Tag Archives: muntjac

sunrisewalk61

August 2nd, 2010. Just after 5 – the sun’s up but shuttered behind a bank of lilac-grey cloud streaked with fire. The morning is hollowed by a massed choir of woodpigeons all round the village, each uttering its own unique version of the deep, guttural, five-note call of the species – coo-COO-coo, coo-coo. Individually, the voice of a woodpigeon sounds unpracticed and laboured, muttered rather than spoken, sometimes breaking off abruptly after the second syllable as if the bird just couldn’t be bothered. It is a coarse, rustic sound compared to that of the sweet-talking collared dove. Yet, en masse, in a thousand different pitches and tones, these woody breath-notes coalesce to a great soul-soothing murmuration that spreads peace and tranquility over the land. And this from a bird so commonplace that we barely give it a thought (except as a bane to the farmer, and as meat for the pot).

I am captivated by another bird sound this morning – that of the white-eyed jackdaw, one of my favourites, not least because each year a pair nests in my chimney. Jackdaws are sociable birds, always cheeky and cheerful. They remind me of Italians, with all due respect. They salute each other with sharp, staccato calls that have a distinctive echoing quality, ‘tchak-ak’, ‘tchow-ow’. I always assumed that this puzzling phenomenon was indeed an echo of some sort but I now think, in some cases at least, it is really a split-second response from another jackdaw. If so, this is truly remarkable. A gang swirls by, releasing a volley of greetings that sound like the shots fired in some old arcade game, a kind of fly-by shoot-up for fun.

A wandering muntjac breaks the curved skyline of the harvested rape field, making its unhurried way to the cover of an adjacent slip of wooded scrub where it will lie up for the day. It is probably the same animal I saw in this field some days ago. I come here because it is one of the few spots in this flatland where there is an uninterrupted view for several miles from south-west to south-east. In my corner of England, where we are usually hemmed in by hedgerows and windbreaks, a clear prospect of two or three miles seems like a blessing, as good as thirty miles elsewhere.

At my approach a kestrel breaks from the trees and circles round out of sight. From a distance its flight is like that of a woodpigeon, with deep rapid wingbeats, but its longer tail and more pointed wings give it away. I backtrack to find it, and as I turn a corner of the field it launches out again from the windbreak, some one hundred yards further off. It is very wary of me, this particular bird. It circles round in front again and settles in an isolated bush in the midst of the field. As it lands, the thin branch bends and springs back in slow motion. As I watch it through the binoculars, a commotion breaks out at the bottom end of the field. The noise is unmistakable. It is a green woodpecker, panic-stricken, and I just catch a glimpse of it diving low through a gateway being pursued by a shadow – a hawk-shadow hot on its tail. Then silence. I make for the opening, expecting, yes hoping, to see a hawk mantling over its prey. But the field is empty. It might though have killed on the wing and carried the limp green body into the trees. I am certain this is my elusive sparrowhawk. We are right by the willow copse where I think one rests up. I listen and listen, and then, from within, comes the faint sound of mewing – sparrowhawk, surely.  I have yet to get a clear sight of this bird.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

windhoverwalk58

July 28th, 2010. 5.30 a.m. A beautiful, beautiful morning with a dazzling sun in the north-east balanced by a white moon in the south-west and a huge curve of clear blue sky in between. In the still water below the bridge at Westwick I am so pleased to see, once again, a couple of large(ish) fish – this time a pair of the same, idly finning around. I don’t know my freshwater fish at all but having consulted some charts I’d say they are chub. They must be 8 to 9 inches long, with silver bodies meshed in diamond-shaped scales and distinctive dark or black dorsal fins and tails. No sign of the pickerel.

The great field of oilseed rape that reaches as far as the next village was harvested two or three days ago leaving a prairie of tough 6 inch stubble strewn with finely chopped straw. It is as if the landscape had been thrown open. I can see what I couldn’t see before, and walk where I couldn’t walk before. The gentle swell of ground is studded with rooks and wood pigeons, pheasants and rabbits. I circle around its three mile perimeter. Four green woodpeckers loop across to inspect a line of wooden telephone poles, working up each in turn, then passing on to the next. They clamp onto the smooth vertical surfaces like geckoes, and lean out as if they were abseiling. They are a bird that prefers to hang rather than sit.

