Tag Archives: lapwing

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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grebewalk68

October 19th, 2010. Late afternoon. Cold, grey and damp. The sky is uniformly overcast, except at the lit edges of the world where cloud-shapes take form, rimming the pale horizon. It’s autumn. Days of wind and rain have dislodged leaves which now lay brown and black and wet on the ground. Trees are turning – the sycamores burnt orange, field maples pale yellow, limes browning at the edges, while the silver birches have shed most of their foliage. The sky is alive with autumn migrants.

In the village I meet Bob the thatcher, bespectacled and beaming, in spite of the weather. He and his mate are repairing the roof of a cottage and have already put up a new ridge, the crowning glory of the thatcher’s art. Some of the decayed thatch is reed and some of it is straw, and has to be replaced like with like. He’s only been thatching for five and a half years and it takes five years to pick up the basics he reckons. Still, they’ve done a beautiful job. It will last 50 years. They’re booked up till next August, all over East Anglia. The techniques, tools, materials and artistry have not changed for several thousand years, except now the reed is imported from Eastern Europe and China whereas before it was local.

I set out for the big open fields on the western side of the village, where the winds sweep through unchecked. My hands are soon chilled, my nose running. But there are birds about. Following Rose’s directions, I soon find the buzzard’s nest in one of a pair of small, lonesome ash-trees, an untidy pile of sticks in a flimsy fork not fifteen feet above ground. It hardly looks big enough to accommodate a fully-grown buzzard and offspring. But it must be the place. I can see why a buzzard would nest here. It is about as far away from any road or track or footpath that a bird could find round here, almost completely undisturbed I would think, except three or four times a year when the farmer comes to sow or reap or plough, cocooned and remote in his tractor. Within one hundred yards I find four pools of feathers – pigeon kills. And then, further off, the slow brown weight of a buzzard lifts into the air, beats its great wings three or four times, then glides, beats again three or four times, and glides again, and settles into a hedgerow tree. I follow. It’s soon on the wing again, and joined by its mate. A pair of buzzards! They don’t fly far, and soon perch, four feet apart, in the bare branches of a dead tree overlooking the empty fields…hunched shapes, tawny against the evening. I approach across the open, just to see how close I can get. Not far. Within two hundred yards, one of the pair sails off, effortlessly, winging low over a field, scattering pigeons and starlings by the hundred. The other sits still, unmoved.

Parties of gulls, slim-winged and fleet, fly north in untidy formation, ten, twenty, fifty at a time. Underneath them, flying south-west and low, thrushes and larks, unidentifiable, pass by in successive small flocks. The autumn migration is on. The big fields here are in stubble still, unploughed, perfect for stop-overs. Far away, at least two hundred lapwings sit in a field amongst rooks and pigeons and seagulls. I approach along a field-track to see what else is aground. All of a sudden, the lapwings rise as one, four hundred black and white wings (at this distance) beating slowly upwards. I fear I have been incautious and spooked them. And then a small dark hawk-shadow passes through them, like an arrow, low and intent, focused on what I don’t know. It disappears in a flurry of birds. It was not me after all, but the thought of a hawk that set off the lapwings.

I am on my way home when a strange goings-on catches my eye. I am passing along the edge of the horse pastures and notice five ponies together, noses down, following a tumbling, whitish, indistinct shape that is, with difficulty, trying to escape their attentions. I take it for a large cat, perhaps. The creature, and the ponies, reach the edge of the field not far from where I am standing. The ponies stretch their necks through the railings, uncommonly curious. What could it be that has so mesmerized them? I have never seen horses behave in this way. And then I see what it is. Crouched in the grasses and brambles beyond the railings, on the edge of an overgrown ditch, is a large bird, grey and white, with a long powerful bill, lungeing fiercely at the snuffling muzzles. The bird struggles to get away, pushing through the tangled growth with difficulty, probably injured. That would explain its strange tumbling gait across the pasture – it can’t fly. It settles, half-hidden in the ditch and I get a closer look. It is a great crested grebe, perhaps 18 inches long, an immature adult, with grey back, white neck and face, long straight pinkish bill, and a distinctive dark head-crest, parted in the middle to form two stylish tufts. Being immature, and outside the breeding season, it lacks the handsome chestnut ruff of the species. This is the first great crested grebe I’ve seen here, and being a water bird it could only have come from the forbidden lake on the old airfield, half a mile away. What is it doing here, and how was it injured? Its story though will never be told. My impulse is to catch it and hold it, but it is inaccessible from my side of the ditch without considerable effort and it would try to escape from me anyway, making its injury worse. Besides, it would not hesitate to take out my eye with its dagger. Reluctantly, I leave it. A fox will eat grebe tonight. Perhaps I’ll come back in the morning and see how it (or the fox) has fared.

Postscript: I did in fact return next morning but there was no sign of the bird, not a feather…

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peewitwalk46

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

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

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

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eveningwalk28

April 8th, 2010. A glorious spring day, with the first real cumulus clouds of the year ranged evenly across the sky, their flat bases all at the same height above ground, like meringues, suspended. It’s past six before I get out and now the sun is lowering and has lost its heat, and clouds have coalesced across the eastern sky. House sparrows twitter in the eaves of village houses, something not worth mentioning a few years ago, so common were they then, but now, it seems, they are as rare as hedge sparrows. These are the first I’ve noticed this year.

I head for the big western fields – noisier, being nearer the river of traffic, but slightly elevated, more open and expansive. Besides I want to check on the lapwings. Their field has not yet been ploughed, I’m glad to see, and there are at least seven of them on the ground or making short swooping flights. So far, so good.

No buzzards to be seen, as I had hoped, but a flock of some 40 small waders, flying fast with very rapid wingbeats, passes over, then wheels round, and flies back, over and over again, across the sky, reluctant to leave this great stretch of fallow. I cannot identify them – they are small, grey, with no distinguishing marks on the tail or underwing. Their wings are relatively long for their body size, and pointed, swept-back like those of swifts, and their tails are tapered. As they pass overhead, I can hear their gentle mutterings. They are unremarkable birds – except that their synchronized flying is mesmerizing. I sit down on a bank and watch them for a good twenty minutes. It is not just that they all turn abruptly together and dive, or wheel in perfect harmony, or now bunch together then spread out to advance in echelon formation, it is that all of a sudden, and all together, with split-second parade-ground timing, they cease beating their wings as one and hold them outstretched, gliding, gliding, gliding, then just as suddenly, resume rapid wingbeats together. The Red Arrows are impressive alright, but this is an astonishing virtuoso display, and one that is probably played out every evening over thousands of fields, or mudflats, or beaches all over the country, by many different species of birds.

I walk back with the sun behind me. The land is almost autumnal with breaking colour – shimmering catkins, fattening buds and bursting sheaths, unfolding leaves and a flourish of blossom bathe the hedgerows and copses in a haze of silver green, ivory, copper and rust, with here and there the deep purple of last year’s bramble leaves and the pure white of cherry and blackthorn.

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evening ramble 27

6th April, 2010. It’s dry, and not especially warm, with the sun veiled behind thin cloud and a steady breeze blowing out of the south-west. Still, it’s a fine evening to be out. I head for unexplored ground at the southern edge of my territory, a 6 mile round trip. I cut through the rec and the planted copse onto the guided busway. Spent catkins from the poplars that line the brook are strewn over the ground like purple fire-crackers. An enormous field of rape has seemingly sprung up overnight, so fast is its growth at this time of year. It has already formed tight green florets, like mini-calabrese, which taste good, I find, even raw. It won’t be long before this part of the parish, like large swathes of England, turns bright yellow, inducing allergies, hay fever and asthma among some unfortunates living nearby. Most of it will end up as cheap blended vegetable oil on the bottom shelf in the supermarkets, but cold-pressed rapeseed oil, if you can get it, is as nutritious and tasty as olive oil – without the air-miles.

I walk up the track of the still idle guided busway, and further on, past the built edge of Histon. An ungainly dog-like animal the size of a spaniel lopes across the pasture about 200 yards away. It is a muntjac deer, its white undertail flashing with each bound. It disappears into the hedgerow at the far end of the field. A few minutes later it is followed by another, but this one is sauntering. It trots, then walks, with head down, rump up, wandering here and there, in no hurry. It hangs around at the edge of the field with the rabbits and pheasants. I hear a short bark, and then another, so dog-like I’m sure it’s not muntjac … but then again they are also called barking deer so it might be them. They are not often abroad in the daylight.

A green woodpecker is on the ground in a paddock. It’s looking up into the sky, quizzically, as if waiting for an answer. It continues thus for five minutes or more. For the first time I get a really good look at this omnipresent but elusive bird with the maniacal laugh. Its back is pure olive green, its crown crimson, and its face black, which gives it a fierce demeanor. But the most noticeable thing is its long, black sword of a beak… it is, after all, a woodpecker. Only when it loops away in flight is its bright yellow-green rump conspicuous. Along the way, a greenfinch wheezes, while a chiffchaff endlessly repeats its squeaky-wheelbarrow song, perhaps the most irritating in bird-dom. A pair of courting collared doves mew hoarsely before alighting on top of a telephone pole.

I head across fields to the village of Girton along signposted paths. This is dog country, and they are out in force today, followed by attendants desperately trying to assert some control as they climb all over me (the dogs). I should know better. I vow to avoid all designated footpaths leading out of villages – they are invariably fouled. I walk through lower Girton and down tree-lined Washpit Lane, which leads along a tiny brook, presumably at one time ponded to provide a dip for village sheep. I am approaching the A14 at its juncture with the M11 and the roar has been gathering. Suddenly I am on the highway, in the thick of it, and forced to walk on the footpath facing three lanes of hurtling oncoming traffic. The air is sour with overheated rubber. Two of Eddie Stobbart’s juggernauts, ‘the future of multimodal logistics’, blow my beanie clean off my head  in quick succession. The deep ditch and shelter belt beside the road is awash with litter – bits of vehicles, gaping tyres, plastic sheeting, bottles, truckers’ jetsam. It really is a most unpleasant place, and I cannot escape.

A little further on, however, Beck Brook, that runs north-east like a silver thread through the whole of my patch, from one end to the other, and which is here a mere slip of water, emerges from underneath the carriageway and there is a break in the fencing. I clamber down the bank and away from the maelstrom. I follow the rill, and every step brings relief. Here, upstream, the brook is not so deeply set in its banks; it is more meandering, and shallower of course – a natural stream at last, though tiny.

A black squirrel bolts for the safety of a tall waterside tree and corkscrews up it as I move round to get a better look. At about thirty feet it dives into a hole, then pops its head out to see what I’m up to. Its eyes bulge blue from its pure black face. I’ve seen black squirrels bound across the main street in Girton in previous years, and a friend reports seeing them in Cottenham, a neighbouring village, but I’ve not seen them in the countryside before. They are mutants and localized, favoured, apparently, by lady grey squirrels, and thus spreading rapidly though the eastern counties.

I make my way homeward across big open prairie fields, mostly down to winter wheat. The sun is low on the horizon, still hazy. A buzzard launches off from an isolated tree – even at 300 yards I am too close for comfort. It flies with slow, laboured wingbeats as if they are waterlogged, and lets out one plaintive, wilding cry. It is well within range of previous sightings, so is probably one I have already encountered. Over the next field it is mobbed by a lapwing, which flies up fast to meet it, much smaller of course, but also more agile. The buzzard moves on. I find the lapwing, and its mate, in the middle of an open fallow field, thinly stubbled violet-grey from some previous crop. They are probably nesting, given the fierce territorial attack on the buzzard. This is one of the few yet unploughed fields in the neighbourhood, and I fear the farmer will soon get round to it, burying the scrape and its eggs beneath a weight of cold sod. It is indeed a most precarious existence.

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springramble22

24th March, 2010. A fine, warm, hazy afternoon. Several bright yellow brimstones flit along the hedgerows of the pastures on the edge of the village (though not the first I’ve glimpsed – one meandered through the garden two days ago). I decide to go where I have not been before and head out towards the south-west. I stop and talk to John, working his allotment – “Greensand – it’s alright if you hit it right”. Denims with big turn-ups, baseball cap, camouflage jacket. He tells me there are red deer near here. That’s a surprise …. though he seems to knows his onions.

I strike off down a farm track which leads past acres of empty aluminium-framed tunnels, disrobed and open to the sky. Further on they are planted with rows of unpruned raspberry canes. A final section is plastic-wrapped and under cultivation – baby strawberry plants in thousands of gro-bags, slung precariously between piled-up plastic crates. No high-tech, computer-controlled, automated horticulture here. This is a slapdash, shoestring operation. And, surprisingly, there’s not a soul in sight. Behind the tunnels is a wastelend of discarded plastic sheeting. A mile away, across a green desert of sprouting winter wheat, a never-ending slurry of traffic sluices along the A14.

I head south beside a long hedgerow, heading up to the village of Girton. The buds of blackthorn are just showing green, and elder thrusts out tiny fists of leaves. On the other side of the hedge are the close-clipped fairways and greens of a golf course, with waste-bins placed thoughtfully near each teeing ground. On my side, round, white, dimpled eggs nestle here and there amongst the green blades of wheat. I pick them up and soon have pocketfuls of golf-balls. I don’t know why, I have no use for them at all, and know no-one who plays the game. There is a noticeable absence of birds in the great fields, but a pair of lapwings make up for it with a joyous, flamboyant, aerobatic display. Reaching Girton I am desperate for water but, in mid-afternoon, the village shop and both pubs are closed. I cut across towards Histon on a cindered foot-path that runs beside Beck Brook. Here we are upstream and the brook is more like a gutter in deep-set banks, with barely-flowing water. I leave the path and follow the water all the way back to Oakington through open fields. It slowly gathers strength and vitality, fed by field drains. Some sections are four feet wide and gravel-bottomed, about a foot deep, with gently undulating weed. The water looks clear, but I dare not drink it. I scan it for signs of life, but see nothing. Then, further on, there is a disturbance. A slick brown muscle is writhing and slithering on the surface of the water, where the weed is thickest. I cannot see a head, nor dorsal fin. It is, I guess, an inch thick and about a foot long but I cannot see the whole of it. As I try to get closer, it and another one nearby give a final startled thrash and disappear under the weed. Are there eels in little Beck Brook? This discovery throws a whole new light on our one and only watercourse.

I’m too warm, and stop to shed some clothes. Only then do I appreciate the extra weight I’ve been hauling. My pockets are bulging with golf-balls. I hadn’t realized quite how many I’d picked up. But I can’t just chuck them down, in the middle of nowhere … can I? It doesn’t seem right.  So I shoulder my burden and trudge on. A large bird settles in a bare hedgerow tree half a mile off. It is a buzzard. The first time I’ve seen one on this side of the village. As soon as I stop and raise the binoculars, it’s away. It flies unhurriedly and disappears over the trees at Westwick House, putting up hundreds of pigeons from the fields beyond. I find myself on the wrong side of the stream. There is no bridging point nearby and the banks are too steep and densely vegetated to try a flying leap, fully-loaded as I am. I really don’t want to wade it. I find a sturdy branch and throw it across. It holds, and I clamber up the further bank, through thick undergrowth, to emerge on the village rec, startling several mums and kiddies in the playground.

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dawnsaunter19

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

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