Tag Archives: jay

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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jaywalk76

November 28, 2010. Late morning. Cold, clear and sunny. No snow last night, but a very heavy frost. A sparkling high-definition winter’s day, with everything at its sharpest and most intensely coloured. The horse pasture below the church is a white sheet of crystals. A jay flies low and settles on the ground. Not often encountered this year, though for the past week or so a pair has visited the garden, ever-wary and off at the slightest of movements. This must be one of them. The light is behind me and for the first time I see its true colours – both deep and pale pink, black and white, and that flash of sky in the wing, a pure azure more perfect in blueness than all other blues.

Beck brook is partially frozen over, as translucent and flawed as old glass. The feeder from Histon is sealed across, though further up, a clear stream of water flows between shelves of white ice. On the ground each blade of grass is a colony of towering crystals, and each leaf a crisp, curled shard of colour that shatters under the boot. Beyond the brook, in the middle of a winter-wheat field, the green just breaking through, is a solitary little egret, slender and white, hunched at the shoulder, standing on one thin black leg in the sun. Perfectly still, it doesn’t even swivel its head or long bill, as if frozen solid. Last seen, in this same vicinity, in early June. An hour later, when I have looped around, it passes overhead, towards the north, long neck tucked back, legs and yellow feet stretched out behind. It flies on stiff concave wings, never straightening or flexing them, holding the curve of the air. That each species has its own distinctive wing movement and flight pattern, as one would expect, is still endlessly fascinating, still wondrous to me.

In the patch of woodland along the brook, blackbirds aplenty scuffle through litter, and fly off with a protest into the undergrowth. There is a steady, slow-motion falling of leaves from above, a reluctant descent of minerals through air, from field maples and oaks. A couple of squirrels, in different locations, retreat to the biggest trees and eye me from on high, their thick, soft tails arched forward over their backs. I am on the lookout now for our local tribe of black melanistic squirrels, though these two show no sign of the tarbrush. I tarry for some time at the brook where it curves round to pass under the road-bridge. The sun has brought out the birds. On the bankside, robins, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, and a solitary redwing, with blushed flanks and a striking pale supercilium through the line of the eye, pass back and forth over the water, here clear of ice. These last are usually highly gregarious. A moorhen picks through the shallows. The clear light transforms this sombre, uniformly dark bird into a creature extraordinary, for it is exquisitely, subtly two-toned – deep grey-black above and paler slate-grey below, separated by a wavy white line; in front, a small red bill, behind, the double white tail, jerking incessantly. Then an unexpected delight. A kingfisher alights on a thin branch arching over the water, as kingfishers do. Facing away from me, I see only the iridescent turquoise-blue back but as it flashes away downstream it reveals its orange-red underparts. A little winged jewel. I’ve not seen one since mid-July.

Walking upstream I put up a male mallard. It flies high in a big sweeping arc and as it turns back towards me, five others, two drakes and three ducks, in tight formation, wing fast overhead in the same direction. It soon catches up with its crew, and off they go, united. A flight of mallard against a big winter sky – what could be more evocative, more symbolic, of an English winter, except perhaps the scent of woodsmoke? A single lapwing flies west on broad rounded wings – strange to see one on its own. Then five minutes later, half a dozen follow suit. Reaching the big fields beyond, hazed green with young blades of wheat, I find dozens more, scattered evenly over a wide area, working the frozen earth. Green-black bodies, white below, with distinctive wispy black crests, they look small against the great expanse. White gulls wheel lazily above, landing occasionally. The hedgerow harbours several dozen fieldfares which abscond one by one as I approach, making small noises of discontent. They keep looping forward into the next tree along, blue-grey and rust-red in flight, flashing white underparts and black tail.

A final epiphany thanks to today’s special light. Woodpigeons, as plump as college porters, sit in a pasture, larger than life, sunbathing. The commonest bird in these parts, easily overlooked, yet in coloration and marking, really quite stunning. That white wing bar in flight, for example. But up close, the degrees of blueness in the greys of head and wing shading into the magenta-pink barrel-chest, the splash of white and shimmer of purple and green on the neck, make this a most handsome bird.

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squirrelwalk75

November 27th, 2010. 7.00 a.m. A grey weight of cold hangs heavy over the morning. Everything is dusted with snow, the ground hammered with frost. There’s more light below than above. Ragged flights of gulls – common and black-headed – emerge out of nowhere, in twos and threes and dozens, sculling steadily overhead towards the dull bloom of light in the south-east. A pair of jays retreats into a thicket of hawthorn. A fox sees me first, and bounds away over the pasture, as if the ground was too cold for her paws, her thick brindled brush, white-tipped, almost as long as her body, flowing behind. At three hundred yards, she stops and turns to look back at me. For a few moments we are two beings conjoined. Now, at the beginning of winter, she is well-fed and in fine fettle.