Then a special surprise – a pair of kestrels or windhovers. While not uncommon round here seldom have I seen two together. One is on the ground, in the stubble, though it doesn’t appear to be feeding. The other swoops low and they both fly up and start hunting in earnest. They do what kestrels do best – they hover, with their backs to the sun, tails fanned out and pressed down, and wings steadily beating. They shine with light. I can see every one of their eleven splayed tail feathers, barred black and rust-red with a wide black terminal band. When they slide through the air to hover anew, I see their pale deeply spotted undersides and closely barred wings. Occasionally they drop lower, ten feet from the ground, but not once do they stoop for the kill. After fifteen minutes or so they abandon the hunt, and take to playing instead, swooping and gliding and cavorting together, and eventually settle in the dead branches of a tree at the edge of the field. I can do no better than quote Gerard Manley again, who said that this, The Windhover, was the best thing he wrote:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Oh yes. My heart in hiding stirred for a bird….

On my way back, coming straight towards me through the stubble is a lone, dog-like muntjac, looking lost now its cover’s been blown. I am downwind and it doesn’t seem to notice me. It ambles along, head down, sniffing at the ground. The sun polishes its red-brown coat as it moves through the morning. It is as smooth and shiny as a Hungarian Vizsla. I can just make out its short backward-pointing horns. At about 50 yards it looks up, sensing my presence, then changes direction and wanders off over the rise, looking dazed and confused. A morning of green woodpeckers, kestrels and muntjac, three creatures that above all others seem especially at home in this landscape, and which, for me, have come to particularize this patch of England.

2 Comments

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

barkingdeerbivouac57

23rd/24th July, 2010. I walk hard to reach Giant’s Hill before nightfall. A downpour two days ago has left the land softer, rounder, and more odorous. At Lambs Cross Farm the sweet tang of farmyard hangs in the dusk and detains me awhile – the irresistible aroma of calves’ breath, molasses and hay. Aromatherapy, country-style. It is a warm, still, cloud-hung end to the day. High above, ten gulls fly northward but down below the land is at rest. No birds to be seen or heard, nor wild creatures, nor people even.  High summer seems to be the season, above all, of stillness and silence.

On the moated, flat-topped earthwork called Giant’s Hill I can’t find two suitably-spaced trees from which to suspend the tarp, and the light is fading fast. I work my way round the adjacent pastures to a spinney on the northern side of the moat and find a good enough spot – well-hidden, reasonably flat and soft underfoot. I notice some fairly fresh cow pats nearby, though I’ve seen no cattle around and am not unduly concerned. Nevertheless, having set up my shelter, I feel compelled to investigate further. Sure enough, three fields away is a herd of young steers…. and all the intervening gates are wide open. I have, inadvertently, set up camp in a cow-field – no docile milkers these, but frisky, inquisitive young bullocks who will surely come over to see what I’m up to. This is, after all, their home turf. They could easily, unwittingly or not, trample all over me in the dead of the night. But it’s too dark now to find an alternative site. From afar, I ask them politely to leave me alone.

I doze fitfully. Friday night through-traffic on the village road a hundred yards off continues till midnight. Three transport planes rumble across the night sky. Moonlight breaks out and sifts through the tarp. Bullocks are on my mind. I get up and go for a stroll. The night sky has cleared. The yellow moon is waxing, just two days from full, lying high to the south, dimming the stars. I locate the Plough and the North Star to orient myself more exactly. I listen for owls but all is quiet. Nothing’s going on so I climb back into the warmth of my sleeping-bag. At some point in the night I hear irregular, muffled explosions like far-distant fireworks which turn out to be raindrops hitting the tarp just inches above – the briefest of showers. At 4 a.m., an hour before sunrise, dawn is announced. First up today is a rook – kraa-kraa, kraa-kraa – repeated again a few minutes later. Then a cock crows from the village beyond. Woodpigeons begin to croon softly, then at last the usual dawn songsters – blackbirds and song thrushes – start into song, accompanied by unidentified pipings from the reeds in the moat. But the chorus is thin on the ground, or thin in the air, this particular morning.

Then a terrific short sharp bark rips through the dawn, not 100 yards from where I am camped. It is loud and emphatic. I take it at first for a fox. Then another bark, and another, and another, all at the same volume and pitch – a call of the wild repeated over and over. I count 40 barks in succession, at 4 to 5 second intervals. Not a fox, no. The sound is stationary, coming from the midst of a thicket of bramble. Now and again it is answered by another slightly higher-pitched, more abrasive bark from perhaps 100 yards further off. A mate, probably. I very slowly move forward, step by careful step, using the cover of bushes until I am within 50, then 20, then 10 yards of the source of the sound. Then it stops. I see nothing, though the creature has no doubt seen me. Roe deer bark in this way, but this must be the voice of the now ubiquitous muntjac. They are also called barking deer, for good reason. That such a forceful sound should issue from such a small and diffident deer is surprising and baffling – what was that all about?

