Tag Archives: kestrel

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

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.

2 Comments

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

springsaunter32

April 20th and 21st, 2010. Not really a proper walk today, just a saunter round the southern edge of the village. Another brilliant day, but now in the late afternoon there is a coldish north-west wind, from Iceland way, but without a trace of volcanic dust to sully the clear blue sky. I go to the brook hoping to see the grass snake again, but find instead a mother duck and five very young, dark-coloured ducklings cruising slowly upstream. I assume she is a wild mallard but I can’t see her clearly. A common enough sight on any river in England in the coming weeks for sure, but the brook here is only 4 or 5 feet wide and not more than a foot deep, and the water is barely flowing. It is set deep between steep grassy banks and there is really nowhere to hide. Yet she keeps them tucked in to the side, taking advantage of any sheltering waterside plants, and at times they seem to disappear altogether.

A kestrel is perched on a post, facing the sun, the first time I’ve seen this little hunter close to the village. Edgy, glancing this way and that, but intent on savouring the last of the day’s warmth. When it shifts slightly and the sun catches its dark spotted, rich rufous back I see what a truly exquisite creature it is. It doesn’t tarry long though… perhaps I am just too close for comfort. With rapid wing-beats it arcs over a sheep pasture and is gone. But here come the swallows, three of them, the first of the season, swooping low over a field of rape. At least I think they’re swallows… they’re some distance away, but they don’t seem to have the white rump that would mark them as house martins. One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day, according to Aristotle, in Greece that is, but three swallows and five ducklings in Oakington?  Surely that makes a sprung spring at last.

April 21st, 2010. 7.30 a.m. A short walk yesterday so I do it again today, retracing my steps, to get a morning perspective. Another superb day, and not a cloud in sight. Nothing unusual or extraordinary to report, but I realize now that there are some creatures so familiar or so commonplace that I have hardly mentioned them. So here’s to the unsung  – the waddling magpies, the soft, mewing collared doves, the skulking and scuddering streamside moorhens, the squawking pheasants, and the choristers who belt it out morning and evening, the blackbirds and robins. And to the rabbits, of all sizes, a-bounding.

A few bumblebees are active at this hour, but I see only a single butterfly – an almost pure white female brimstone, with a faint touch of green. A grey squirrel dashes away up a limb. Incredibly, this is only the third grey I’ve seen this year during some 30 walks. What you don’t see is as significant as what you do see (and I haven’t seen the buzzards for a while). A wide-legged rook stands in the shallows of the stream, like a matron wading at the seaside, bracing herself against tiny waves. Lost lambs and anxious ewes holler to each other across the pastures.

Some people walk to think, but I find that I walk to unthink. In stalking the world the mind empties out and the chatter is silenced. There is no place for thought when you are purely attentive, alert to the slightest of movements and sounds, and open to all possibilities. You are, then, also, forgetful of self. And in that you are no longer apart. You are a child, or a hunter. People say they need time to think, when they really need time to unthink. Thinking is what’s got us into this mess, thinking the unthinkable.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

dawnsaunter19

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

2 Comments

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

walkabout17

6th March, 2010. It being a Saturday, I decide to go for a longer walk. 10 miles, 5 hours – with many distractions along the way. In the large pasture on the edge of the village, where yesterday I counted 160 fieldfare and redwing, there are no birds at all. Different day, different time of day (it is midday), different weather – today is cloudier, with a fairly cold northerly breeze, though it is bright and lovely, and warm when the sun breaks through. There are certainly fewer birds about, and less song. I head north up the guided busway.

A flicker at the edge of vision makes me stop. From the end of a 4-inch diameter corrugated plastic drain-pipe, sticking out of the embankment on which the busway has been laid, is a little brown face with a wet, pink nose and white chin. The face cranes round to look straight at me, dark ears erect. It is a stoat… or a weasel. Without seeing its tail I can’t tell the difference. It retreats deep into the pipe. It is a perfect hide-out from which to survey the killing fields below. I like the way it has appropriated this random human artefact, made it its own.

Further on, an exaltation of skylarks fills the sky, trilling ecstatically without let from high up in the blue, wings a-quivering. At times they hover and glide like miniature kestrels with wings held out and tails splayed, showing white outer feathers. Then they cease their singing and plunge headfirst towards the earth like kamikaze pilots, wings folded, pulling up at the last moment and landing nonchalantly near their mates. These are males … consummate performers, show-offs … larking about. The skylark is red-listed, its numbers having halved in the last 40 years due to the growing practice of sowing crops in autumn rather than spring, so it is good to see them here.

