Tag Archives: kestrel

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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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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swanwalk66

October 13th, 2001 – the first time I’ve been out in this poor patch of England for six long weeks. Poor because it has been largely deprived of its natural wealth – its variety, complexity, fecundity, wildness – and reduced to something considerably meaner and less productive, or so it seems to me. Still, as I have discovered over the year, there are remnants of glory even here, unveiled on occasion, when you least expect them, though perhaps not today.

I walk fast for five miles, up the no-through road to Longstanton, along the green ways and droves to Rampton, through the village, then upstream along the high bank of New Cut/Beck Brook to the medieval trackway called Cuckoo Lane which takes me over the only rise in the district and down through Lamb’s Cross farm to the Cottenham-Oakington road and back home – a route I’ve taken many times before of course, all on road or track. No furtive fence-hopping or field-creeping today, no bush-whacking, ditch-leaping or tree-climbing today, no idleness, recklessness, no derring-do.

It is a dull, overcast day, dry and cold. It has, evidently, been somewhat wet this past month. Pastures and meadows carry a lush pelt of green, growth having outpaced the grazers. In places the track is still muddy and puddled. Water in the open ditches is hidden under a loose skin of algae, electric green with nitrogen run-off. In the brook it lies milky and still. Apart from the cold, not much has changed. Only the horse-chestnuts, diseased, have turned and shed most of their leaves prematurely. From afar they autumn the green with orange and bronze. On the ground their leaves lie curled and brown and gather in drifts. Field maples are beginning to yellow. Haws have softened and coloured a deep wine-red, while the flask-shaped hips remain firm and crimson, awaiting the frost. Most of the elderberries are spent – I have missed their harvest. On the verges the occasional white yarrow and a few yellow hawkbits, dandelion-like, are still in flower. In the hedgerows the late-flowering ivy has finally opened its yellow-green globes, unleashing a strange, potent musk.

A herd of two dozen geese (Canadas) crop the turf in the old airfield, all facing the same way, long black necks arched to the ground. I nearly fall over a diseased rabbit, drunk and disoriented on myxamatosis, its bulging skull visible under a thin membrane of skin. I look around for a weapon with which to despatch it but it creeps away out of reach. Later I come across an injured wood pigeon, broken-winged, but such is its fear of humans that it beats frantically through the hedge to escape my kind clutches, and I leave it be to avoid further distress. It will probably not last out the day. A handful of goldfinches, with red, black and white face-masks and bright yellow wing-flashes, is flung up into the air, like a magic trick. A kestrel beats over, long-tailed, and then, in an adjacent field, another hovers above the brown earth before sliding away on the slope of the air.

All the arable here, in the lower part of the district, has been ploughed and harrowed and worked to a more or less fine tilth, ready for sowing. The sight of bare soil, beautifully combed and even and smooth, wrapped round the land, fills me with a strange delight. I think because only thus, cleared of crop and cleaned, do we see what a truly wondrous creation it is. Only thus is its glory revealed, as a living, breathing organism, and its potential unearthed. The soil hereabouts varies subtly from adjacent field to field, and sometimes within fields – from rich chestnut brown through to a yellowish ochreous tan and a paler, more greyish khaki – not though the black fenny soils that lie a few miles to the  north. The grey shapes of wood pigeons hunch in the ploughland, amongst them a single, pure white dove. Spurning the comfort and predictability of some suburban dovecote, it has decided, or been persuaded, to go native. There is much activity in the fields today – farmers dismount from their 4 x 4s and kick a clod or two, great yellow sacks of seed, like giant punch-bags, are hoisted by tractors into hoppers, machinery is trundled and dragged across the land. Only the fields by Rampton Drift which bore barley this year have already been sown, with rape, now six inches high and here and there precociously flowering.

On my way back along the high bank of New Cut that channels Beck Brook towards Rampton, three silent shapes sit on the stream. They are juvenile Mute swans, the size of large geese, with smoky grey plumage blotched white. Black tear-tracks curve down from their eyes to the base of their pale beaks. There’s no sign of the adults. They show some momentary interest but are unperturbed by my presence and continue bobbing for black strands of weed on the bed of the stream. Now swans are commonplace, I know, especially on the larger rivers and waterways, but this is the first time I’ve seen them on our little Beck Brook. So I sit down and watch them awhile. They are surely the most placid of birds.