The dawn sky is, illogically, lighter in the west and the north. The eastern quarter is dark with cloud, except for a thin band of orange and pink above the horizon. Just after five, a blaze of sun heaves briefly over the skyline but never achieves full roundness. It is sliced off at the top by low-lying cloud and soon disappears up into darkness. I dismantle the basha, say goodbye to the cattle (who have been well-behaved) and set off homeward. A heron, legs stretched out behind, long neck tucked back into an impossible Z-bend, flies lazily my way, circles in front to the left, then to the right, and finally flies back the way it had come. The inexplicable, maundering flight-paths of birds. The barley has been harvested and rooks and woodpigeons are having a field-day in the golden stubble. Rabbits too, by the dozen, are feasting on the fresh green aftermath in the hay meadows. One youngster stands out – it is pale, creamy even, in contrast to the darkish, grey-brown agouti coats of the others. The steep inner banks of Beck Brook/New Cut, recently thick with wild flowers and flowering grasses, have been mown to the ground. I cannot understand this, not from any point of view. It is not until after six that the sun finally lifts clear of the cloud and floods the land with light. Suddenly the hedgerows are full of birds, mostly finches – chaffinch, greenfinch and goldfinch – blue tits, and yellowhammers. A single skylark calls down from on high, and all around is the soothing, stereophonic susurration of woodpigeons and doves.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

earlymorningwalk48

June 28th, 2010. 6.30 a.m. A gorgeous morning. The sun is well up and climbing into a clear blue sky. It promises to be another blazing day but it is still deliciously cool at this hour. Am hardly beyond the houses at Westwick when a lone muntjac saunters across the field track just 10 yards in front of me with that characteristic muntjac head-down, hang-dog, forlorn air. Surprisingly, it is completely unaware of my presence and ambles off into a thicket. As I’ve discovered, these little deer are not uncommon round here but I’ve not seen one so close to the village before.

New flowers everywhere, not many whose names I know. Bright red poppies, with tissue-thin petals that fold in the slightest breeze, stipple the verges of road and rape field. Among them, three pure white forms. Lining the ditch of the trickling brook from Histon, just two feet wide and two inches deep here, is a dense growth of meadowsweet, with frothy, creamy, sweet-scented flowers, a favourite strewing herb of Queen Elizabeth I. Containing salicylic acid it has long been used as a painkiller and is the original source of aspirin. Wild privet is in flower too, sickly sweet. Bindweeds with large white or pale pink trumpet flowers, or bright candy-pink with white stripes, are now clambering and creeping over the land. Red clover is just beginning to open. Again and again I am struck by the marked localization of many plant species, occurring only in discrete patches here and there across the district.

Two fledgling swallows are perched close together on a telephone wire. An adult swoops up, hovers momentarily, and regurgitates insect mush into their gaping mouths without landing, then dashes away. Four lapwings fly northwards. A female blackcap shouts from a treetop. Unidentified warblers are picking through bushes in silence.

One of my favourite spots is a large scrubby area to the north-west of Histon church, a former medieval field of the old abbey farm, now abandoned to nature and colonized by encroaching stands of ash saplings, willows, alders and brambles, a haven for birds and other wildlife. I am drawn by the sound of a rapid, agitated, high-pitched piping repeated almost non-stop – ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki, ki – the cry, surely, of some bird of prey. I discover three kestrels and spend over an hour tracking and back-tracking in pursuit. They perch with their backs to the sun on prominent dead branches in a line of trees between the scrubland and a field of wheat. With some painstaking stalking I get quite close, twenty feet from the birds, till they take off and fly away with rapid, shallow wingbeats to another observation post down the line. Kestrels are sexually dimorphic, the male and female being quite distinct. One is definitely female, the other two probably juveniles. The male is nowhere to be seen. Their red-brown, strikingly barred backs and tail are toward me but they know I am here and swivel their heads round 180 degrees to keep a yellow eye on me. Their short, curved beaks are flesh-coloured.