In the grass at the edge of the airfield sit 7 lapwings, dark green above and white below, the first I’ve seen here, but they are skittish and rise quickly on rounded wings, crying out their country name, a plaintive and penetrating pee-wit, pee-wit, pee-wit. These too have seen a catastrophic crash in numbers over past decades.

I turn into Rampton Drove and spot a wind-hover, not 200 yards from where I saw one a few days ago so it is doubtless the same bird, or its mate. I follow it for 20 minutes, as it works the stubble. It hovers some 20 feet up and coasts to the ground frequently, up and down, up and down, occasionally perching on posts. It doesn’t stoop, and makes no kill. A pair of partridge explode under my feet, whirring off like clockwork toys, kicking up a fuss.

I head further north, up the medieval trackway called Haven Drove that is a continuation of Cuckoo Lane. It is a broad green way, built up above the level of the surrounding fields and partly hedged. On one side, far from any road, lies a pile of fly-tip which stops me in my tracks – it consists of toddlers shoes, velcro-strapped, little plastic wellies, baby clothes, some broken trucks, plastic toys and a large, naked, blue-eyed doll with articulated joints, staring up at me. Why kids’ stuff and nothing else? Why would anyone want to haul it all the way up here and dump it? It could all quite easily fit into a bin. There is something very sad about this particular pile of junk, so carelessly discarded.

Dozens of fieldfares, all grey rumps and black tails, loop ahead of me from tree to tree, chattering like blackbirds. They are heading north. The trackway passes straight through the middle of Belsar’s Hill, an Iron Age earthwork that once guarded the causeway that led over the fen to Aldreth on the higher ground beyond. Tradition has it that it was the Conqueror’s HQ in his disastrous campaign against Hereward the Wake. It is hardly a hill, more a large oval embankment with an outer ditch, still showing clearly in the fields though now much worn down. I leave the ancient causeway for another day, and head back. I walk on long, straight, lonely one-lane roads, raised above the fields, linking one isolated farmstead to another. This is wide open country, ditched not hedged, with big skies and far horizons. Fenced paddocks, horses, newly ploughed ground.

Back in the village of Rampton, I decide not to take the same, more direct, way back, but a slightly different longer route, even though I am hungry and footsore. I’m glad I did. I’m walking on the high embankment beside New Cut, the downstream continuation of Beck Brook, here fully canalized, looking out beyond a smaller ditch onto a narrow pasture edged by a strip of woodland that backs onto houses. A dark, indistinct, animal shape some 200 yards off catches my eye. Through the binoculars it condenses and sharpens into a magnificent dog-fox. The second in two days, in broad daylight, and in much the same circumstances. He is trotting along the edge of the field, stopping to sniff here and there, lifting a leg to mark his territory. He is in show-dog condition, with a thick coat of fur, reddish flanks and head, dark ears, greyish down the back, white underparts, throat and muzzle, and a great bushy white-tipped brush. I settle down on the bank and watch. He sits down at the woodland edge and watches. The watched becomes the watcher. We are about 100 yards apart, though I am above him. He knows I am here. Perhaps the glint of lens has alerted him. He moves off, but turns to look at me once again. He is not sure. Again he moves off, and turns. I get up to follow, and he dives into cover.

During this walk I have crossed paths with only a handful of people – a family taking the air, a woman walking her dogs, a lad cantering a horse, and a dozen or so hard-core cyclists. A little further on I meet Farmer Giles. He is out training his new gundog. He is stout, large-headed, unshaven and ruddy-faced, a local man. Mother born in Oakington, father in Cottenham. Farmers for generations. His ‘farm’ is dispersed over several parishes – a field here, a field there, all down to arable. His pleasure lies in shooting – rabbit, partridge, pheasant. He is unimpressed by my fox – ‘bloomin’ critturs’, but he won’t be drawn further on this apparent prejudice. I suspect it is because they are both hunters and in competition, both lovers of pheasant flesh.

New Cut / Beck Brook

There is a final gift to come, bestowed out of the blue. A large white bird with big slow wingbeats is being buffeted by the wind, which has swung round to the east and is now blowing steadily. It is making its way slowly upstream, buoyant, wavering, hovering, now 50 feet, now 20 feet above the bank, looping back on itself, as if looking for something lost. At first I take it for a gull or an egret, but it is the wrong shape. I can barely believe it when I focus. It is an owl, a barn owl, on the hunt, on a bright and sunny afternoon. Moreover it appears to be almost pure white. It passes close above, and I get a long good look. That distinctive, blunt, wedge-shaped silhouette formed by the outsized heart-shaped face and small tapering body. Large white wings. White body, above and below, with only the faintest streaks of marmalade-orange on the top of its head and on its upper back. And the blackest of eyes, shining, that look straight at me as it passes. It flies about 100 yards upstream, then turns and makes its way back the way it came, slowly, following the water. It doesn’t land. So conspicuous is its whiteness against the land I can track it from afar, until it is but a speck in the distance. As far as I know, tawny owls are more common here (though I have only heard them calling, at night), so it is a real privilege to watch, not merely glimpse, the rarer barn owl, in the middle of an afternoon, and a very pale form at that. It is, to me, something quite out of the ordinary, probably never to be repeated. I take it as a special blessing.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

wetwalk14

28th Feb. 2010. Mid-afternoon. Air moist but rain-free, and not particularly cold, though I am well-bundled in case the north-west breeze picks up. Still walking, I dare not begin running again just yet. There has been a lot of rain, and every paddock and field has acquired glinting pools and lakes overnight. The parkland below Westwick House is a sheet of water and overflowing into a swollen Beck Brook, which is but a couple of feet from overtopping its deep-set banks. The big fields around Longstanton are as much water as land, and hundreds of gulls are swirling about or strutting by the water’s edge. I could be looking at mud-flats by the sea.

I head up the no-through road which skirts the old airfield, double fenced, bristling with warning signs, screened by a belt of low scrubby trees, and patrolled by security vehicles. I climb through the barbed-wire fence and stalk through the shelter belt, putting up bouncing rabbits. The ground underfoot is spongy and sodden. A hound barks not far off, and, for a moment, I fear I have been rumbled. But it is only the honk of a goose. The airfield is open parkland here and I come across a hidden pond, a couple of acres of deepish water, fringed with reed and bulrush. Some fifteeen black-throated Canada geese are cruising out in the open, or grazing the bank. The only other birds swimming are a handful of white-faced coot. I am surprised there are so few waterfowl as this spot seems quite undisturbed and rarely visited. I will come again.

I clamber back over the fence, through the back lane of the village, and past the black hole of the Detention Centre. The green lanes and driftways are muddy and slippery. The ditches are overflowing. It is not long before cold water seeps into my shoes. On an overhanging branch by the track there is a still, dark, squat shape. Too small for a wood pigeon. I’m sure it’s a bird but it doesn’t fly off as I expect. I raise my binoculars and only then does the shape take life and slip away over the hedgerow. It is a falcon. I scour the field to no avail, but then he appears 200 yards off flying up and away from me. Over some bungalows at the end of the lane, on the edge of Rampton village, he stops and hovers 50 feet up. It must be a kestrel, a wind-hover. From this distance I cannot see his wings move at all, it is as if he is suspended by an invisible thread, hanging in the air. He swoops away and lands on the top of a telephone pole 500 yards away. I follow but cannot get a clear sighting as he is against the light. He looks small and hunched on top of the pole. Three starlings sit on the wire not five feet from him, unperturbed – they simply ignore each other. He launches off and hovers again, facing into the wind, his splayed tail showing the distinctive black bar of a kestrel. After 20 seconds he gives up and, in frustration, scatters the starlings. He moves 100 yards down the lane, and begins to hover again, this time barely 15 feet from the ground. Then he drops straight down, and is lost to me behind a hedge. I hurry to find him, and as I get near, he rises and flips away into an orchard, dangling something slim and limp from one foot, a shrew perhaps. A successful hunt, probably the last of the day. I balance on top of a field gate, scanning the orchard. He is nowhere to be seen. Then, at the far end, I spot him in an apple-tree, just before he dips away, jinking like a peregrine, his red-brown back lit by the sun. He is only a kestrel, a small bird of prey after all, and hardly a rarity (though the first I’ve seen in this locality), yet thrilling all the same, a glimpse of the wild in this unwild place. And, as always, something of a gift.

I make my way south and homeward along a very wet Cuckoo Lane. Little Beck Brook is here like a deep grown-up river, 20 feet wide and the colour of milky tea. As I pass a lone old ash-tree by the track, there is a flap and flurry of wings like a wood-pigeon taking off. A green woodpecker undulates away, low over the field, showing its yellow-green rump. I look up into the tree, and there are three neat holes in the trunk about 15 feet up. I have discovered its nesting site. It must be the same green woodpecker I saw weeks ago in this vicinity. 200 yards further up the track are another three trees, two oaks and an ash. Again, I find woodpecker holes in the ash-tree, but none in the oaks. Perhaps the oak wood is too hard to drill. The parliament of rooks at Westwick House is in full voice as I pass in the fading light. It has been a good walk, 6 miles and my legs are fine, only a little foot-sore. And, surprisingly, not another soul about, even though it’s a Sunday.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature