Tag Archives: starling

lastwalk81

December 31st, 2010. Misty, mild, damp and dull. A dismal winter’s afternoon for a final walk. I go north. On the edge of the village starlings whistle from treetops. Collared doves fan their pale wings and croon. A heron lifts off from a garden gnome-pond, majestic against the paltry, painted statuary. Each time I look up, lines of gulls furrow the cast of grey high above – all flying northwest, as they do at this hour each and every day. Still they come. Far out in the foggy fields, gunshots empty the afternoon. There are few creatures about. The way is muddy, black with sodden leaves. No snow remains, and only the deepest ruts still hold ice. From a hidden coppice an eruption of jackdaws crackles like fireworks and subsides just as suddenly. The Detention Centre lies desolate behind barbed wire and playing fields, closed down, the seekers of succour sent elsewhere or back home, where they least want to be. A graveyard of dreams. No more the sound of Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghan and Somali tears and laughter here. Mute wood pigeons roost in leafless trees like strange grey fruit. The hedgerows too are silent.

I reach the guided-busway, busless still, two slick concrete tracks curving off into the dimming afternoon, a swathe of folly through the countryside. Somewhere far off, a pheasant hiccups into life then winds down, answered by others across the track. On my right, the old airfield, fenced and forbidden. No Northstowe new town yet, thank God, a brief reprise – there is perhaps one more skylark spring to come. The flashing orange light of a security truck creeps past in the gloom, defending the ill-gotten gains of the land-grabbers. On my left, from the curl of the stream beyond, an excitement of ducks breaks the silence of the fast-falling dusk. First one, then two, three and four parties of mallard, five to nine in each band, fly west, overhead, dark duck shapes pinned against the sky. Spring’s last wild brood.

A year has passed since I first set out on this journey round the village fields. A year to discover what was here, and what was not. We’ve come full circle now, the seasons and I, back to the beginning, where we started. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time”. Knowing nothing when I first set out, I had few expectations, and I can say that now I know a little for the first time. I had prayed for some special encounter, some final revelation, some hope to end the journey but this has been one of the emptiest, most uneventful walks of the year. It is as it should be, for I do not want to give the impression of a place brimming with beauty and light and life, although, at times, it did briefly seem so. This poor patch of England, let’s face it, is an undone place, impoverished, bereft of almost all that is wild and worthy and free. The natural has for the most part been emasculated, suppressed or banished altogether. It has been replaced by the bland and unbeautiful, an ersatz and infertile reality. Only fleet remnants remain, caught out of the corner of the eye, when least expected. It breaks through, despite the weight of arrogance and ignorance and greed. It will abide. But for now, it is a flight of ducks against a darkling sky. That’s all.

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snowwalk79

December 17th, 2010. 7.30 a.m. Clear and calm, but very cold. Day-old snow, refrozen overnight, holds the land in its bite. All is arrested, freeze-framed. I walk north. On either side, the white fields of winter are flattened under a huge weight of sky, empty and still. Trees and bushes are etched black against white, all bare save for the oak. At eight, a simmering sun pushes above the south-eastern horizon, then cools and creeps low into layering cloud. I turn east along the droveway to Rampton. There are birds here but they are reluctant to fly. Fieldfares burst from the bottom of hedgerows, in ones and twos, holding out till the very last moment. There are dozens of them. They whirl away, whimpering quietly. When the sun breaks free, they station themselves in the hedge-tops, catching the meagre heat in their breasts. Redwings, too, though less numerous. A pinch of goldfinches fidgets and flies. Out in the shining fields, the winter flocks gather. Wood-pigeons, in their hundreds, crouch like smooth grey cobblestones in the frozen surf of the ploughland. A spangled necklace of starlings garlands the sunny side of a field hedge. A black army of rooks musters beyond. A single, small, white-rumped wader rises up from a ditch and flicks away silently to land further up. It’s a bird new to me, and I follow. It flies again on rapid, shallow wingbeats but I glimpse only a white underbelly and longish bill. It could be a green or curlew sandpiper, but I’m guessing.

While I’m scouring the fields though binoculars, I become aware of being watched. I turn and glance up the track. There, not fifty yards away, is a vixen, staring straight at me, caught in mid-stride as she crosses. She doesn’t move. And neither do I. She is lean and light, winter-hungry. Her fur is not as deeply-coloured nor as dense as I expect, her brush not as bushy. She is on high alert, wired, but I find no fear in her face. What does she see? Perhaps she is young, and this her first direct encounter with Man. We hold holy communion for a full ten seconds, then she breaks free from my gaze and disappears into a hedge between fields. I try to follow her progress, checking both sides of the hedge through the lenses, but she is nowhere to be seen. No birds scatter, no grasses part, no rabbit screams.

I turn into the old rutted trackway and leave the birds behind. They seem to prefer these lower northern fields today, and become fewer and fewer as I walk south, slightly uphill, into the pallid light of a faltering sun. I am accompanied only by the squeak and crunch of my own rhythmic tread, the hollow ring of puddle-ice, and the shatter of crystal as I break through the surface. The frozen, whipped mud is as jagged as lava. In three miles I see little. A covey of red-legged partridges, seven of them, scurry between furrows, then flush into flight and descend in a long, low glide to the other side of a field, landing at a run. The rusty spikes of willowherb, thrust through the snow, tremble with a trio of dunnocks picking through the last of the seedheads. This is the first time I’ve seen these unremarkable but now rather rare hedge sparrows – small, brown-streaked birds with mouse-grey heads and breasts – and it is a small triumph that they have appeared in this place at this time. A kestrel sits atop a dead stump with its red back to the sun, but before I get within two hundred yards it launches into the freezing air and takes a long, unhurried flight over the wimpled snow-fields, the still black cut of the brook, the copse, the church-tower, the village of men, the streaming highway and on over the fenland farmland, far into the north.

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maywalk37

May 4th, 2010. For the sake of brevity, notes, not notions or narrative, I tell myself. The best thing about England, surely, is the weather. Other places have wilderness, we have weather. Loads of it. It deserves to be celebrated. For the past month – dry and warm, with many glorious, sunshiny days. For the last few days – spring showers, during the day and night, big clouds, and a sudden fall in temperature. It has been cold, jersey-and-coat cold, even scarf-cold, if you’re out, borne on a chilly north-easterly blow. All’s been in motion – clouds, trees, grasses, litter. Then this afternoon – calm, a mostly blue sky, and sun again, warm in the lee of a hedge. Summerish even. I’m out.

I check first the lapwings in the fallow to the south-west of the village, fearing that it might have been ploughed and the birds displaced. It hasn’t and they’re still there, though I can only see two on the ground, in different parts of the field. They must be nesting by now. Their long crest plumes are blown over sideways, giving them a rakish, dissolute air. A male blackcap, the first I’ve seen this year outside the garden, is busy deep in a hedgerow, sounding like a loud, very squeaky wheelbarrow being pushed at a run. A scarlet-faced goldfinch, with brilliant golden wing bands, sits on the topmost twig of a bush.

I follow the brook for a mile upstream. The water has risen a little. My sudden appearance flushes a pair of mallard. Then, at the confluence by the copse, cruising, is a mother mallard with four ducklings, surely the same family I’ve seen before on this stretch. If so, they have all somehow survived. 100 yards upstream, seven more ducklings, excitedly scooping up insects from the surface, whirling around like bumper cars. Strangely, no parent to be seen. They are alone, but not abandoned I hope. When they become aware of my presence, they bunch together and remain quite still on the water, unsure of what to do next. Pale yellow faces and breasts, with a dark band running back from the brow, over the head, and down the back, with an elegant black eye-stripe and single spot on the cheek by way of mascara. Dark bodies blotched pale yellow. Then one breaks away from the group, heading downstream, and the others all follow. A flotilla of fluff. Upstream, another female with four ducklings, and further on again, three drakes splash off and wing away muttering. These are wild mallard, not city park or village pond ducks, on a quiet, unfrequented stretch of the brook. How can this sunken slip of a stream support so many wildfowl? Next a grey heron lifts heavily out of the ditch, is mobbed by a rook, and circles wide over adjacent fields, slowly, legs trailing behind and great wings flapping untidily like washing on a line. I’ve seen one before in this neck of the woods so it might well be locally resident. It seems to be waiting for me to move on, which I do.

The lush growth of grass and herbage make for more difficult walking. A few butterflies ply the stream edge – Orange Tips, a single pale lemon-green Brimstone, and a lovely brown Speckled Wood, with creamy yellow markings and ‘eyes’ with black centres. I am growing fond of butterflies. Their vulnerability to the human enterprise and consequent scarcity, their role in the web of life, and exquisite coloration and detailing make them worthy of our closer attention.

A strange scent has been nagging at my nostrils, at once sweet and sour. Lightly rancid, you could say, faintly flowery, faintly foul. Of course! It must be the oils emitted by the rape-seed flowers, in huge fields all around. Some people loathe the smell, others react to it badly, sneezing and streaming. En masse, the bright yellow flowers dominate large swathes of countryside at this time of year, a yellow invasion, reviled by some as a blot on the traditional landscape. But up close, in small doses, the plant is showy enough to earn a place in the herbaceous border, I’d say, if I had one. Swallows, swooping low over the flowering sea, seem undaunted, and skylarks still lark in the crop.

The big winter flocks have long since dispersed, but a sizable gang of starlings or starnels, some 30 or 40 strong, work through a pasture, rising and settling as one. When they glide down together on short triangular wings, they’re like miniature delta-winged aircraft. I walk an asphalted footpath that leads along the back gardens of Histon and its conjoined twin Impington, urbanised villages, dissected by traffic. Chain-link fencing, four-letter surveillance. Neighbourhood watched. A collared dove, with round black eyes outlined in white, blinks a white eyelid. Terraced streets, then onto the main road to Cottenham. Even at 6.30 the commute’s still in full flow.

I branch off down a long Mill Lane into clear country. I’m at the eastern extremity of my territory here. It feels good – expansive, open, quiet, uncluttered. The farmer at Mill Lane Farm has been good enough to lay out a network of ‘permissive pathways’ (strange choice of word), in the absence of any public right of way, allowing walkers to tramp through his extensive lands stretching almost to Cottenham. Big fields, no hedges or ditches, wide skies. Too much for me today. I leave the pleasure for another time and turn homewards. It’s been a warm walk, and therefore especially delicious to slip through the dim, sub-aqueous, yew-shaded churchyard at Histon. In the meadows below the village, I stretch out in thick grass and look up into unbroken blue.

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mornwalk24

30th March, 2010. 7 a.m. BST, 6 a.m. body-clock time. The sun has risen 20 minutes ago, but is hidden behind cloud. In fact the whole sky is overcast, a uniform silver grey. But at least it’s dry, though the ground is wet after yesterday’s rain. I head north up the concrete tramlines of the guided bus-way. Today, for the first time in months since I damaged my knees, I try a little gentle running… now and again… trotting really… 50 yards, 100 yards. A pair of Canada geese fly over at 50 feet, heading for the pond on the west side of the airfield, one conversing with the other… a slow, rhythmic  kerr-onk… kerr-onk… kerr-onk, like a child idly swinging a squeaky barn door back and forth, back and forth. Then, coming straight towards me from out of the north, is a pair of pure white mute swans, elegant in flight despite their heavy, barreled bodies, their great wings soughing through the air with each downward stroke, a sound as soft as silk. They pass on without a glance. The descending cackle of a green woodpecker or eekle echoes out over the fields. I am struck by the purposefulness of birds, their pure intent, their inscrutable comings and goings. The well-known hadith of the Prophet of Islam comes to mind:

If you really trusted in God as God should be trusted, God would sustain you as God sustains the birds – they go out in the morning hungry, and come back to rest in the evening full

There are many interpretations. For me, now, it’s this… every day’s a new day… go out each morning, and seek what’s waiting for you…  sustenance of every kind, signs, encounters, openings…. death even. But you have to be attentive to it, and open.

In a paddock down by the travellers’ mansions on the edge of Rampton, a skewbald mare, with long, dishevelled white mane and forelock, suckles a foal. The day darkens rather than lightens, and a mizzle sets in. The fields are wet underfoot, and soon my shoes are sodden. I have seen few starlings (colloquially starnels) this year, but a compact flock of some fifty is feeding in a field. They rise quickly, all together, wheeling in tight formation, and settle just as quickly, as one body. I walk on top of the high bank of New Cut hoping to see the barn owl, or the fox, that frequent these parts, but the wet is against it.

From Rampton I take the road to Cottenham. It’s eight o’clock, and the commuter traffic is almost non-stop. There is no way off the road. Barbed wire seals off fields and gates, and I am forced onto tarmac nearly all the way back to Oakington. Edging a field is a row of small scrubby trees in blossom, stars glowing white against the gloom – the earliest and indeed only wild blossom I’ve seen this year. They are myrobalans or cherry plums, Prunus cerasifera, and in the autumn I will return to collect their sharp red and yellow fruits. They were often planted as a shelter belt for orchards, and this row is the remnant of just such a one, as a few gnarled and abandoned apple-trees nearby testify. Along this stretch are one or two last remaining patches of orchard, still tended, pruned and harvested, in a district that was once full of them. From a distance, it appears that the apple-trees, incredibly, are in blossom, bathed in a pale green froth, but on closer inspection I see that each twig is covered in grey-green lichen.

It is drizzling steadily now. With no where else to go, no pavement or path, I run on the road into oncoming traffic. At Westwick, lambs and ewes are in the pasture by the brook. They’ve been out at least a week. Each lamb has been spray-painted, tagged, with a blue number. The number 18 twins are sticking close to their mother. Number 24 is lost, all by itself, and bleating. One of the number 15s is trying to eat a plastic bag. But mostly they are huddled close together under the canopy of a large tree.

It’s past nine when I get in…. a good, though uneventful, walk through the fen-edge, with a bit of running too. A shower, then breakfast, and I’m ready for work.

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