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cormorantwalk71

October 30th, 2010. A beautiful afternoon, the finest of mares’-tails flicking a high blue sky, sunny. Yet in a three hour walk I see little of note. The land is lit, warm, coloured by autumn, and empty. Almost. I am just outside the village, on a track behind the last row of houses, when a large bird flies slowly overhead, not high, dark against the light. I know it from its unmistakable profile. It’s a cormorant. Only the second I’ve seen in these parts. To see one even is remarkable  – for we have no large inland waters nearby, only the small forbidden lake on the airfield and four miles away, out of my range, the flooded gravel pits at the Country Park. Could the cormorant be flying between the two? There are geese I know on the forbidden lake, and then there’s the great crested grebe I found the other day, wounded, beyond the horse pastures, that could only have wandered from there. Perhaps there are cormorants too, and other unknown treasures. I must find a way to visit.

I edge along the side of a large ploughed field. It has been worked right up to its bounding ditch and hedge, leaving no verge at all. The soil is wet and I am soon carrying a slab of mud on each boot. In the shade of an ash-tree, silver mushrooms have pushed up through the dark clod. I’ve never seen anything like them – brushed-metal capsules, immaculate. They only occur close to the ash – beyond, there are none. They must live together in some sort of symbiotic relationship. Out in the bare expanse only a few rooks, pigeons and gulls pick at the ground. I turn into Gun’s Lane, medieval mudway to Cambridge, lined with pale yellow blackthorn and reddening hawthorn. Up ahead a flock of two-dozen migrating redwings settle into a tree-top, but as soon as I get near, they take off and fly up the track into another. They are very flighty these birds, and won’t let me get anywhere near to get a close look. They keep to the tree-tops.

I walk through the scrubland, a pasture, the badger dell, and back down the long, straight line of water euphemistically called Histon Brook without seeing or hearing anything except for one or two woodpigeons. Not even a rabbit. Extraordinary. The fields should be flocked with migrating birds. The landscape has not been so empty all year. As I near the village, though, there is one single eruption of life. The sun is balanced on the western horizon, a blinding white light. I am surprised to hear, half a mile away, a once familiar hubbub. The rookery at Westwick is loud again. I thought it had been abandoned some time ago but I’ve not passed by for awhile. There is a commotion of rooks above the trees, restless, excited. Then they begin to stream outwards in small, loose groups, flying westward, straight into the sun, group after group, until the last one leaves the rookery and there are one hundred and forty rooks ( I count them) in a long, straggling column, making their way slowly across the evening sky. I go to the rookery and look up into the tall stand of sycamores, studded with nests. It is utterly quiet, deserted. Not a single bird remains. Why would rooks leave their rookery just as the sun is about to go down? Don’t they roost here at night? And where do they go? Not that I really, really want to know. I’m just glad to report that there are mysteries still in the world.

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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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duskwalk59

July 31st. 2010. Rain during the night, ending in a soft mizzle this morning. The ground has had a thorough soaking for the first time this summer. The evening is clear and very still. I walk along the guided-busway in twilight. As my dark shape breaks the skyline of the embankment forty rabbits streak from the middle of a stubbled field towards the edge, as if they had sprung from the earth and the clods themselves had grown legs. For a moment the ground shifts ahead of me.

In a corner, amongst a patch of teasels, is a twining white bryony with deeply-lobed, vine-like leaves and pale scarlet berries the size of peas, glowing in the half-light. They are the first berries of the season, but very poisonous. It is said that fifteen berries will kill a child, though I cannot imagine a child eating even one, so foetid the smell and bitter the taste, so I’ve read. It was often called mandrake in parts of Cambridgeshire, its enormous fleshy tuber credited with all the powers of the true mandrake and passed off as the real thing by unscrupulous hawkers. Like all the so-called poisonous plants it was a favourite amongst the old herbalists.

An unbroken ribbon of rooks passes over towards the south-east in ones and twos and small groups, muttering quietly to themselves. They fly high on a steady course, winging dark against the sky. After counting one hundred I give up, and still they come. Through the binoculars I can just make out, at the limit of vision some two miles away, those near the head of the column disappearing into the night. They could be streaming out from the rookery at Westwick but that is out of sight from where I’m standing. And where they are heading is a mystery. Perhaps to a funeral. It was a Fenland tradition of the last [19th] century that rooks always knew when a gamekeeper had died and would form into a long line to fly over his coffin as it was being carried to the church.

A tawny owl hoots from the trees that line the brook and a pale brown shadow flits down low over the ground and up onto a branch, but it is too far away to see clearly. Eight geese fly over from the north at about 50 feet, all abreast in close formation, silently, black against the deep indigo sky. Their pale rumps suggest they are Canada geese but identification is impossible in this light. As they pass overhead one calls down a single u-whonk in greeting. A farmer is harrowing a field in the dark, tractor headlights on. A babble of excited voices and shouts carries across the still night air from the detention centre on the other side of the old airfield – the detainees are either engaged in a spirited game of football or else they’re rioting, as they have in the past. I cannot imagine how they must feel, having ducked and dodged the authorities in a dozen countries and finally made it to the promised land, only to end up at Oakington Detention Center watching television and playing football, waiting to be deported back to what they risked their lives to escape from.

Back home, a single pipistrelle, no bigger than a wren or large butterfly, flickers up and down the dark garden, backwards and forwards, looping round at each end, twisting and turning through the apple trees, appearing, disappearing and reappearing at breakneck speed. At times it flies within two feet of my face and I try hard not to duck. Two hours later it’s still at it, weaving the air.

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sundaymorningwalk52

July 11th, 2010. A short mid-morning walk, or rather stalk…. butterflies, as it happens. Warm, cloud-filled, and windy. Hot when the sun breaks through. The parkland below Westwick House is like dry-season savanna, so desiccated and sparse that the sheep have been removed elsewhere. Oakington Brook, which is more like a drain, is now dry where it runs past the rec. In winter it carries four feet of water within its deep-set banks. Today I pick my way down its damp, soft mud-bed, glyphed with the prints of unknown birds and small mammals, until I reach water – stagnant, moss-green puddles and pools in hiding between clumps of reeds. High above, the leaves of black poplars roar and rattle in the wind, releasing balsam scents into the air as they rub against each other, transporting me back fifty years in a matter of milliseconds, back to my boyhood in Africa, climbing tall, swaying poplars at the bottom of the garden. I think poplars may be especially musical because their leaves are relatively thick and clack against each other like castanets when bestirred. I would like to be able to recognize trees by the sounds they make in the wind, and by their woodsmoke smells in the winter… the kind of common knowledge, folk wisdom, held by all country dwellers and not a few townsmen in the past, now deemed useless, quaint, frivolous even.

This is not the season for birds. Only woodpigeons, rooks and a pair of green woodpeckers are out and about. The rookery at Westwick House, incidentally, which is usually a vortex of raucous sound, has been silent for a few weeks or more and appears to have been abandoned. It seems that once their offspring have fledged and flown, rooks disperse for the summer. They are still in the neighbourhood, hanging around, but less congregational, and less noisy.

Ringlet

No, now is the season of butterflies. I struggle up the steep bank of the brook onto the verge of the rape field, elbowing my way through shoulder-high grasses, willowherb, thistles and nettles, disturbing dozens of the beauties. I spend several frustrating and largely fruitless hours trying to photograph them but they are uncooperative and the breeze doesn’t help. For identification purposes most of the blurred images are fairly useless, but some I already know. The larger ones belong to just seven species – Large Whites, Orange Tips, Ringlets, Meadow Browns, Speckled Woods and one lobed and scalloped orange Comma – and further down the brook, several magnificent fiery Red Admirals. There are smaller ones too, whose names I don’t know. Mostly the butterflies work alone, alighting especially on the tufted purple flowers of thistles, but now and again they cross flight-paths with others of their kind, of the opposite sex no doubt, and spiral away, sometimes three or more together, in an erratic, zigzagging, ascending dance, now parting, now coming together to fleetingly touch, weaving invisible tapestries of pheromone trails.

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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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dawnrun9

13th Jan. 2010. 1½ hrs before sunrise. It is cold of course, but fairly benign. No sign of the Old Laughing Lady. I slip out of the village and, beyond the range of the last street lamp, I tunnel into blackness. I pull back the sprung lever that opens the gate into the sheep field and it shrieks like a stuck pig, clanging behind me. Bang goes the element of surprise then. The sky is uniformly indigo-black except for a murky sulfurous glow over Cambridge to the south. I can just make out the track ahead because its snow, being compacted, has outlasted the rest. I am running through a two-dimensional world of silhouettes. There is nothing to see so I focus on my footing and my breathing. Up to now I have counted my steps to keep going and can now gauge 100 or 200 paces pretty accurately so I switch to chanting a dhikr or mantra out loud. I try out various formulations but none meshes with my rhythm and breathing quite like the simple Al-lah. Perfect. If anybody’s out there, poachers or shooters or lead-roofing looters, they will know only a deep disembodied chug-chugging coming at them through the dark. I reach the Histon road and turn back along the track beside the still unopened guided-busway. Imperceptibly the sky lightens but there is no great effulgence coming from the south-east quarter. Snow is still lying in patches here and there, and in the long corrugations of the fields. A lone rook flies overhead and barks down a gruff good morning. Apart from him, there is not a single soul about, animal or human, and it is very quiet. Until I reach the Oakington road and turn homewards. A steady stream of commuter traffic with blinding lights is streaming both ways, and surprise, surprise, here comes the OLL on her beaten-up old bike, no lights or reflectors, out of the darkness, head down. I know she hasn’t seen me because she doesn’t burst out laughing. I reach home before the sun has risen and fancy I hear a faint cackling receding into the day.

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