Further along, walking up Cuckoo Lane, I am alerted by the unmistakable cry of a bird of prey. A hundred yards away, two shapes dash and duck and jink through the air just above the ground, a couple of feet apart. A wood pigeon is being hunted down by a hawk or falcon of sorts. I get a two-second glimpse, that’s all, before they are hidden by trees. But in those two seconds a door is opened and wildness floods the world. My heart races. Then all reverts to normality. I don’t know the outcome. But surely a kestrel, the most common bird of prey in these parts, would not take a pigeon. It must have been a larger hawk of some kind, though I have only seen snatches of what I take to be sparrowhawks. The thought that this might be a peregrine will keep me out and about till the end of the year.

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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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kingfisherwalk53

July 13th, 2010. 7 a.m. Overcast and cool, with microdrops of moisture falling. All around, woodpigeons google tentatively, trying out their morning voices. I strike out before breakfast towards the outskirts of Histon, then across to Girton and back to Oakington, mostly along the hard surfaces of busway, cinder track and road. I want to check out Swan Pond, so named on the map, and its encircling disc of woodland as a possible site for a sleepover.

The busway has been deflowered. They have poisoned this stretch with weed-killer (sic: a marketing ploy this – in reality they’re all wild flower-killers of course but it wouldn’t look good on the tin) and strimmed down the verges, eliminating for several miles the feeding stations and nectar bars of untold numbers of caterpillars, bumblebees, honey bees, beetles and butterflies, and depriving, in turn, the insectivores who feed on them. Only scarlet poppies have managed somehow to survive the toxic onslaught, marking the graves of their fallen companions. At the same time, hundreds of saplings, sheathed in white plastic, have been planted up and down the line. Perverse environmental stewardship this. Beyond the reach of the knapsack sprayers, the pale lilac-blue pincushion heads of field scabious or gypsy rose, on long stalks, are abundant, used as a blood purifier and as a treatment for eczema and other skin disorders.

On either side stretch wheat fields, pale greenish white in the morning grey. Where they abut onto woodland or scrub they have been grazed back by rabbits, a hundred feet or more from the edge. At the approach of a dog and its walker the culprits scamper back to the safety of their burrows by the dozen. In a corner by the brook seven rabbits, a large old dame and her boisterous adolescent offspring, hang out with a wood-pigeon and a grey squirrel – cereal-killers colluding. In the fallow further up, five magpies (a tidings of magpies according to the 15th century Book of St. Albans), five for silver, fly away chattering, flashing black and white against the bleached land.

I dive through a low gap in a hedge and follow a field ditch to a patch of woodland, isolated in the midst of wheat fields, where Swan Pond should be. Actually I’ve been here before but at the end of a very long walk, with no time to explore. I make a complete circuit, looking for a way in through the dense undergrowth. The wood is encircled by a ditch, ashen-grey with dried scum. Eventually I find just one opening, beaten through by village boys no doubt, into the dim and silent interior, the floor strewn with broken branches that crack like bones underfoot. The trees are nearly all old willows in various states of decrepitude, some fallen and lying horizontal with roots in the air, one whose thick trunk has simply snapped through some ten feet up, most with dead boughs hanging like dislocated arms. Needless to say, there are no swans, and no pond. Bare dips and hollows in the ground mark the bed of the old pool but there is no trace of moisture, nor of moisture-loving plants. It has been dry it seems for many a year. Only the willows bear witness to a once watery place. No birds sing and nothing thrives except nettles in the more open spots. I have an uneasy feeling about this place and will not be camping out here.

In the fields approaching Girton are yellowhammers and skylarks. A cock pheasant rockets out of a hedge like a clockwork toy, winding down to a splutter. An outing of swallows skims low over the wheat, gulping down fast food, looping and diving with astonishing speed and whoopee. If birds can be joyful, then surely swallows must be the most joyful of birds. A kestrel appears out of the blue, fairly high, gliding and hovering, gliding and hovering, then slides out of view just as suddenly.

On the road back to Oakington I am assaulted by cyclists. The pavement has been converted into a cycle track and walkers now have nowhere to walk. They give no quarter, these iPod-obsessives, and apply neither brakes nor bell in their headlong rush to nowhere, especially dangerous when they attack from behind. More than once I have to flatten myself against the hedge at the very last moment. Achieving the village undamaged, I stop by what remains of the old village pond, now shrunken and half-smothered with reeds. Perched on a bare branch in the middle of the water is a living, shining jewel – there is really no other word that will do – a kingfisher, the first I’ve seen in the district. Just yards from nose-to-tail commuter traffic is a creature of heart-stopping beauty – iridescent blue back, dark turquoise wings, chestnut-red breast. It flies to the edge of the pond and is gone, a flash of electric blue light against the dark, still water. What a surprise, what a gift.

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earlymorningwalk48

June 28th, 2010. 6.30 a.m. A gorgeous morning. The sun is well up and climbing into a clear blue sky. It promises to be another blazing day but it is still deliciously cool at this hour. Am hardly beyond the houses at Westwick when a lone muntjac saunters across the field track just 10 yards in front of me with that characteristic muntjac head-down, hang-dog, forlorn air. Surprisingly, it is completely unaware of my presence and ambles off into a thicket. As I’ve discovered, these little deer are not uncommon round here but I’ve not seen one so close to the village before.

New flowers everywhere, not many whose names I know. Bright red poppies, with tissue-thin petals that fold in the slightest breeze, stipple the verges of road and rape field. Among them, three pure white forms. Lining the ditch of the trickling brook from Histon, just two feet wide and two inches deep here, is a dense growth of meadowsweet, with frothy, creamy, sweet-scented flowers, a favourite strewing herb of Queen Elizabeth I. Containing salicylic acid it has long been used as a painkiller and is the original source of aspirin. Wild privet is in flower too, sickly sweet. Bindweeds with large white or pale pink trumpet flowers, or bright candy-pink with white stripes, are now clambering and creeping over the land. Red clover is just beginning to open. Again and again I am struck by the marked localization of many plant species, occurring only in discrete patches here and there across the district.

Two fledgling swallows are perched close together on a telephone wire. An adult swoops up, hovers momentarily, and regurgitates insect mush into their gaping mouths without landing, then dashes away. Four lapwings fly northwards. A female blackcap shouts from a treetop. Unidentified warblers are picking through bushes in silence.

One of my favourite spots is a large scrubby area to the north-west of Histon church, a former medieval field of the old abbey farm, now abandoned to nature and colonized by encroaching stands of ash saplings, willows, alders and brambles, a haven for birds and other wildlife. I am drawn by the sound of a rapid, agitated, high-pitched piping repeated almost non-stop – ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki – the cry, surely, of some bird of prey. I discover three kestrels and spend over an hour tracking and back-tracking in pursuit. They perch with their backs to the sun on prominent dead branches in a line of trees between the scrubland and a field of wheat. With some painstaking stalking I get quite close, twenty feet from the birds, till they take off and fly away with rapid, shallow wingbeats to another observation post down the line. Kestrels are sexually dimorphic, the male and female being quite distinct. One is definitely female, the other two probably juveniles. The male is nowhere to be seen. Their red-brown, strikingly barred backs and tail are toward me but they know I am here and swivel their heads round 180 degrees to keep a yellow eye on me. Their short, curved beaks are flesh-coloured.

It’s been nearly three hours. By the time I reach home, the sun is burning down and I am sweltering. The specimens of flowers I’ve picked and pocketed to be identified have collapsed beyond recognition. I resolve to carry a camera and photograph them in future.

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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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egret evening 39

May 8th and 9th, 2010. A series of short walks and long sittings. First, mid-afternoon, tucked into a bank of Oakington Brook where it is most secluded, on the only nettle-free patch, carpeted with the tiny mauve-purple speedwell. Behind me, the ivy-covered mound of a rabbit warren (abandoned?) and a belt of mixed trees. In front, to the south, the shallow rivulet barely flowing from right to left, four feet wide, at the bottom of a deep and wide ditch whose steep sides are now knee-deep in herbage. Across the brook a field of oilseed-rape whose rich yellow flowers are above my eye-line. I have a limited field of vision and cannot see upstream or downstream, but it is sheltered, unobtrusive, and comfortable. I wait. It is cold and grey, without sun, very quiet. No swallows over the rape field. No butterflies even. Occasionally, woodpigeons in ones and twos pass over fast, veering away when they see me.

Ripples on the water warn me of something approaching. Two bite-sized ducklings cruise into view and immediately spot my alien presence. They power downstream on furiously paddling feet, half lifting out of the water. Three minutes later another three arrive, with the same instant reaction. How come they are so alert, at just a week or two old, so mindful of danger? I am pretty much hidden, silent and still. A good five minutes later the female mallard appears with a straggler, clocks me in an instant, and they both shoot off downstream, with much splashing, and her quacking in protest. This mallard family must have been spread out over 50 yards of brook, the lead ducklings forging ahead, quite on their own, far from their mother’s protection.

