Tag Archives: magpie

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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winterwalk77

December 2nd, 2010. 7.00 a.m. A four mile pre-breakfast ramble yields little. I step out into a murky dawn, the lightest of powder-snow falling. The brook is black and still, as dense as oil. Two-day old snow stipples the wide, empty fields, clods showing through. We missed the best of it here. Only the tracks and paths show pure white, packed by the passage of tractors and feet. Gulls float overhead, silently, making for their feeding grounds in the south. Away in the shrouded woods, a jay shrieks once…twice, and a blackbird pinks on and on in distress. The sky brightens imperceptibly, turning pearly grey, opalescent, in reflected snow-light. The crunch of my footfall is loud and disturbing.  Fieldfares flee from the harbouring hedgerow, and a green woodpecker makes a dash for the trees, torpedo-like when it folds its wings close between rapid beats. The snow is falling a little more thickly now, coming out of the east at a very low angle. Visibility’s poor. Nearby, from an overgrown hedge dividing two fields, a magpie chatters loud in alarm. There’s always a reason. It breaks cover and flies up to a telephone wire, long tail streaming, then a flash of brown hawk scythes low over the field and jinks into an orchard, settling into an old apple tree. I can’t tell what it is, but I can just make out its shape in the branches. I double back to the field entrance to get a better view, but it’s away at the blink of an eye, a fleet shadow against the diminishing morning. The snow turns almost to sleet, and it’s a dreary day out in the fields.

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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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kingfisherwalk53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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