It is very cold, cold and still. I am ill-dressed for the weather. My ungloved hands find cold comfort in pockets. The dense mesh of hedges and bushes harbour small birds – blackbirds, chaffinch, a greenfinch and goldfinch, I’m happy to see. But it’s too cold to linger long. Water in the ditch is frozen over, the ice powdered with snow and marked by the drama of slid prints, the larger probably rabbit, the smaller probably stoat. Cock pheasants strut gingerly across frozen ploughland. On the ice-rutted droveway, a young lad approaches, eight or nine, struggling with his bike. He stops, wants to talk, share his early morning adventure. We have a strange conversation.”Nice day, in’ it”? “Yes, very cold though”. “Not very nice if you have to bike 30 miles”. “30 miles? Where on earth are you going”. “Three times round the village”. More like 3 miles, but for him it’s probably closer to 30. “Why?” I ask. “I’m having a race with my friend”. “And where is he?”, I ask, looking up the track. “Oh, he’s still in bed”. And off he goes.

At the farmyard, Longhorn cattle bellow into the morning – foghorn cattle. They stare at me, pointed horns curving crazily in drunken asymmetry. Collared doves, as smooth as milk, purr round the barns. In the next field, Belted Galloways, black barrels of beef with white midriffs, as woolly as sheep, huff clouds of warm cow-breath into the cold. I walk a slippery road through Longstanton. On the gates of a house – NO COLD CALLERS. That counts me out, then. Back down the no-through road towards home. Out in the open fields, a buzzard is on the tail of a rook, not hunting I’m sure, probably just irritated by the smaller bird. They twist and turn a few feet above ground until the buzzard gives up the chase, flaring its great wings in a banking glide and settling onto a fence post. It broods… a brown, indistinct shape hunched against the cold haze.

In the hedgerows and trees I notice nests everywhere, betrayed by the fall. A branch trembles in front. Not six feet away a squirrel is easing through the dense tangle of stems and twigs. A large grey, wrapped in fabulous fur, with shiny black almond eyes. It swims through the thicket, sometimes over-reaching itself and swinging down on one hind claw, its tail entwined on a nearby branch. It slips into a briar, picks out a rose hip, and holding it in both paws gnaws at it tentatively. I watch closely. How will it deal with it? But it is not to its liking and it chucks it away. Further on, two more squirrels, smaller and paler, are wrapped, like lemurs, round stems of young ash-trees. They skip up to the very ends of the slenderest twigs to pick the last of the ash-keys and break out the seeds. I don’t see many squirrels round here. They’re a treat to watch, and worth a little more time in the cold.

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villagecircuit47

June 22nd, 2010. Summer solstice. The longest day, and the hottest this year. A silver-blue sky marbled by one or two high swirls of cirrus – mares’ tails flicking at invisible stars. The sun beats down all day unimpeded. Youths peel off shirts, and flesh sears on barbecues. Sheep cluster around water troughs. All is still. The bright green lustre of high spring has drained from the land. Grasses in flower bronze the verges, and in the meadows the cut hay lies in windrows, silvering in the sun. Summer at last, just as the days are about to contract.

Having been away for a week, I take a short, sweaty stroll round the village bounds to see what’s happening. The brook is milky, unmoving, solid-looking. No fingerlings nose the taut skin of water, no hidden mallard or moorhen or little egret sends ripples over the surface. A single, electric-blue damselfly rests on a stalk, a two-inch sliver of the most intense, fluorescent blueness imaginable.

I see two kestrels, one on each side of the village, so different birds surely. After short flights, both settle on prominent perches overlooking open land and preen desultorily, occasionally shaking out their feathers. They are in no hurry to move it seems. A couple of plump partridges take off across the horse paddocks with their comical, stiff-legged, upright gait, as if running for a bus. I have not often mentioned these ground-loving birds but on reflection they have nearly always been present on my walks, though not nearly as numerous as the bred-and-released pheasants of course. A green woodpecker clamps itself to a telephone pole, and a single pink and blue jay hurdles a field hedge in front. One of our most colourful birds but not at all common round here.

Of wild flowers, I come across a lone bush of sweet briar or eglantine, with deep pink roses and scented leaves, and a single plant of feverfew whose double, white, daisy-like flowers have a raised, lemon-yellow boss in the centre. As its name suggests, feverfew provides a valuable herbal remedy but I cannot harvest from a single plant. Elderflowers, however, abound, and a basketful is soon gathered to make a sparkling summer cordial.

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snakewalk31

April 18th 2010. Sunday. It’s been a sunshiny day, but by late afternoon the sky is half covered with scattered, indistinct clouds. A breeze blows out of the east. I need to explore one of the few remaining untrodden tracts at the far south-eastern edge of my patch, between Histon and Girton villages, abutting the A14 highway to the Eastern ports.

At the village recreation ground I watch a blue tit ferrying wisps of nesting material into a pre-drilled hole near the top of a tall steel pole supporting a floodlight. The hole (and pole) is big enough to accommodate a much larger bird, even a woodpecker. I wonder how this slightest of birds has managed to appropriate such prime, penthouse property, against all comers, and how it could possibly construct its cup-shaped nest in what must be a very deep, hollow tube. I have read somewhere that long-tailed tits use spiders’ silk to weave their nests, and it may be that this blue tit has woven a silken hammock to cradle its own. We’ll never know.

In the water of Beck Brook, as it flows past a coppice, I encounter, for the first time, a creature as thrilling as any I’ve yet come across – a grass snake. It is on the surface of the water, insinuating slowly through the scum and weed at the edge of the stream. It is dark and slender, not more than two feet long and about half an inch thick, with a conspicuous creamy-yellow collar just behind its head. Its forked black tongue flicks in and out. This is but a brief encounter… it disappears into some water weed, and though I keep watch for a good ten minutes, it doesn’t emerge. I notice too, for the first time, tiny fish, fry the size of paperclips, in the water. This is good news for what I took to be a pretty dead field-drain. If there are snakes and fish, there’ll be other creatures too.

The planted cherries in the coppice are a snowstorm of blossom. Horse chestnuts are now fully clothed, the greenest trees around, though the leaves of hawthorns in the hedgerows have emerged almost overnight. Rich glossy yellow flowers of lesser celandines line the brook while the yellow starbursts of the despised and downtrodden dandelion light up the verges and field edges. The lion’s tooth leaves (dents de lion), roots and flowers of the latter are one of nature’s forgotten wonder drugs, especially as diuretics, hence its folk name ‘piss-a-bed’. One has already completed its cycle and formed the familiar, delicate, spherical ‘clock’ or seed-head. It occurs to me that the earliest wild-flowers are all yellow, but actually the red deadnettle has been out for a while and I notice now the tiny white and purple pansy, and the white flowers of cow parsley, just beginning to emerge. Soon there will be too many trees in leaf and too many plants in flower to mention.

I walk up the track of the guided busway towards Histon, past bright fertilizer-green fields of wheat, still only some six inches high. On the eastern horizon the rape field is now a broad splash of yellow. At the far end of the fallow on the edge of Histon, beside the busway, is a motley crew of creatures co-mingling in Edenic bliss – rabbits old and young, pheasants, wood-pigeons and magpies, starlings and larks all move amongst each other or simply rest in the sun. And sitting in the midst of them all, incongruously, is a magnificent, imperious, long-haired tabby.

Further on is what I believe is called a ‘community woodland’. Each village round here – Oakington, Cottenham, Girton and Histon – has at least one, planted perhaps five years ago in a flush of EU funding, several acres in extent. They already provide good habitat, for dogs and their walkers, though I do see a couple of jays, with their pink bodies, white rumps, black tails and blue flash of wings, one of our most resplendent birds. Each tree in these coppices, however, has been cosseted in a corrugated plastic sleeve and planted in a mulch of black plastic sheeting, which nobody bothers to remove when their job is done, resulting in a drift of shredded plastic worthy of any motorway ditch. Still, mustn’t carp… in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time they’ll be proper woodlands.

At the southern end of Histon, I enter a quasi-industrial zone. There is a waste recycling plant, a very large factory with hoppers and steel silos, and an electricity sub-station, all protected with rigid steel fencing, the uprights bent outwards and as sharp as medieval pikes. This is clearly no place for pedestrian trespassers, and once again, in my quest to discover where I live, I am straitened and trapped. At last there is a slight gap between the fencing of the sub-station and the hedge of an experimental farm, and I squeeze through and along a footway that runs between them. I emerge into the open fields of NIAB, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, one of Cambridge’s many genetic research facilities. A concrete field-road leads south beside a ditch, and I figure this is the best way to make a speedy exit.

