Tag Archives: moorhen

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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iriswalk44

June 4th, 2010. Late evening, on the third consecutive blue-sky summer’s day. I take a short walk around the southern outskirts of the village, stopping at three or four favourite sitting-spots by the brook. Nothing disturbs the dark, still water, and I put up only a pair of mallard – the male takes wing first with much splashing and remonstrating, then five seconds later the female, equally vociferous. Their ducklings are hidden out of sight.

There are just four small patches of wetland in this district of 12 square miles (not counting the brooks and ditches, and the forbidden lake on the airfield), all of them the beds of former ponds or pools in an advanced state of succession, little bogs really, spongy and dank in the midst of remnant coppices, surrounded by fallen trunks and boughs. They hold water in winter. In one damp bottom, hard by the brook from Histon, arched over by great willows many of which are almost horizontal, is a patch of yellow iris or yellow flag, bright in the gloom, each with three down-curving buttercup-yellow petals as bold as any tropical flower. John Clare calls them water skegg or flags. On one is a small, round, part yellow – part green spider, as if it was in the process of changing colour to match the emerging flowers. I look out over the parkland below Westwick House, loud with sheep. On the ground are rooks, and a green woodpecker, staring. It has a nest somewhere in this coppice of old willows. It flies low over the meadow, in undulating flight, then makes a steep vertical ascent upwards to clamp onto a trunk 20 feet above the ground. A pair of rich brown and dark grey moorhen, with red face-shields nodding and white undertail bobbbing, stray far from the water into the grass. Green legs in green grass. These birds are exquisitely coloured. We forget how beautiful some of our common birds are. Next time you see a moorhen, take a closer look.

Below the bridge that carries the guided busway over the brook, I scan the water for life. It’s not long before I spot a freshwater mussel, and then another and another. If Rose had not pointed them out to me further up the stream on a previous encounter, I would not have seen them at all. They have been right in front of my nose all the time. They are the colour of the greenish mud on the stream bed, in which they’re half-buried, and it is only their smooth oval shape that gives them away. They are dispersed here and there in this part of the brook, many half-open. I retrieve two from the mud, both open and empty. Presumably they have been eaten. By water vole, or heron, perhaps. Freshwater mussels are generally considered to be unpalatable, though the native peoples in North America utilized them extensively. Impossibly, they smell of the sea.

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springsaunter32

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

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

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

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

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

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mornwalk26

April 2nd 2010. Good Friday, Great Friday, or, better, Black Friday. 6.30 a.m. The sky is low, broken, sunless. The land is still. The roads and ruts are pudged and plashed with yesterday’s rain. A Venetian jackdaw greets me from a chimney pot – ciao! I peer over the bridge and a moorhen skitters up Beck Brook, walking on water. A pair of mallard sit in the middle of the sheep field as if about to take tea. There is a great hullabaloo over at the Westwick rookery, and 40 jackdaws burst out of the canopy protesting loudly. Their relationship with rooks is complex and intriguing. I don’t understand it.

Birds are more active and vocal today. Among those spotted for the first time this year are several pairs of goldfinch, a single resplendent male bullfinch, and a number of amorous, black-faced reed buntings chasing tail, literally. True to form, they flit up and down the sunken, flag-filled ditches and rarely venture beyond. This is not to say that these birds have not been here awhile, just that I haven’t noted them before. Worth mentioning too are song thrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tits (bumbarrels, colloquially), and the precious little jenny wren. Green woodpeckers are ubiquitous, heard rather than seen, and woodpigeons spill out of every tree at my approach. Pheasants, now the shooting season is over, are strutting abroad and reckless.

I find new ways of traversing old ground, and venture out to the south-east fields and remnants of apple orchard. I walk the edges, headlands, boundaries, banks and ditches. I am a trespasser, I know, but no-one notices, or cares, and none has yet objected. A farm-dog barks from afar, but this is more in greeting than warning. Here and there, in hedgerows and on the verge of copses, the white blossom of the cherry plum or myrobalan draws me over. It is still the only blossom out, though willow, alder and poplar catkins also catch the light. Elder leaves are now unfolded, the earliest of all the trees, closely followed by horse-chestnut, now bursting out from fat, sticky buds like glacéed Turkish sweetmeats. The black velvet buds of ash-trees, too, have peeled back to reveal incipient flower clusters like deep purple raspberries. One could concoct a high cuisine based on buds and catkins.

A buzzard sees me and flies off with deep, slow wing-beats. It glides very low across a field, a foot above the ground, then settles in a little apple tree on the edge of an open orchard. It is 400 yards off but I can see its hunched, dark shape quite clearly without binoculars. It is far too big for the tree, out of all proportion, and looks comical. It doesn’t move for 10 minutes, then flits down onto the smooth, bare ploughland and vanishes, as if pulled underground. I search the spot through the binoculars but the bird has simply disappeared, merged with the freshly turned earth. I carefully work my way round to the place, detouring a good half-mile to make a less direct approach, watching closely all the time. Nothing moves, and there is no bird to be seen when I get there.

It is past eight before the sun breaks through. For a while, the land sings. I walk towards Histon, then through the old medieval holdings of Abbey Farm. One field has reverted to scrub, its edges invaded by dense stands of sycamore, willow, and ash saplings. There are some venerable trees here too, one broken-backed and hollow (an oak, I think), garlanded with plastic rope, its heart burnt out by heartless boys. Yet it still stands, supporting weighty boughs and a universe of creatures.

Lucky Kat

Hidden in a dell within a sheltering copse of tall trees is a secluded proving-ground (and trysting-place, no doubt) where village boys and bikes are tested to destruction – an impromptu landscaping of dirt runs, ramps, steep slopes, pits and suicidal drop-offs, sculpted from the earth by years of daring and attrition, and littered with scrap, broken BMXs, dens, fire-holes, ropes to swing on…. No grown-up could or would plan and construct such a place, and I get the feeling few grown-ups even know about it. It is a secret world created by kids for kids, organically and spontaneously, out of the earth. There is yet hope… for Histon boys and girls at least.

In the parkland below Abbey Farm several thousand naturalized daffodils of the smaller more delicate kind are in bloom, better than any municipal display. Of the truly wild flowers only lesser celandine or pilewort is out, with small, rich yellow, 9-petalled flowers and heart-shaped leaves, which line the water’s edge of the brook all the way to Oakington.

Three boys on bikes – 10 or 11 year-olds – race past me, with hearts full of thump and mouths full of shout, with the wind in their hair and a whole day ahead of them. They are flying. And I know exactly where they’re headed. In a flash, I’m ten years old again and cycling beside them. I am hurtling down a hill in Africa, early on a sunny morning, in the shade of towering eucalyptus trees, my friend beside me, hollering, open to adventure.

Besides these lads however, during these three hours of walking on what is, after all, a dry and pleasant Public Holiday, I have seen but one other person, from afar, a dutiful dog-attendant, with plastic bag at hand, and have been passed by a single runner on the road. Back in the village, a near-neighbour is out weeding her front yard with a table knife. She is Cambridgeshire through and through, born in Bottisham,  married in Cottenham, and has lived here in the village for 56 years, the last 17 on her own. That means she has lived her whole life, well over 70 years (she didn’t say exactly, and I didn’t ask), within a compass of less than 10 miles. She is a Hedger. I like the name. Her ancestors would have known a thing or two about laying hedges no doubt. Unlike today, when a man in a tractor, without leaving his seat, can butcher a hedgerow in five minutes flat , leaving a trail of destruction behind him.

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