Tag Archives: long-tailed tit

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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walk67

October 16th, 2010. Three hours. Late afternoon. It’s bright, clear and cold. A light breeze out of the north has driven the clouds over the city to the south, unveiling the sun, though I still need a jersey and jacket, a cap and scarf to keep warm. I meet Rose, walking her collie. She gives me her news. The buzzards on the west side of the village are still there, having nested this year. One day in August she counted eight water voles in the ditch that runs from Histon, before they cut and cleared it. In the brook, the six crayfish are down to two, both males she thinks (the two I saw back in August?), the females apparently gone. And she’s seen goldcrests by the rec. I have little to offer in return… three juvenile swans, that’s about it. A lifetime of walking these fields has opened her eye as well as her heart.

I set out for the scrubland and woods below Histon. On either side, the rich brown ploughland is studded with gulls, shining white in the lowering sun. I haven’t seen so many since winter. The clear weather has brought out the dogs too, and their walkers. Fifty feet above the scrub a kestrel quivers in the clear air, in front of a pale three-quarters moon. A gang of long-tailed tits works through the bushes, always busy and sociable. There are still some late blackberries on the brambles, but small, soft and insipid. Not so the acorns, fresh-fallen and green. I crack one underfoot and it releases its plump, moist, ivory seed, as sweet and fresh as a brazilnut.

Colonies of mushrooms have hatched from the deep, all very localised. In a grassy field the white flaky cylinders of Shaggy Inkcaps unfurl into black-fringed bells on very tall stems. True to their name, their spores have been found in the ink of medieval manuscripts. In the litter of a plantation outside the village, Wood Mushrooms abound at all stages of growth, the newly-emerged as tight and white as golf-balls. Very good to eat apparently …but the fungal world is full of deception… caution is called for. The more open areas in the scrubland are strewn with Milkcaps of a kind, with wavy orange caps slick with mucous. Once you accustom your eye to these strange and beautiful creatures they’re all over the place at this time of year.

I have discovered what I think is an active badgers’ sett. It is on the side of a hollow in the middle of a small circle of woodland, betrayed by conspicuous yellow sand that has been excavated from the tunnels and strewn round the entrances. I enter the wood as silently as possible. The soft, damp ground muffles my footfall. I take up my position, well-hidden, some 80 yards from the sett. I wait. And wait. There’s no movement, no sound, no shuffling shape. It’s now so dark in the wood that I can barely see anyway. Losing patience, I go to inspect the sett at close quarters. It seems that someone’s been at them. The sand is patterned with bootprints and a great log has been thrust down one of the entrances, effectively blocking it. Kids or vigilantes? As far as I know there are no cattle within range so there should be no persecution.

I emerge from the night of the wood into dusk. On the western horizon a strip of pale orange and yellow cloud reflects an inglorious sunset. Trees are silhouetted black against a green ocean of sky. A few late flocks of seagulls head north, high and silent. I set off home through a deserted and soundless landscape. Long-gone are the dog-walkers. But where are the birds, where are all the creatures? All is still, all is quiet. Only the water in the ditch, trickling through a culvert under a bridge, is alive. The great rookery at Westwick is utterly silent, as if abandoned, and even the parkland below the big house has been emptied of sheep. Dusk falls fast at this time of year. It’s soon quite dark, in spite of a now bright-shining bitten-off moon. As I near the village I catch the smell of someone else’s supper. Slabs of yellow light fall through uncurtained windows. Somewhere far off, a dog barks.

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justanothersummermorningwalk55

July 18th, 2010. To Histon woods and back. Three hours, with much watching and waiting. A cool, quiet and lightly overcast Sunday morning, as gentle as a dove. Many small flocks about, family groups most probably. Yesterday, half a dozen rather scruffy long-tailed tits passed through my garden, practising acrobatics in the cherry and apple-trees. They worked each tree together, as a team, chattering in their thin, mousey voices, then moved on to the next. Today, three or four juvenile goldfinches (a charm of goldfinches?), with bright yellow wing patches but without the striking head pattern of the adult, are busy in a hedgerow hawthorn, and in the spinney by the brook, seven magpies fuss together – seven for a secret never to be told. A wedding party of swifts streaks over the road, squealing excitedly. I watch a green woodpecker fly up onto a wooden railing. It looks behind, as if waiting for something. Another soon flies up and joins it, a juvenile by the look of its indistinct, mottled plumage. The adult flies on, the juvenile following. I have the clear impression that some kind of lesson is going on here. I hadn’t realised just how familial many species of birds are  – parents and offspring, or just siblings perhaps, staying close together after fledging, at least during their first summer.

The ground that has been cleared by rabbits as they graze back the edges of the wheat fields is layered in droppings. They consume considerable amounts of grain to be sure, to the loss of the farmer, but in doing so they fertilize the land. Short-term loss, long-term gain, I’d say. All the road verges and many of the field verges round here have been shorn this past week, their wild flowers and grasses mown down in their prime. In a district of wall-to-wall field crops, species-poor pastures and manicured gardens the verges are often the only habitat left for many wild plants and the creatures that depend on them, not least the butterflies, bees and other pollinators, and the carnivorous insects that keep pests at bay. I am at a loss to explain this wilful vandalism, especially along roadside verges, but I think it may have something to do with a national obsession with tidiness. The countryside must be tidied up, i.e. controlled, at all costs. This is tragic. Both a short-term and long-term loss.

Having said that, I do see numerous butterflies today but mostly in the bramble patches of the scrubland below Histon and along the brooksides – Small Whites, Large Whites, Meadow Browns and Ringlets, a single Comma, and a couple of Red Admirals, the latter migrants from southern Europe and North Africa. To think that one of these may have sipped from a glass of sweet mint tea in Fez or Chefchaouen only days ago and is here now in front of me is more marvellous, to my mind, than men walking on the moon – and accomplished with more beauty, economy and panache. I find a new butterfly too – the small, brown-fringed, orange Gatekeeper.

In the lands of Abbey Farm at Histon are two groves of mature ash, linden, sycamore, oak and even a few pine trees. They are the closest we have in the district to woodland. Just as I’m about to enter the trees, a hawk dashes out and swerves back under the canopy. A two-second glimpse, a two-second thrill. All I see is a grey back and a heavily barred tail – it could have been a merlin, possibly a sparrowhawk, certainly not a kestrel. I quietly enter the wood and think I see it fly again, above the trees. Then again, just a flash of wing as it moves to another part of the copse. I follow. I spend so long looking straight up, through dark leaves into dazzling light, searching, searching, that I crick my neck and spin with kaleidoscopic retinal patterns. To no avail, it’s gone. Another tantalizing glimpse of the wild.

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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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walkabout 15

2nd March, 2010. Walked out in the afternoon to Lamb’s Cross, then up Cuckoo Lane to Rampton, Rampton Drift to the guided-busway, then south to Oakington, 5½ miles. Like yesterday, a glittering spring-like day, brimming with light. The sky is high and clear and blue. More birds are about, and there is rejoicing in the air. A buzzard wheels slowly round and round very high above the village. Through the binoculars I can just make out its distinctive underwing pattern – brown then white then black wing-tips and trailing edges. A green woodpecker flies across a meadow and clamps itself to a telephone pole, halfway up, as if it was a fridge magnet. This is the second I’ve seen today – there was one in the garden earlier. Because of the distance between sightings I think they must be different birds, and different too to the one I saw the day before yesterday up on Cuckoo Lane by the brook. If so, they are doing well in these parts. Three tiny long-tailed tits flit about in a roadside tree. The farmyard and its hedgerows are alive with little birds – robins, blackbirds, blue tits and great tits, peach-breasted chaffinches, greenfinches and others too small and too brown to identify. There are larks on and above the fresh green fields, singing their hearts out, but difficult to see clearly and identify, just disembodied voices calling down from the sky. Much of the water has drained from the fields, and Beck Brook has fallen at least 5 feet since the day before yesterday, though it is still flowing steadily. As usual at this time of day gulls are streaming north-west, but today they are flying very high. I only notice them because the lowering sun catches their white underwings on the upbeat, so they flicker on and off like silver fairy lights in the heavens. A small flock of fieldfares flit by. No sign of my kestrel though. Wherever there is pasture there are individual song thrushes and redwings here and there on the ground – I watch one lean forward then pivot right back on its tail, head held high, steadily pulling a reluctant worm from the earth. The wartime pillboxes along the eastern edge of the old airfield, protruding from low mounds like strange grey mushrooms, have been squatted by rabbits. Each has become a warren to which its denizens scamper back when disturbed. In every direction rooks, in ones and twos and small gangs, are about their purposeful and mysterious business, running errands, hurrying to appointments and trysts this way and that across the sky. Suddenly all is in motion again – winter is receding and the earth rolls on.

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