It’s been nearly three hours. By the time I reach home, the sun is burning down and I am sweltering. The specimens of flowers I’ve picked and pocketed to be identified have collapsed beyond recognition. I resolve to carry a camera and photograph them in future.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

buttercupwalk42

May 19th, 2010. Evening. After a cold snap since the beginning of the month the weather has warmed over the last few days, with some fine sunny spells. Today is mostly overcast, but I can at last walk out in the evening without jersey or fleece. I follow a route I’ve taken many times before, up the B-road towards Cottenham, branching southwards along the medieval trackway here called Gunn’s Lane, then through the meadows and woods of Abbey Farm at Histon and back along tiny Histon Brook to Oakington.

It’s a fine walk, with the countryside at its freshest and greenest and densest. Spring at its height, just before summer sets in. The season of green, in every hue and depth and texture. All trees in leaf at last, though some oaks and others are only just so. Foliage is still whole and pristine, unblemished yet by insects, disease or decay. Hedgerows are dense, unseethroughable, paths and watercourses encroached, vistas curtailed and horizons lie just round the corner… the world’s close at hand. Short-cuts I used before, or field gaps I slipped through, are now overgrown with nettles. Few birds are to be seen though the hedgerows and coppices are full of alarm calls and cadences, most of which I cannot identify because I can’t see the singers. Birds have a trick of throwing their voices. Your ears pinpoint the source of a song in a tree or bush but you will search in vain for the bird, which is invariably some feet away, sometimes in a different place altogether. Anyone who has sought out birds will will have been frustrated and puzzled by this cunning display of ventriloquy.

I meet Mrs. Botanical, with whom I cross paths now and then. Local girl, who’s walked this district since childhood, noticing nature. A real naturalist. It turns out she is the daughter of the wild-gardening couple who were so welcoming on one of my earlier walks. I should have known… of course. They have infused in her their wonder of the wild. A very precious gift this, from parent to child, it seems to me…. better by far than a trust fund. She tells me of her own recent encounters – just this last week, in the little brook/ditch that runs from Histon to join our Beck Brook at the coppice, she has come across water voles, then the largest grass snake she’s ever seen, then some eels. She is so thrilled that it’s as good as seeing these creatures with my very own eyes. And it confirms my earlier sightings of grass snake and eel. The presence of the fast-declining water vole here is an unexpected surprise. Even though I regularly scan the banks of our various watercourses I have never even seen their tell-tale holes, just above the waterline.

Hawthorn blossom, though still not fully out everywhere, adorns the hedges and banks and woodland edges …. in fact the whole green countryside, wherever you look, is splashed with white. It reveals itself as the dominant hedge tree round here by far, with blackthorn less common. When hawthorn grows naturally, without hacking and topping, it throws out long arched sprays of blossom, with flowers all the way down to the tips. The red hawthorn seems later and is just breaking bud. Horse-chestnuts still in flower, lit with great, upright pinkish-white cones, evenly spaced over each tree. But the season really belongs to the wild flowers and flowering grasses, which are now in a rush, coming too many and too fast for me to identify. Sometimes their foliage is more interesting than their flowers. Lacy white cow-parsley, up to four feet high, is dominant now, along with the feathering grasses and uncoiling thistles. Big ox-eye daisies or moon daisies, two inches across with gold eyes, each one on a tall slender stem, have come up in the disturbed ground along the guided-busway. They are the loveliest of flowers and I want to gather them up and take them home, they’re that sort of flower. But of course there are too few about to pick even one, they might even be endangered, and it’s probably illegal.

At the ancient Abbey Farm, adjacent to Histon church, are retained some small pieces of old woodland, meadow, and an overgrown scrubby tract – some of the few places in the neighbourhood that are a little bit wild, or not overly managed at least. Sauntering some 50 yards in front of me, on a footpath winding through the latter, is a muntjac. Yes, it’s just the sort of place I would expect to see one, with plenty of open grazing close to cover. It trots like a dog, and curls its broad tail upwards, flashing the flat white underside like a banner. It disappears into a thicket. I emerge onto a broad sloping meadow, ungrazed and uncut, full of flowers, especially the buttercup. I’ve never seen so many buttercups – a field of buttercups. Not good for grazing stock perhaps, but perfectly harmless when cut and dried in the process of hay-making. I walk back along Histon Brook, with the setting sun in my eyes, looking for water voles. But nothing disturbs the water, which lies black and still and silent.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

snakewalk31

April 18th 2010. Sunday. It’s been a sunshiny day, but by late afternoon the sky is half covered with scattered, indistinct clouds. A breeze blows out of the east. I need to explore one of the few remaining untrodden tracts at the far south-eastern edge of my patch, between Histon and Girton villages, abutting the A14 highway to the Eastern ports.

