Tag Archives: little egret

fogwalk80

December 20th, 2010. Mid-morning. A 4-mile loop up the feeder brook to Histon and back along the medieval trackway. Dead still, dense fog, very cold at – 7°C. Snow on the ground. I step out into a wonderland. Each twig and sprig and stem is ermined in white, velveted like deer horn, wrapped in a soft fur of frost quite unlike the spikes of ice that bristled from every surface a few days ago. Above the main trunk, trees are all white. The weeping tracery of birches and willows is draped anew in frost-foliage. Each leaf of holly and ivy is rimmed with a perfect band of silver. Beyond the snow-covered foreground, beyond the white lattice of branches, there’s nothing – no distance, no horizon, no sky at all, only fog all around and above. The world has no edge. It disappears altogether at two hundred yards. I don’t expect to see much.

The guns are out today. Pheasants at hand are shaken by the muffled pop-pop of shooters at least a mile away. All the pheasants in the district are on the move it seems, and I see more today than ever before. One mad-eyed cock pheasant sprints past in front of me, leaning forward like a cartoon road-runner, tail feathers streaming behind. Two cocks and three hens muddle around in the middle of a field, uncertain where to go. How do they know they’re being hunted? They’re well away from the killing zone, yet they’re flummoxed with fear. Ghostly squirrels bounce through the air on invisible branches and send down a shower of crystals. A travelling troupe of long-tailed tits, at least four of them, follow in Indian file and alight in a bush to perform acrobatics for me. They always delight, these diminutive black, white and pink performers, spending most of the time upside-down. Always busy, always on the move. I don’t believe they ever sit still. Later, a mile further up, I come across another party of them, seven strong, working the branches, but I think they must be the same birds, moving southward.

The brook here is a sunken ditch, still running, but in a straitened channel between parallel ice-shelves. A white apparition flies out of the fog on big wings, nearly three feet across, and alights in the ditch. A Little Egret. I am screened by trees, and creep forward to get a close look at this bird which I’ve seen in the locale several times during the year but always from a distance. It is hunting. It moves slowly upstream, in the freezing flow, lifting each yellow foot clear with each step. It scrutinizes the water, then stabs with its black 8-inch stiletto. It catches something, but whatever it is, it’s small and gone in a gulp. The bird occasionally ventures into deeper water, but is clearly reluctant, testing each step, and quickly retreating. I approach too close. It starts, and flies, trailing black legs and distinct yellow feet. It is not pure white, as all the books say, but has an orange-buff tinge to its back. It settles 50 yards up, and searches the water again. Long plumes trail from its chest. Its crest plumes will develop later, in the breeding season. These plumes were once more valuable than gold, fetching £15 an ounce or 28g (about £875 at 2000 prices), each Little Egret producing about 1g of plumes. My 1987 field guide gives the bird as a rare vagrant from southern Europe. Not any more. They have colonized the south of Britain. They are here in the snow-fields of Cambridgeshire, in the harshest of winters.

The fog lifts a little. I walk back along the ancient hedge-lined track. Blackbirds flit ahead. They are ubiquitous now. It’s a blackbird winter. They like nothing better than to hurdle the hedges, just skimming the top, black against white, with tangerine eye-ring and beak. Fieldfares and redwings accompany them, but alight on the high branches and hedge-tops. The redwing is misnamed – the only red in its plumage is the orange-red stain on its flank, like a seeping wound. A dunnock skulks in a snow-covered thicket of bramble – a small, plain, retiring bird but only the second I’ve seen in the district all year, and for that, as precious and as interesting as an egret or long-tailed tit.

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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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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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giantshillwalk45

June 8th, 2010. Late afternoon. It’s been a grey, damp day, with breezes and occasional showers. The sky is layered in cloud, the lowest being dark and big-bellied. When the sun does from time to time emerge, it turns warm and sultry. The water in the brook has risen a little over the past few days, brownish, the bed obscured. No mussel hunting today. I decide on a longer walk, following the brook downstream into the parish of Cottenham, further than I’ve been before in this direction, hoping to catch sight of the barn owl that is known to frequent these parts.

At Westwick, on the edge of Oakington, a single little egret starts from the brook and veers off out of view, legs trailing like a ballerina. It is at least half a mile downstream from my previous sightings of a pair. Still here … that’s good … summer residents now, impossibly exotic in our English meadows. A little further on, a female mallard with at least 6 ducklings. A late brood, surely, for the ducklings are still infants compared to others I’ve seen hereabouts. Moorhen skulking by the water’s edge. And in the loft above, a lone buzzard is being harrassed by a rook half its size. The rook is dogged in its pursuit, scolding and lunging at the larger bird, slowly driving it out of this bit of airspace.

I walk through Lamb’s Cross Farm. Thin radio music drifts from the barn as usual. The farmer emerges – 50’ish, wiry and stubbled, unsmiling, but talkative. He is a grass farmer, breeding steers for the table, and growing some barley and silage to feed the cattle in winter. Tried potatoes but the lumps of ironstone in the ground broke the harvester. He tells me of a field on the left of the Oakington road as it leaves Cottenham where lightning often strikes because of the presence of ironstone. We talk soils, and how they vary from field to field, and even within fields. He and his wife also run several small factories elsewhere, processing kidney beans, chick peas and other pulses, some of which, surprisingly, are grown locally here in East Anglia. Chick peas in Cambridgeshire?

Scarlet field poppies line the verge between road and unfenced field, interspersed with pink, purple-veined mallows, two feet high. Along the steep, deep inner bank of the brook downstream, where it has been canalized, species are ranged in strict succession from the water’s edge. First rushes and reeds, then sedges and grasses, and then ox-eye daisies half way up the bank. The latter are not as scarce as I had thought. They also occur in drifts on the edges of fields and along the guided-busway. But now is the season of the pink-flushed, deliciously scented dog-rose adorning every hedgerow, individual flowers spaced evenly over each bush. Some of the briars clamber high into trees. There will be plenty of hips to gather in the autumn.

This part of my patch is inhabited by at least one pair of green woodpeckers and the ash-trees hereabouts are neatly drilled to prove it. The distinctive undulating flight of these birds seems to be caused by their intermittent wing movement: they scull hard for 4 – 6 wingbeats, ascending slightly, then they fold their wings in and coast head-first, bullet-shaped, losing height as they do so, then scull again, and rise. As if riding waves.

I follow Beck Brook, here called New Cut, downstream beyond the Rampton – Cottenham road. One bank is almost wholly colonized by hawk’s beard, a bright yellow, dandelion-like flower, but tall, on a stalk. The only patch of this I’ve seen. Many wild flower species seem very localized, confined to particular spots with a certain desirable combination of aspect, soil, shade, dampness, drainage and plant association. Such as the silver-veined milk thistle, encountered only at one corner of one particular field.

It’s too early for barn owls, so I turn back through the village of Rampton. A light shower sends me scurrying. I take shelter under the trees at Giant’s Hill just outside the village, not far from the church. Essentially a substantial, irregular, treed island mound, hardly a hill, surrounded on one side by a wide, overgrown moat and on the other by an outer bank. The site of an unfinished 12th century castle apparently, though the genius loci and popular name suggest a site much more ancient and mysterious. A magical place indeed. I straddle a great horizontal trunk of willow, overlooking the moat and reedbed. There is a promise of kingfishers but in spite of the rare wetland habitat I see nothing worth noting. Wrong time of day, perhaps, or weather. I must come back at dawn or dusk and wait.

The wheat is still very green, fully grown at 18 inches, with big tight ears of seed, the barley light golden green, with long awns splayed out like a fan. Now that the crops have grown up, I see that there is almost as much barley as wheat grown in the district. John Barleycorn is still alive and well. Returning along the dormant guided-busway track I’m glad to hear skylarks still singing defiantly above the yet-to-be-built new town of Northstowe. There is no sign of the little owls nesting in the airfield, though I don’t tarry long.

And then a newcomer crosses my sky, just as I approach home and wonder at the absence of birds. It is large, dark, with big wings, flying at about 50 feet. Gooselike but differently shaped. As it passes I can see its yellow hook-tipped bill, its white chin and cheeks, all black body and wings, and wedge-shaped tail – a cormorant. Far from any coast or estuary, or any large river or wetland, it seems out of place. It appears lost too, unsure of what direction to take, almost doubling back on itself. The evening has cleared and the sun comes out, low now, highlighting banks of cloud stretching to the horizon. The cormorant flies on, into the sun.

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rainwalk43

June 1st, 2010. It’s warm, overcast and wet, with a steady, persistent, light rain … drops heavy enough to patter the leaves overhead. This is the first time I’ve deliberately set out to walk in the rain. Walking in the rain is special. It waters the soul, as well as the soil. I’m soon fairly wet, despite a cap and waterproof jacket. The long grass soaks my boots, and jeans up to the knee. The going is softer. The wet has not deterred the songsters at all – blackbirds, song thrush, goldfinch, robins, tits, all singing in the rain. The land is bathed, blessed, as are we.

I’ve been out of my patch for ten days. What a lot has changed … yet nothing has changed. The May or hawthorn is over, except for the red, and now the discs of creamy-white elderflowers are beginning to take their place in hedgerow and copse. They will be my first wild crop. Earlier in the season I experimented with jack-by-the-hedge or hedge garlic in salads but they tasted of leaves, with a very faint garlicy odour. Palatable only if you really have nothing else to put in a salad. Ramsons are better by far, but I’ve not seen any round here. Pink dog-roses are just opening and I see here and there they have formed great bushes and will be spectacular in flower. And a few scarlet poppies, too, bedraggled in the rain.

I make for the brook, which has risen a little from its lowest level. The vegetation is so dense now that there are only a few places where I can get close enough to see the water. Almost immediately I startle a pair of little egrets, winging away so white against the green corn. It’s good to see they’re still here, and surely nesting? On the footbridge, I meet Rose. Her keen eye spots a couple of freshwater mussels in the muddy bottom below. An indicator of good, clean water, she says. She tells me she has also seen crayfish here, the American crayfish, which is muscling out our native crayfish. On parting, she directs me to the part of little Histon brook where she has seen water voles, and bids me listen out for their ‘plops’.

On the way I visit a little copse of full-grown ash-trees where I’d previously seen a great spotted woodpecker. The undergrowth is thick, trunks and boughs lie here and there hosting bracket fungi, hard and solid to the touch, firmly anchored to the wood. I become aware of a persistent, high-pitched note repeated rapidly and endlessly, like the alarm on a watch. I can’t make out whether it is near or far, high up or at ground level, inside or outside the copse. It continues non-stop, on and on. Then the loud and unmistakable alarm chucks of an adult great spotted woodpecker sound over my head and looking up I see her land in the tree I’m under and spiral up the trunk with a large insect in her beak. She leads me to her nest, one of three perfectly round and ivy-enshrouded holes one above the other about 15 ft up the main trunk. The sound was coming from right above me after all … baby woodpeckers  misbehaving.

Dryad's Saddle bracket fungi or Pheasant's Back mushroom, neither poisonous nor particularly edible

The wheat in the field is two-toned  – silver green stalks and underside of leaves, grasshopper-green ears and upper surface of leaves. The rape flowering is nearly over, yellow no longer dominating the countryside. The rain eases. A single skylark rises and bursts into song, fluttering heavenward. It beats its wings frantically, yet makes little upward progress, as if it had left the brakes on. Slowly it ascends. Then another answers the challenge from an adjacent part of the field, and begins the long song-flight upwards. They are duetting, and sound-marking their territories.

I walk back along Histon brook, here more of a drain, almost choked with vegetation. I can barely see the water. I can’t imagine water voles living here, there doesn’t seem to be enough water to keep a water vole happy. Then, as my attention shifts elsewhere, I hear the tell-tale plop of vole entering water, more of a splat really, something flattish hitting the surface. And then another. Yes! It must be. I watch and wait, still and silent, but don’t have their patience. I move on. The rain has stopped and all is adorned with droplets. The ewes in the parkland have been shorn, some sporting stylish shaved patterns, as is the fashion. The unshaven lambs, with their tight thick coats, are almost as big as their mothers. They shelter under the trees, expecting more rain.

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brookside41

May 13th, 2010. Evening. Coldish, dry, mostly overcast. In the verges, the pastures and the meadows the first blow of dandelions is over. They have been superceded by rich yellow buttercups and constellations of white, star-like daisies. More hawthorn or whitethorn out in the hedges, though not all. Rooklets have left the nest but stay close on nearby branches; they communicate in high-pitched, adolescent screeches rather than caws.

I disturb a Little Egret from the brook… pure white plumage, elegant, with black legs trailing back in flight, and distinctive orange feet. It has brought a bit of the Nile to this part of Cambridgeshire. It moves up the stream, out of sight. It makes me wonder whether it wasn’t two Little Egrets I saw last weekend, rather than the Great White Egrets I thought they were. It is difficult to judge size in some lights and weathers. Things look bigger at dusk. I sit for a while on the grassy nettle-bank above the brook, facing west to catch the last rays of the sun, a field of young green wheat behind, and a field of rape in full flower before. There are a couple of whitethroats about, nest-building still. One returns to the same patch of cow parsley and last years’s dry stems time and time again to select grassy wisps and carry them back into an ivy-clad ash on the edge of the brook. Half a dozen blue-backed swallows flit fast and very low over the rape, twisting and turning and doubling back. They disappear for ten minutes or so, then come back, then disappear again. They seem to be following a cyclical pattern, working the fields methodically. The Little Egret flies across, nonchalantly, to another arm of the brook. It is a lovely sight in the evening to see birds flying home to their roosts. And it is heartening to know, now, that this little Beck Brook, in a stretch of less than half a mile, is home to several families of mallard, to moorhen, heron and egret, possibly eels, a grass snake, and miniscule fish. No doubt a lot more besides. More and more I find myself drawn to the stream. We are all ineluctably led back to water, like children, like mallard.

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