Tag Archives: skylark

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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pikewalk51

July 8th, 2010. A 5-mile walkabout before breakfast, north up the guided-busway, east by Reynold’s Drove, south by Cuckoo Lane, then west along the Cottenham-Oakington road. It’s been a while since I’ve taken this route.

It rained during the night and there are puddles again on pavement and road but I suspect it has only wetted the lips of the land. I walk out into light drizzle that soon peters out. From north to south and from east to west the sky is covered by one, unbroken, uniformly dove-grey layer of stratus. Slowly during the course of the walk dappled cloud formations emerge out of this undifferentiated ocean of vapour. They come into being from unbeing, bringing texture and hue and shape and movement to the overcast sky. So the world is made manifest from the unmanifest.

The moribund busway is fairly busy with commuter cyclists at this time of morning but few return my greeting. Most are plugged in to iPods and MP3s and simply don’t hear my g’mornings. Neither do they hear the skylarks, yellowhammers, jackdaws and collared doves that compose the soundscape around them. They are, for the most part, utterly un-plugged – disconnected from the world and the people around them – at least when they’re cycling. If I were king……

I am always thrilled to see a heron. They are such big birds. And they evoke the primeval. As one flies away from me, following the brook as it winds through the fields, its distinctive wing movement is all too apparent – deep, slow beats with the whole wing held stiff from the shoulder, mechanical, laboured, quite unlike the supple, bowed wingbeats of buzzards and rooks, for example, with their splayed and upturned primaries.

The wheat in the fields is yellowing in patches while the barley is all pale golden-beige, almost ripe for reaping. Hay-fields have already been cleared and present open expanses of closely-cropped stubble. Brambles are in violet-pink flower (rather than white), now dominating the hedgerows and waste grounds. Dozens of medium-sized, dark brown butterflies that I take to be Ringlets or Meadow Browns work the flowers along the steep bank of the brook, among which are occasional clumps of the lovely blue-purple meadow cranesbill. Of white flowers out now are large daisies and mayweeds, white campions still and yarrow emerging, but the largest and showiest are the pure white, trumpet-shaped bindweeds, three inches across, the scourge of farmers and gardeners, but surely one of our brightest flowers on a dull day.

Large Bindweed

As is so often the case, just as I come into the village at the end of my walk, lamenting the absence of wildlife, I am truly taken by surprise. I peer over the bridge into Beck Brook, as I customarily do, expecting no more than a mallard perhaps, or a moorhen. But today, here, where the brook is at its most streamlike, perhaps eight feet wide and a foot deep at this driest of seasons, I see something remarkable…..not one, but two, wild fish – proper fish, big enough to eat. How can I get so excited about fish? Well in six months I’ve never seen anything larger than a paperclip in this rivulet, not even a fingerling. The first is sculling slowly upstream, silverish with dark dorsal fin and tail. Allowing for the distortion of water and the exaggeration that fishpersons are prone to, I’d say it is about 10 inches long. I’ve no idea what it is – it’s shaped like a trout but is definitely not. Nearby, on the muddy bottom, lying as still as a corpse, as they do, is the unmistakable body-shape of a pike, or rather, a pickerel. It is slender, perhaps a foot long, olive green with dark, broken vertical stripes, and that distinctive, flattened snout like a dolphin’s beak. It barely stirs – it is in hunting mode. I don’t know why the discovery of two substantial fish in the stream should be so thrilling, so significant… perhaps I need to get out more …. but I know now why heron frequent this surprising sliver of water.

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rainwalk43

June 1st, 2010. It’s warm, overcast and wet, with a steady, persistent, light rain … drops heavy enough to patter the leaves overhead. This is the first time I’ve deliberately set out to walk in the rain. Walking in the rain is special. It waters the soul, as well as the soil. I’m soon fairly wet, despite a cap and waterproof jacket. The long grass soaks my boots, and jeans up to the knee. The going is softer. The wet has not deterred the songsters at all – blackbirds, song thrush, goldfinch, robins, tits, all singing in the rain. The land is bathed, blessed, as are we.

I’ve been out of my patch for ten days. What a lot has changed … yet nothing has changed. The May or hawthorn is over, except for the red, and now the discs of creamy-white elderflowers are beginning to take their place in hedgerow and copse. They will be my first wild crop. Earlier in the season I experimented with jack-by-the-hedge or hedge garlic in salads but they tasted of leaves, with a very faint garlicy odour. Palatable only if you really have nothing else to put in a salad. Ramsons are better by far, but I’ve not seen any round here. Pink dog-roses are just opening and I see here and there they have formed great bushes and will be spectacular in flower. And a few scarlet poppies, too, bedraggled in the rain.

I make for the brook, which has risen a little from its lowest level. The vegetation is so dense now that there are only a few places where I can get close enough to see the water. Almost immediately I startle a pair of little egrets, winging away so white against the green corn. It’s good to see they’re still here, and surely nesting? On the footbridge, I meet Rose. Her keen eye spots a couple of freshwater mussels in the muddy bottom below. An indicator of good, clean water, she says. She tells me she has also seen crayfish here, the American crayfish, which is muscling out our native crayfish. On parting, she directs me to the part of little Histon brook where she has seen water voles, and bids me listen out for their ‘plops’.

On the way I visit a little copse of full-grown ash-trees where I’d previously seen a great spotted woodpecker. The undergrowth is thick, trunks and boughs lie here and there hosting bracket fungi, hard and solid to the touch, firmly anchored to the wood. I become aware of a persistent, high-pitched note repeated rapidly and endlessly, like the alarm on a watch. I can’t make out whether it is near or far, high up or at ground level, inside or outside the copse. It continues non-stop, on and on. Then the loud and unmistakable alarm chucks of an adult great spotted woodpecker sound over my head and looking up I see her land in the tree I’m under and spiral up the trunk with a large insect in her beak. She leads me to her nest, one of three perfectly round and ivy-enshrouded holes one above the other about 15 ft up the main trunk. The sound was coming from right above me after all … baby woodpeckers  misbehaving.

Dryad's Saddle bracket fungi or Pheasant's Back mushroom, neither poisonous nor particularly edible

The wheat in the field is two-toned  – silver green stalks and underside of leaves, grasshopper-green ears and upper surface of leaves. The rape flowering is nearly over, yellow no longer dominating the countryside. The rain eases. A single skylark rises and bursts into song, fluttering heavenward. It beats its wings frantically, yet makes little upward progress, as if it had left the brakes on. Slowly it ascends. Then another answers the challenge from an adjacent part of the field, and begins the long song-flight upwards. They are duetting, and sound-marking their territories.

I walk back along Histon brook, here more of a drain, almost choked with vegetation. I can barely see the water. I can’t imagine water voles living here, there doesn’t seem to be enough water to keep a water vole happy. Then, as my attention shifts elsewhere, I hear the tell-tale plop of vole entering water, more of a splat really, something flattish hitting the surface. And then another. Yes! It must be. I watch and wait, still and silent, but don’t have their patience. I move on. The rain has stopped and all is adorned with droplets. The ewes in the parkland have been shorn, some sporting stylish shaved patterns, as is the fashion. The unshaven lambs, with their tight thick coats, are almost as big as their mothers. They shelter under the trees, expecting more rain.

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springwalk21

21st March, 2010. First day of (astronomical) spring, and a fine, blue, shiny Sunday morning it is. Contrails stretch like bunting across the sky. I head west through the village into the prairie fields towards the A14, lawns of winter wheat as far as eye can see. No paths or tracks here, I follow ditches and hedges, hoping for a break. Every bank is riddled with rabbit holes. They scatter this way and that. Two palm-sized kits are scrapping in the sun, running at each other, leaping into the air, arm-wrestling. A buzzard cruises over the hedge and circles round, not 20 feet from the ground. A kill lies at the edge of the field – a smallish rabbit – several days old, head and neck untouched and staring at the sky, tail erect, belly cleaned out, exposing white ribs and backbone. Skylarks chase each other up into the firmament. I pluck a sprig of pussy willow and lodge it in my button-hole as a symbol of spring.  Deciding to make my way back through the old airfield, I clamber through the fence. I know the gaps now. There is a lot of waterfowl activity on the lake, but I can’t get near enough to get a good look. A black security truck prowls slowly round the perimeter road, stopping yards from where I’m hunkered down in leaves and mud and fresh green shoots. I edge round a tree to keep out of sight as it moves off at snail’s pace.  In the open parkland beyond I spot a fox, sauntering about in the sun. I like the irony – he is a lot less wary (and fearful) than I am.

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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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walkabout17

6th March, 2010. It being a Saturday, I decide to go for a longer walk. 10 miles, 5 hours – with many distractions along the way. In the large pasture on the edge of the village, where yesterday I counted 160 fieldfare and redwing, there are no birds at all. Different day, different time of day (it is midday), different weather – today is cloudier, with a fairly cold northerly breeze, though it is bright and lovely, and warm when the sun breaks through. There are certainly fewer birds about, and less song. I head north up the guided busway.

A flicker at the edge of vision makes me stop. From the end of a 4-inch diameter corrugated plastic drain-pipe, sticking out of the embankment on which the busway has been laid, is a little brown face with a wet, pink nose and white chin. The face cranes round to look straight at me, dark ears erect. It is a stoat… or a weasel. Without seeing its tail I can’t tell the difference. It retreats deep into the pipe. It is a perfect hide-out from which to survey the killing fields below. I like the way it has appropriated this random human artefact, made it its own.

Further on, an exaltation of skylarks fills the sky, trilling ecstatically without let from high up in the blue, wings a-quivering. At times they hover and glide like miniature kestrels with wings held out and tails splayed, showing white outer feathers. Then they cease their singing and plunge headfirst towards the earth like kamikaze pilots, wings folded, pulling up at the last moment and landing nonchalantly near their mates. These are males … consummate performers, show-offs … larking about. The skylark is red-listed, its numbers having halved in the last 40 years due to the growing practice of sowing crops in autumn rather than spring, so it is good to see them here.

In the grass at the edge of the airfield sit 7 lapwings, dark green above and white below, the first I’ve seen here, but they are skittish and rise quickly on rounded wings, crying out their country name, a plaintive and penetrating pee-wit, pee-wit, pee-wit. These too have seen a catastrophic crash in numbers over past decades.

I turn into Rampton Drove and spot a wind-hover, not 200 yards from where I saw one a few days ago so it is doubtless the same bird, or its mate. I follow it for 20 minutes, as it works the stubble. It hovers some 20 feet up and coasts to the ground frequently, up and down, up and down, occasionally perching on posts. It doesn’t stoop, and makes no kill. A pair of partridge explode under my feet, whirring off like clockwork toys, kicking up a fuss.

I head further north, up the medieval trackway called Haven Drove that is a continuation of Cuckoo Lane. It is a broad green way, built up above the level of the surrounding fields and partly hedged. On one side, far from any road, lies a pile of fly-tip which stops me in my tracks – it consists of toddlers shoes, velcro-strapped, little plastic wellies, baby clothes, some broken trucks, plastic toys and a large, naked, blue-eyed doll with articulated joints, staring up at me. Why kids’ stuff and nothing else? Why would anyone want to haul it all the way up here and dump it? It could all quite easily fit into a bin. There is something very sad about this particular pile of junk, so carelessly discarded.

Dozens of fieldfares, all grey rumps and black tails, loop ahead of me from tree to tree, chattering like blackbirds. They are heading north. The trackway passes straight through the middle of Belsar’s Hill, an Iron Age earthwork that once guarded the causeway that led over the fen to Aldreth on the higher ground beyond. Tradition has it that it was the Conqueror’s HQ in his disastrous campaign against Hereward the Wake. It is hardly a hill, more a large oval embankment with an outer ditch, still showing clearly in the fields though now much worn down. I leave the ancient causeway for another day, and head back. I walk on long, straight, lonely one-lane roads, raised above the fields, linking one isolated farmstead to another. This is wide open country, ditched not hedged, with big skies and far horizons. Fenced paddocks, horses, newly ploughed ground.

Back in the village of Rampton, I decide not to take the same, more direct, way back, but a slightly different longer route, even though I am hungry and footsore. I’m glad I did. I’m walking on the high embankment beside New Cut, the downstream continuation of Beck Brook, here fully canalized, looking out beyond a smaller ditch onto a narrow pasture edged by a strip of woodland that backs onto houses. A dark, indistinct, animal shape some 200 yards off catches my eye. Through the binoculars it condenses and sharpens into a magnificent dog-fox. The second in two days, in broad daylight, and in much the same circumstances. He is trotting along the edge of the field, stopping to sniff here and there, lifting a leg to mark his territory. He is in show-dog condition, with a thick coat of fur, reddish flanks and head, dark ears, greyish down the back, white underparts, throat and muzzle, and a great bushy white-tipped brush. I settle down on the bank and watch. He sits down at the woodland edge and watches. The watched becomes the watcher. We are about 100 yards apart, though I am above him. He knows I am here. Perhaps the glint of lens has alerted him. He moves off, but turns to look at me once again. He is not sure. Again he moves off, and turns. I get up to follow, and he dives into cover.

During this walk I have crossed paths with only a handful of people – a family taking the air, a woman walking her dogs, a lad cantering a horse, and a dozen or so hard-core cyclists. A little further on I meet Farmer Giles. He is out training his new gundog. He is stout, large-headed, unshaven and ruddy-faced, a local man. Mother born in Oakington, father in Cottenham. Farmers for generations. His ‘farm’ is dispersed over several parishes – a field here, a field there, all down to arable. His pleasure lies in shooting – rabbit, partridge, pheasant. He is unimpressed by my fox – ‘bloomin’ critturs’, but he won’t be drawn further on this apparent prejudice. I suspect it is because they are both hunters and in competition, both lovers of pheasant flesh.

New Cut / Beck Brook

There is a final gift to come, bestowed out of the blue. A large white bird with big slow wingbeats is being buffeted by the wind, which has swung round to the east and is now blowing steadily. It is making its way slowly upstream, buoyant, wavering, hovering, now 50 feet, now 20 feet above the bank, looping back on itself, as if looking for something lost. At first I take it for a gull or an egret, but it is the wrong shape. I can barely believe it when I focus. It is an owl, a barn owl, on the hunt, on a bright and sunny afternoon. Moreover it appears to be almost pure white. It passes close above, and I get a long good look. That distinctive, blunt, wedge-shaped silhouette formed by the outsized heart-shaped face and small tapering body. Large white wings. White body, above and below, with only the faintest streaks of marmalade-orange on the top of its head and on its upper back. And the blackest of eyes, shining, that look straight at me as it passes. It flies about 100 yards upstream, then turns and makes its way back the way it came, slowly, following the water. It doesn’t land. So conspicuous is its whiteness against the land I can track it from afar, until it is but a speck in the distance. As far as I know, tawny owls are more common here (though I have only heard them calling, at night), so it is a real privilege to watch, not merely glimpse, the rarer barn owl, in the middle of an afternoon, and a very pale form at that. It is, to me, something quite out of the ordinary, probably never to be repeated. I take it as a special blessing.

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