At the village recreation ground I watch a blue tit ferrying wisps of nesting material into a pre-drilled hole near the top of a tall steel pole supporting a floodlight. The hole (and pole) is big enough to accommodate a much larger bird, even a woodpecker. I wonder how this slightest of birds has managed to appropriate such prime, penthouse property, against all comers, and how it could possibly construct its cup-shaped nest in what must be a very deep, hollow tube. I have read somewhere that long-tailed tits use spiders’ silk to weave their nests, and it may be that this blue tit has woven a silken hammock to cradle its own. We’ll never know.

In the water of Beck Brook, as it flows past a coppice, I encounter, for the first time, a creature as thrilling as any I’ve yet come across – a grass snake. It is on the surface of the water, insinuating slowly through the scum and weed at the edge of the stream. It is dark and slender, not more than two feet long and about half an inch thick, with a conspicuous creamy-yellow collar just behind its head. Its forked black tongue flicks in and out. This is but a brief encounter… it disappears into some water weed, and though I keep watch for a good ten minutes, it doesn’t emerge. I notice too, for the first time, tiny fish, fry the size of paperclips, in the water. This is good news for what I took to be a pretty dead field-drain. If there are snakes and fish, there’ll be other creatures too.

The planted cherries in the coppice are a snowstorm of blossom. Horse chestnuts are now fully clothed, the greenest trees around, though the leaves of hawthorns in the hedgerows have emerged almost overnight. Rich glossy yellow flowers of lesser celandines line the brook while the yellow starbursts of the despised and downtrodden dandelion light up the verges and field edges. The lion’s tooth leaves (dents de lion), roots and flowers of the latter are one of nature’s forgotten wonder drugs, especially as diuretics, hence its folk name ‘piss-a-bed’. One has already completed its cycle and formed the familiar, delicate, spherical ‘clock’ or seed-head. It occurs to me that the earliest wild-flowers are all yellow, but actually the red deadnettle has been out for a while and I notice now the tiny white and purple pansy, and the white flowers of cow parsley, just beginning to emerge. Soon there will be too many trees in leaf and too many plants in flower to mention.

I walk up the track of the guided busway towards Histon, past bright fertilizer-green fields of wheat, still only some six inches high. On the eastern horizon the rape field is now a broad splash of yellow. At the far end of the fallow on the edge of Histon, beside the busway, is a motley crew of creatures co-mingling in Edenic bliss – rabbits old and young, pheasants, wood-pigeons and magpies, starlings and larks all move amongst each other or simply rest in the sun. And sitting in the midst of them all, incongruously, is a magnificent, imperious, long-haired tabby.

Further on is what I believe is called a ‘community woodland’. Each village round here – Oakington, Cottenham, Girton and Histon – has at least one, planted perhaps five years ago in a flush of EU funding, several acres in extent. They already provide good habitat, for dogs and their walkers, though I do see a couple of jays, with their pink bodies, white rumps, black tails and blue flash of wings, one of our most resplendent birds. Each tree in these coppices, however, has been cosseted in a corrugated plastic sleeve and planted in a mulch of black plastic sheeting, which nobody bothers to remove when their job is done, resulting in a drift of shredded plastic worthy of any motorway ditch. Still, mustn’t carp… in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time they’ll be proper woodlands.

At the southern end of Histon, I enter a quasi-industrial zone. There is a waste recycling plant, a very large factory with hoppers and steel silos, and an electricity sub-station, all protected with rigid steel fencing, the uprights bent outwards and as sharp as medieval pikes. This is clearly no place for pedestrian trespassers, and once again, in my quest to discover where I live, I am straitened and trapped. At last there is a slight gap between the fencing of the sub-station and the hedge of an experimental farm, and I squeeze through and along a footway that runs between them. I emerge into the open fields of NIAB, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, one of Cambridge’s many genetic research facilities. A concrete field-road leads south beside a ditch, and I figure this is the best way to make a speedy exit.

