thrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tits (bumbarrels, colloquially), and the precious little jenny wren. Green woodpeckers are ubiquitous, heard rather than seen, and woodpigeons spill out of every tree at my approach. Pheasants, now the shooting season is over, are strutting abroad and reckless.

I find new ways of traversing old ground, and venture out to the south-east fields and remnants of apple orchard. I walk the edges, headlands, boundaries, banks and ditches. I am a trespasser, I know, but no-one notices, or cares, and none has yet objected. A farm-dog barks from afar, but this is more in greeting than warning. Here and there, in hedgerows and on the verge of copses, the white blossom of the cherry plum or myrobalan draws me over. It is still the only blossom out, though willow, alder and poplar catkins also catch the light. Elder leaves are now unfolded, the earliest of all the trees, closely followed by horse-chestnut, now bursting out from fat, sticky buds like glacéed Turkish sweetmeats. The black velvet buds of ash-trees, too, have peeled back to reveal incipient flower clusters like deep purple raspberries. One could concoct a high cuisine based on buds and catkins.

A buzzard sees me and flies off with deep, slow wing-beats. It glides very low across a field, a foot above the ground, then settles in a little apple tree on the edge of an open orchard. It is 400 yards off but I can see its hunched, dark shape quite clearly without binoculars. It is far too big for the tree, out of all proportion, and looks comical. It doesn’t move for 10 minutes, then flits down onto the smooth, bare ploughland and vanishes, as if pulled underground. I search the spot through the binoculars but the bird has simply disappeared, merged with the freshly turned earth. I carefully work my way round to the place, detouring a good half-mile to make a less direct approach, watching closely all the time. Nothing moves, and there is no bird to be seen when I get there.

It is past eight before the sun breaks through. For a while, the land sings. I walk towards Histon, then through the old medieval holdings of Abbey Farm. One field has reverted to scrub, its edges invaded by dense stands of sycamore, willow, and ash saplings. There are some venerable trees here too, one broken-backed and hollow (an oak, I think), garlanded with plastic rope, its heart burnt out by heartless boys. Yet it still stands, supporting weighty boughs and a universe of creatures.

Lucky Kat

Hidden in a dell within a sheltering copse of tall trees is a secluded proving-ground (and trysting-place, no doubt) where village boys and bikes are tested to destruction – an impromptu landscaping of dirt runs, ramps, steep slopes, pits and suicidal drop-offs, sculpted from the earth by years of daring and attrition, and littered with scrap, broken BMXs, dens, fire-holes, ropes to swing on…. No grown-up could or would plan and construct such a place, and I get the feeling few grown-ups even know about it. It is a secret world created by kids for kids, organically and spontaneously, out of the earth. There is yet hope… for Histon boys and girls at least.

In the parkland below Abbey Farm several thousand naturalized daffodils of the smaller more delicate kind are in bloom, better than any municipal display. Of the truly wild flowers only lesser celandine or pilewort is out, with small, rich yellow, 9-petalled flowers and heart-shaped leaves, which line the water’s edge of the brook all the way to Oakington.

Three boys on bikes – 10 or 11 year-olds – race past me, with hearts full of thump and mouths full of shout, with the wind in their hair and a whole day ahead of them. They are flying. And I know exactly where they’re headed. In a flash, I’m ten years old again and cycling beside them. I am hurtling down a hill in Africa, early on a sunny morning, in the shade of towering eucalyptus trees, my friend beside me, hollering, open to adventure.

Besides these lads however, during these three hours of walking on what is, after all, a dry and pleasant Public Holiday, I have seen but one other person, from afar, a dutiful dog-attendant, with plastic bag at hand, and have been passed by a single runner on the road. Back in the village, a near-neighbour is out weeding her front yard with a table knife. She is Cambridgeshire through and through, born in Bottisham,  married in Cottenham, and has lived here in the village for 56 years, the last 17 on her own. That means she has lived her whole life, well over 70 years (she didn’t say exactly, and I didn’t ask), within a compass of less than 10 miles. She is a Hedger. I like the name. Her ancestors would have known a thing or two about laying hedges no doubt. Unlike today, when a man in a tractor, without leaving his seat, can butcher a hedgerow in five minutes flat , leaving a trail of destruction behind him.

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snowblog6

8th Jan, 2010. The sun is well up before I manage to drag myself into the day, but it is nowhere to be seen, obscured by cloud that covers the entire sky. In fact the cloud is invisible too, seamless. It is just a lid of paleness, evenly coloured from east to west (a whiter shade of pale perhaps), reflecting back the whiteness of the land below, covered in snow, dissolving the horizon. Without sun the light is flat, and even the snow seems dull. This fell with some intensity two days ago, a real snowstorm, big flakes like pennies tumbling thickly out of the sky, followed by a lighter fall yesterday, and again last night. Apart from the tarmac’d roads, black and wet, pretty much everything is blanketed. It is cold, very cold, surely 3 or 5 or more degrees below, in fact I wonder if I should be out in such conditions, sucking in great lungfuls of freezing air, ingesting tiny ice crystals by the bucketload. I have, for the first time brought my mobile, just in case, and to keep K happy. In these conditions, with no one out and about, even in commuterland, a fall out in the further fields or tracks could result in hours (days even?) of lying in a ditch of freezing water. I begin to imagine all sorts of dramatic and scary scenarios. Then I remember that there would probably be no network coverage anyway, and the phone would no doubt die as soon as it hit water. But I am well-wrapped, with five layers on my upper half – a thermal underlayer, long-sleeved tee-shirt, another tee-shirt, a fleece, and one of my son’s  less offensive hoodies, topped off by my biking neck fleece worn as a balaclava, and a wooly hat.

I turn east as usual, to take the fifth of the shorter routes, marginally more challenging because it has a hill of sorts. I run in the roadway, through and out of the village, the pavements being too treacherously trampled. I turn northwards at the guided-busway, along the service track of pea-gravel that runs beside it. It will be safe to run on, because though covered in snow, I know it is flat and even, not yet ruined by vehicles and therefore unrutted, virgin. No hidden clods, stones, holes or hoofprints to waylay my ankles.

And then into a biting Arctic breeze – the cold penetrating to my chest in spite of all the layers. There is barely an inch of snow on the track, and my shoes leave neat crisp prints. Then I am surprised – someone has preceded me here. Some fellow runner has been foolhardy enough to run out into the freezing morning ahead of me. These are relatively small footprints, going in my direction, must be a size 5 or 6, and therefore surely a woman. Then I know exactly who it is, for our paths have crossed several times previously, and this fits her route. She is young, fit, grim, professional, training for the Olympics perhaps, and she never returns my greeting. I am distracted now by snow tracks, and begin following them off-piste – a great many bird prints, large and sharp, stamped into the snow like cuneiform wedges, each one connected to the succeeding one by a single line, a trailing hind claw perhaps or tail feather. These are evidently rooks, for a gang of them is rooting around on the track up ahead, and they are the most numerous bird around. They are accompanied by some jackdaws who seem to be sentinels rather than hangers-on, breaking the silence with their penetrating ‘chucks’ or ‘jacks’, which may have given them their name. Then there are the tracks of what I take to be the ubiquitous muntjac deer, and rabbits of course, and others I do not know. A single dark squirrel, almost black against the snow, who should be hibernating surely in this weather, bounds over the track with the undulations of an otter.

The northern sky takes on colour, bruised and brooding, and suddenly snow falls. It is coming at me from the north, face on, at 45 degrees, but it is strange stuff, tiny balls of fluff that cling to me like polystyrene pellets, perfectly round. No doubt the Inuit or Lapps have a hundred words for different kinds of snow but we are dumbfounded in this regard. It is falling thickly and soon obscures the snowprints, light diminishes, sounds are smothered, visibility contracts and the world closes in.

I turn east onto the bridle-way that runs from Longstanton, past an isolated remnant of apple orchard, only 5 rows deep and about 150 yards long, each row headed by a more upright and taller pear-tree. The snow stops after about ten minutes, as suddenly as it started and the sky brightens. Then I turn south into Cuckoo Lane, the medieval trackway that runs from Ely through to Cambridge, called Portway (‘Carrier’s Way’ or ‘Market Way’) in Rampton, and Gun’s Lane towards Histon. It is generally open and ditched rather than hedged, but here there are small trees on either side of no great age, saplings planted as a hedge no doubt, and then neglected. A tractor growls somewhere in the distance. We are alongside Beck Brook, here more of a tamed and straightened channel at the bottom of a deep wide ditch than any sort of natural stream, its banks deprived of everything but grass – no reeds, bushes, overhangs, saplings or stumps. A wildlife wasteland. So I am delighted when my muffled footfall flushes a green woodpecker from the bank, his dull yellow rump flashing unmistakably as he weaves away silently, without a single yaffle in greeting. He alights in one of the young trees edging the track, and I try to stalk him, but he is much too sharp, always keeping one flight ahead of me. It is a brief encounter, but one worth the pain of the run.

The track takes a turn and climbs a long gentle rise, barely a hill, but telling on my calf muscles, and I have to walk. At the top, the highest point hereabouts, the sun breaks through the cloud at last, and the land is lit. It is a spectacular transformation. I can see for miles over the huge white fields. I run into the sun renewed, downslope now towards the jumble of Lamb’s Cross Farm. At the bottom of the slope, where water has ponded on the track, a tractor has broken through the ice and thrown up jagged slabs of the stuff, three inches thick and gray like concrete slabs. The place is littered with trailers, bits of agricultural machinery, telephone poles, old caravans and cars, pallets, rusty bits and pieces, wire and fencing. The chained dogs set up a duet of paranoid barking. The sweet and lovely smell of cows pervades the air, and somewhere inside a barn a radio plays.

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