Half a mile down the road, my eye is drawn to a dense flock of birds – rooks and pigeons – gathered in the corner of a large, open, ploughed field. A few are flapping on the ground, but most are uncannily still. In fact they are dead. From one hundred yards I survey the macabre scene through binoculars, somewhat perplexed. What is going on here? Then a paramilitary figure emerges from a ditch, in full camouflage outfit, including balaclava and cap, carrying a shotgun. He glares at me, I wave to him, and approach. He is tall, very tall, and intimidating. He is also irate.

“What the f*** do you think you are doing here?”

“Walking… to Girton”, I splutter.

“This is private land! You people think you can walk anywhere! You come in here with your dogs, and break down fences, leave gates open, turn on the taps, and…”

“Hang on there. What do you mean, you people? As you can see, I don’t have a dog, I haven’t broken down any fences, nor turned on any taps. I’m sorry. I’m just out walking. I’m not doing any harm, am I? ”

“You are!” He is incandescent.

“What harm am I doing? Tell me, please.” He strides onto the killing field to dispatch an injured pigeon which is in convulsions, flailing its wings against the earth. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your sport” I say to appease him.

But this is no sport at all. He is not a farmer; he is a hired gun, a contract killer. This is not his land after all. I can’t keep my eyes off the carnage. There must be at least 100 dead woodpigeons and the same number of rooks strewn over the ground. His method is devious, and deadly. The shot birds are propped up with clods and stalks, arranged as if still alive, set up as lures to fool others into thinking that here, where many of their kind have gathered, there must be a plentiful supply of food. He hides in a ditch and shoots the incoming birds as they land from a range of ten yards. I want to take a photo, but fear this would be a step too far. I cannot understand why he is quite so aggressive towards me. I am clearly in the wrong place, trespassing, but why the anger? There is no chance that I could have walked into his line of fire, given the open terrain and the fact that I was approaching from the side and slightly behind him. Perhaps it is that my binoculars mark me out as a bird-lover, a soft-hearted townie with no understanding of the realities of farming or country life, and he is on the defensive. Or that I have caught him in the act of slaughter, of which he is a little ashamed, maybe. Or he is just an angry man. I want to suggest that he take up fishing, but think better of it.

“Just get out of here”, he shouts. “And keep walking!”

Which I unreluctantly do. The mass of dead birds posed in grotesque parody of the living, the killer’s concealed face, the paramilitary uniform, and the slight stench of genetic research all leave a foul taste in the mouth. Some places are tainted. But it does get me thinking about the creatures I crave to seek out – some are undoubtedly pests, and destructive in large numbers, in conflict with the great human project. Do I not kill slugs, and the caterpillars of cabbage whites, in my vegetable patch?

Happily, it is all worthwhile. I follow the concrete road as directed, but it soon swings round to the east, and I need to head west, towards Girton, so I leave it and plunge into scrubland bordering the A14 and there, not 10 yards away, is a pair of reddish muntjac deer. The buck sees me and freezes as I freeze, but the doe is oblivious, a few yards in front of her mate, defecating. He is caught between fascination and flight. His eyes are fixed on mine, and so long as I don’t make a move, he is under my spell. Close up, I see these deer are more beautiful than I had previously thought. He has small, straight, backward-pointing horns, she has none that I can see. Nor do I see the protruding canines or tusks of the male, perhaps because he is looking directly at me. But the V-shaped black marking on his forehead, running from between the eyes to each horn, is distinctive. As are the enlarged tear ducts, which give him a sad-eyed look. She finishes her business, I make a move, and they are gone, diving into the safety of a dense bramble patch. I find her droppings. They are glossy, dark brown to black, the size and shape of roasted coffee beans, but smaller than I expected.

A ditch and dense hedge prevent me from gaining the thundering A14, even if I wanted to. So I have to make my way round the edge of great fields, which eventually lead me away from the highway. I am acutely conscious, though, of the eyes of the shooter, who, from his position, can follow my slow progress through his gunsight. I half expect some stray pellets to pass my way. I find an overgrown green lane and finally achieve the village of Girton, emerging onto the community woodland and playing fields. I rest in the churchyard. The sun is close to the north-western horizon, the sky has clouded over, but it is a fine, tranquil evening. A coal tit, the first I’ve seen in these parts, with black crown and bib, and white neck patch, without the yellow underparts of the great tit and blue tit, is plying to and fro. I walk back along the main road. The dandelion flowers have folded up for the night. As I enter the village, a heron lifts off from a runnel, with huge, slow-beating wings. It is the first I’ve seen for some time.

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