Half a mile down the road, my eye is drawn to a dense flock of birds – rooks and pigeons – gathered in the corner of a large, open, ploughed field. A few are flapping on the ground, but most are uncannily still. In fact they are dead. From one hundred yards I survey the macabre scene through binoculars, somewhat perplexed. What is going on here? Then a paramilitary figure emerges from a ditch, in full camouflage outfit, including balaclava and cap, carrying a shotgun. He glares at me, I wave to him, and approach. He is tall, very tall, and intimidating. He is also irate.

“What the f*** do you think you are doing here?”

“Walking… to Girton”, I splutter.

“This is private land! You people think you can walk anywhere! You come in here with your dogs, and break down fences, leave gates open, turn on the taps, and…”

“Hang on there. What do you mean, you people? As you can see, I don’t have a dog, I haven’t broken down any fences, nor turned on any taps. I’m sorry. I’m just out walking. I’m not doing any harm, am I? ”

“You are!” He is incandescent.

“What harm am I doing? Tell me, please.” He strides onto the killing field to dispatch an injured pigeon which is in convulsions, flailing its wings against the earth. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your sport” I say to appease him.

But this is no sport at all. He is not a farmer; he is a hired gun, a contract killer. This is not his land after all. I can’t keep my eyes off the carnage. There must be at least 100 dead woodpigeons and the same number of rooks strewn over the ground. His method is devious, and deadly. The shot birds are propped up with clods and stalks, arranged as if still alive, set up as lures to fool others into thinking that here, where many of their kind have gathered, there must be a plentiful supply of food. He hides in a ditch and shoots the incoming birds as they land from a range of ten yards. I want to take a photo, but fear this would be a step too far. I cannot understand why he is quite so aggressive towards me. I am clearly in the wrong place, trespassing, but why the anger? There is no chance that I could have walked into his line of fire, given the open terrain and the fact that I was approaching from the side and slightly behind him. Perhaps it is that my binoculars mark me out as a bird-lover, a soft-hearted townie with no understanding of the realities of farming or country life, and he is on the defensive. Or that I have caught him in the act of slaughter, of which he is a little ashamed, maybe. Or he is just an angry man. I want to suggest that he take up fishing, but think better of it.

“Just get out of here”, he shouts. “And keep walking!”

Which I unreluctantly do. The mass of dead birds posed in grotesque parody of the living, the killer’s concealed face, the paramilitary uniform, and the slight stench of genetic research all leave a foul taste in the mouth. Some places are tainted. But it does get me thinking about the creatures I crave to seek out – some are undoubtedly pests, and destructive in large numbers, in conflict with the great human project. Do I not kill slugs, and the caterpillars of cabbage whites, in my vegetable patch?

Happily, it is all worthwhile. I follow the concrete road as directed, but it soon swings round to the east, and I need to head west, towards Girton, so I leave it and plunge into scrubland bordering the A14 and there, not 10 yards away, is a pair of reddish muntjac deer. The buck sees me and freezes as I freeze, but the doe is oblivious, a few yards in front of her mate, defecating. He is caught between fascination and flight. His eyes are fixed on mine, and so long as I don’t make a move, he is under my spell. Close up, I see these deer are more beautiful than I had previously thought. He has small, straight, backward-pointing horns, she has none that I can see. Nor do I see the protruding canines or tusks of the male, perhaps because he is looking directly at me. But the V-shaped black marking on his forehead, running from between the eyes to each horn, is distinctive. As are the enlarged tear ducts, which give him a sad-eyed look. She finishes her business, I make a move, and they are gone, diving into the safety of a dense bramble patch. I find her droppings. They are glossy, dark brown to black, the size and shape of roasted coffee beans, but smaller than I expected.

A ditch and dense hedge prevent me from gaining the thundering A14, even if I wanted to. So I have to make my way round the edge of great fields, which eventually lead me away from the highway. I am acutely conscious, though, of the eyes of the shooter, who, from his position, can follow my slow progress through his gunsight. I half expect some stray pellets to pass my way. I find an overgrown green lane and finally achieve the village of Girton, emerging onto the community woodland and playing fields. I rest in the churchyard. The sun is close to the north-western horizon, the sky has clouded over, but it is a fine, tranquil evening. A coal tit, the first I’ve seen in these parts, with black crown and bib, and white neck patch, without the yellow underparts of the great tit and blue tit, is plying to and fro. I walk back along the main road. The dandelion flowers have folded up for the night. As I enter the village, a heron lifts off from a runnel, with huge, slow-beating wings. It is the first I’ve seen for some time.

2 Comments

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

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.

2 Comments

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature