Tag Archives: songthrush

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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owlwalk38

May 7th, 2010. A dull day, weather-wise, chilled by a north-easterly breeze. I set out in a fleece, coat and cap on a clockwise circuit of the old airfield and barracks, a route I’ve followed many times before. In the Drift (a variant of ‘drove’, down which cattle were ‘driven’), a tunnel of green leading out to the pony paddocks on the western edge of the village, butterflies soodle up and down the cow parsley verges, sniffing each cluster of flowers in turn but rarely alighting. Warblers are out and about – chiffchaffs chiff and chaff endlessly, and a female blackcap (rich chestnut cap, not black) is busy debugging the hedgerow.

I meet Ron and his wife – 70-somethings, in rude health – half submerged in greenery, at work in their cottage front garden. I hail them, they me, beaming. We talk butterflies and they straight away invite me, a passing stranger, to take a look at their garden ‘out back’, almost leading me along by the hand. I expect an immaculate show garden, of the National Garden Scheme type that opens to the public once a year in aid of charity, or a self-sufficient cotter’s backyard laid out to vegetables and soft fruit, with chickens, bees and a pig perhaps. In fact it’s a wilderness. It spurns all garden conventions – there’s no lawn, no clipped hedges, no patio or decking, no flower beds, no garden flowers, roses or shrubs, and no vegetable patch to speak of. It’s unrepentantly naturalized, turned over to nature,  full of wild plants and flowers – white hedge garlic, pale blue forget-me-nots and red campions now – and what most people call weeds, under a canopy of apples and other small trees. Not overgrown or neglected, just … ungardened. Ron leads me along a path of sorts between brick outbuildings (swallow nesting) and wooden sheds, a caravan, greenhouse, various middens, overgrown ponds, and, here and there, small clearings planted with beans and peas and strawberries, like patches of swidden in a rainforest. He now and then points out plants, and gently runs his hand over leaves. Their work is limited to some judicious thinning out and pruning,  the sowing of wild flower seeds, and nurturing what’s there, whatever it is. They nurture the wild.  He shows me a couple of old horse-ploughs, used by his father-in-law up until the early nineteen-fifties, near enough a hundred years old, he says, and the iron still as good as when it was forged. I don’t know what to make of it all. It’s a haven for wildlife, and a haven for Ron and his wife. An island of heresy in a sea of suburban conformity. It’s a surprise. More surprising though than the garden are the gardeners. Their welcome, their joy in sharing, and their love of the wild are as rare as their garden. It has been, for me, an uplifting, humbling and salutary meeting.

I take the lane to Longstanton. The hawthorn, whitethorn or may is finally in flower, here and there. Soon the countryside will be sprung again with its white festoons and honeyed scent, just as all the other brightening blossoms – cherry plum, cherry, apple and blackthorn – have faded. A second coming. Blue flowers have arrived over the past few days – bluebells here and there in coppice and woodland, the pale forget-me-nots, and bluest of all, alkanet or bugloss, a traditional dye-plant, a naturalized garden escape (the name is Arabic – from Middle English, from Old Spanish alcaneta, diminutive of alcana, ‘henna’, from Medieval Latin alchanna, from Arabic al-hinnā’, ‘henna’, apparently because it was used as a substitute dye).

A songthrush is giving voice at the end of a barely-leaved oak branch. I count a series of at least seven different combinations of notes and sounds, brief  liquid stanzas, each one enunciated clearly, in turn. Not so much a song as a vocal exercise. There is a commotion of geese coming from the hidden lake on the airfield, now completely screened from the road. As I contemplate negotiating the easiest access point (see pic) a large bird flies off, away from me. At first I take it for a heron, it’s that sort of size, then as it banks I know it’s a bird of prey, brownish, with somewhat ragged wings. I get about 3 seconds before it disappears over some trees. Are there buzzards here still? I have a feeling, though, that this is no buzzard at all but a bird unknown, and I set off in pursuit. It has flown towards the village, but when I get there I am unable to find it. It’ll draw me back another day soon.

The breeze picks up, suthering through the trees (one of Clare’s words), and the air turns damp. Longhorned cattle hunker down in a field, with their backs to the wind. There’s a smell of rain before a skat or light shower wets the land and my coat. It’s soon over, but the sky is darkening. Not since the snow have my hands been so cold. They plunge into pockets. More like the end of winter than the middle of spring. From the vantage point of the guided-busway embankment I watch a hovering kestrel, hanging in the air, facing into the wind, beating its wings deeply, head down, tail fanned out and depressed, remaining exactly in place for minutes at a time, then sliding sideways, and hovering anew. In ten minutes of hovering, it does not stoop or plunge once.

Then, an unexpected encounter, a first. About 20 yards from the track of the guided-bus-to-be, within the old airfield and out in the open, is a large, triangular, wooden nestbox set on a post about ten or twelve feet from the ground. I’ve watched it many a time and never seen the slightest sign of occupation. As I pass by I don’t even give it a glance. But out of the corner of my eye, there’s a movement, a blur, a glimpse of something alive. By the time I turn, it has slipped away silently. I instinctively know it’s a Little Owl, though I’ve not seen one for years. I settle down behind a screen of bushes to await its return. Five very still minutes later I’m rewarded. A second owl emerges from the hole of the nestbox onto the landing platform, and scowls straight at me. It knows I am here. The frowning eyebrows are comical. It gives me a definite ‘look’, reprimanding, then launches into the greyness and is gone in the blink of an eye.

A final encounter on the guided-busway, this cold evening, as I approach home. A mother mallard is waiting on one side, looking back anxiously, accompanied by a single duckling. Four others are coming up behind, but they are stuck behind the concrete ledges that form the sides of each trackway, six inches high, three times the height of a duckling. They have to overcome four of them. Time after time they attempt to climb, clamber or fly up the sheer, smooth wall in front of them. The mother duck clucks out quiet instructions, and at one point she is on the point of going back to give them a hand. Then one manages it and achieves the next one with relative ease. The others, one by one, get the hang of it and struggle over each obstacle. It’s a slow, painful process, with many a fall. Eventually they’re all over, she gathers them together and dusts them off, and they all head off through a gap in a fence. They’re going east, towards the brook. They’re a hundred yards from the water, over a ditch and a meadow, and they’ve come from the airfield. It must be their very first walk, from the field where they’ve hatched to their new home on the stream, as is the practice among mallard, a journey of at least 200 yards, full of hazard and drama, as we’ve seen. They’re half way there and night is falling.

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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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