A hawk crosses my field of vision, with quick, shallow wingbeats, for all the world like a pigeon, only more streamlined, and buff-brown in this light. Its grey rump identifies it as a kestrel. It shears off to my left and over the trees. I set off in pursuit and disturb it in a dead tree some 200 yards away. It takes off immediately, flies over a sheep pasture and lands on a bare patch of earth beneath the guided-busway. It remains on the ground for some time, then glides up to roost in a small tree between the busway and Beck Brook, 200 yards further on. I follow, cutting through the coppice, where I am hidden from hawk eyes, and emerge onto the busway, downwind. But I do not get within 100 yards before the bird takes flight again, and heads back to where we’ve just come from, disappearing over the trees. I double back and finally find it again by the brook where our paths first crossed. But it won’t tolerate my presence at all and flies back towards the busway again. I leave it be. I have seen this kestrel (or its mate) in this locale before, and am beginning to know its range and its habits. I am hoping it will begin to accept me.

Dusk, the end of the day. I want to taste this place at all times of the day and the night. We have been treated to a little winter for the past week or so, since the beginning of May. It’s cold this late evening. The sky is uniformly grey, without highlights, dim but not yet dark. I sit on the uprooted trunk of a great willow where it arches across the stream that comes from Histon and beyond. In front of me is park-like meadowland, scattered with fine isolated horse-chestnuts, elms, and oaks, all with parallel browse-lines, rising gently towards Westwick House and its farm buildings on the near horizon. Sheep and their now stocky lambs are lying in greensward, still hollering, but less persistently so. The clamour from the Westwick rookery continues, as it will, more or less, throughout the night. A few rooks remain in the pasture, mingling with the sheep. A black-and-white magpie flies over. It begins to rain, gently, washing through the willows above and around.

Egret evening. Further on northwards, on the guided-busway itself, facing east. Hand-rubbingly cold. They have doused the busway and verges with poison, and all is undone. Where before was a fine crop of wild flowers coming up, between and beside the concrete tracks, now is a desert of dead and dying plants. Young thistles lie limp on the ground like seaweed left stranded. Even the beautiful white campion, all but one plant, has been done in. Now the darkness begins to descend… though I can still see afar –  an unbroken sweep of very gently undulating land stretching from the north to the south, two to three miles in every direction, the black line of the horizon just broken by the trees of the villages on their slight gravel ridges – Willingham, Rampton, Cottenham church in the distance, the hamlet of Westwick, and Oakington itself, screening Histon and Girton beyond to the south. Two miles is not a long way, but here, today, in spite of the cold, the damp and the drabness of light, there is something magnificent in this modest prospect, something lovely lying over the land. It is very quiet now, very still. Serene even. Out of the dark emerge two pure white great egrets, flying close together, towards the north, with languid strokes of the air, silently, as if out of Egypt.

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owlwalk38

May 7th, 2010. A dull day, weather-wise, chilled by a north-easterly breeze. I set out in a fleece, coat and cap on a clockwise circuit of the old airfield and barracks, a route I’ve followed many times before. In the Drift (a variant of ‘drove’, down which cattle were ‘driven’), a tunnel of green leading out to the pony paddocks on the western edge of the village, butterflies soodle up and down the cow parsley verges, sniffing each cluster of flowers in turn but rarely alighting. Warblers are out and about – chiffchaffs chiff and chaff endlessly, and a female blackcap (rich chestnut cap, not black) is busy debugging the hedgerow.

I meet Ron and his wife – 70-somethings, in rude health – half submerged in greenery, at work in their cottage front garden. I hail them, they me, beaming. We talk butterflies and they straight away invite me, a passing stranger, to take a look at their garden ‘out back’, almost leading me along by the hand. I expect an immaculate show garden, of the National Garden Scheme type that opens to the public once a year in aid of charity, or a self-sufficient cotter’s backyard laid out to vegetables and soft fruit, with chickens, bees and a pig perhaps. In fact it’s a wilderness. It spurns all garden conventions – there’s no lawn, no clipped hedges, no patio or decking, no flower beds, no garden flowers, roses or shrubs, and no vegetable patch to speak of. It’s unrepentantly naturalized, turned over to nature,  full of wild plants and flowers – white hedge garlic, pale blue forget-me-nots and red campions now – and what most people call weeds, under a canopy of apples and other small trees. Not overgrown or neglected, just … ungardened. Ron leads me along a path of sorts between brick outbuildings (swallow nesting) and wooden sheds, a caravan, greenhouse, various middens, overgrown ponds, and, here and there, small clearings planted with beans and peas and strawberries, like patches of swidden in a rainforest. He now and then points out plants, and gently runs his hand over leaves. Their work is limited to some judicious thinning out and pruning,  the sowing of wild flower seeds, and nurturing what’s there, whatever it is. They nurture the wild.  He shows me a couple of old horse-ploughs, used by his father-in-law up until the early nineteen-fifties, near enough a hundred years old, he says, and the iron still as good as when it was forged. I don’t know what to make of it all. It’s a haven for wildlife, and a haven for Ron and his wife. An island of heresy in a sea of suburban conformity. It’s a surprise. More surprising though than the garden are the gardeners. Their welcome, their joy in sharing, and their love of the wild are as rare as their garden. It has been, for me, an uplifting, humbling and salutary meeting.

I take the lane to Longstanton. The hawthorn, whitethorn or may is finally in flower, here and there. Soon the countryside will be sprung again with its white festoons and honeyed scent, just as all the other brightening blossoms – cherry plum, cherry, apple and blackthorn – have faded. A second coming. Blue flowers have arrived over the past few days – bluebells here and there in coppice and woodland, the pale forget-me-nots, and bluest of all, alkanet or bugloss, a traditional dye-plant, a naturalized garden escape (the name is Arabic – from Middle English, from Old Spanish alcaneta, diminutive of alcana, ‘henna’, from Medieval Latin alchanna, from Arabic al-hinnā’, ‘henna’, apparently because it was used as a substitute dye).

A songthrush is giving voice at the end of a barely-leaved oak branch. I count a series of at least seven different combinations of notes and sounds, brief  liquid stanzas, each one enunciated clearly, in turn. Not so much a song as a vocal exercise. There is a commotion of geese coming from the hidden lake on the airfield, now completely screened from the road. As I contemplate negotiating the easiest access point (see pic) a large bird flies off, away from me. At first I take it for a heron, it’s that sort of size, then as it banks I know it’s a bird of prey, brownish, with somewhat ragged wings. I get about 3 seconds before it disappears over some trees. Are there buzzards here still? I have a feeling, though, that this is no buzzard at all but a bird unknown, and I set off in pursuit. It has flown towards the village, but when I get there I am unable to find it. It’ll draw me back another day soon.

The breeze picks up, suthering through the trees (one of Clare’s words), and the air turns damp. Longhorned cattle hunker down in a field, with their backs to the wind. There’s a smell of rain before a skat or light shower wets the land and my coat. It’s soon over, but the sky is darkening. Not since the snow have my hands been so cold. They plunge into pockets. More like the end of winter than the middle of spring. From the vantage point of the guided-busway embankment I watch a hovering kestrel, hanging in the air, facing into the wind, beating its wings deeply, head down, tail fanned out and depressed, remaining exactly in place for minutes at a time, then sliding sideways, and hovering anew. In ten minutes of hovering, it does not stoop or plunge once.

Then, an unexpected encounter, a first. About 20 yards from the track of the guided-bus-to-be, within the old airfield and out in the open, is a large, triangular, wooden nestbox set on a post about ten or twelve feet from the ground. I’ve watched it many a time and never seen the slightest sign of occupation. As I pass by I don’t even give it a glance. But out of the corner of my eye, there’s a movement, a blur, a glimpse of something alive. By the time I turn, it has slipped away silently. I instinctively know it’s a Little Owl, though I’ve not seen one for years. I settle down behind a screen of bushes to await its return. Five very still minutes later I’m rewarded. A second owl emerges from the hole of the nestbox onto the landing platform, and scowls straight at me. It knows I am here. The frowning eyebrows are comical. It gives me a definite ‘look’, reprimanding, then launches into the greyness and is gone in the blink of an eye.

A final encounter on the guided-busway, this cold evening, as I approach home. A mother mallard is waiting on one side, looking back anxiously, accompanied by a single duckling. Four others are coming up behind, but they are stuck behind the concrete ledges that form the sides of each trackway, six inches high, three times the height of a duckling. They have to overcome four of them. Time after time they attempt to climb, clamber or fly up the sheer, smooth wall in front of them. The mother duck clucks out quiet instructions, and at one point she is on the point of going back to give them a hand. Then one manages it and achieves the next one with relative ease. The others, one by one, get the hang of it and struggle over each obstacle. It’s a slow, painful process, with many a fall. Eventually they’re all over, she gathers them together and dusts them off, and they all head off through a gap in a fence. They’re going east, towards the brook. They’re a hundred yards from the water, over a ditch and a meadow, and they’ve come from the airfield. It must be their very first walk, from the field where they’ve hatched to their new home on the stream, as is the practice among mallard, a journey of at least 200 yards, full of hazard and drama, as we’ve seen. They’re half way there and night is falling.

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