Tag Archives: swallow

hedgeharvestwalk64

20th August 2010, the tenth day of Ramadan. Windy days draw me out, and today is such a day. It is fine and dry with a strong warm wind coming out of the west – a kite-flying day, if I had one. At any one time a thousand separate clouds, equidistant from each other, all at the same height above ground, and all more or less the same size and shape, process steadily across a huge sky. Above them are stationery schools of mackerel clouds and gorgeous swirls of cirrus set in deep luminous blue. Between the running cloud-islands the sun pools down on the land, polishing every surface. The wind ebbs and surges, bowing the smaller trees and churning through the copses and woods. From a distance it really does sound like the sea.

The fine weather has brought out the heavy machinery. In the distance a tractor is dragging a disc harrow, slowly and systematically painting the dull earth a uniform rich cinnamon-brown and trailing a wake of white gulls. How do they know? How do they know that the earth will be opened today? Only very occasionally this summer have I seen gulls passing by, and then just in ones and twos. Now two dozen have materialized out of nowhere. Perhaps they smell it. The air is saturated with the odour of freshly-turned earth.

Butterflies are about again, after the wet weeks – mostly Large Whites though I come across one rather battered Painted Lady, orange and black with white-spotted wing-tips, the only one of this species I’ve seen this year. Migrating from the Middle East and North Africa they sometimes mass in their millions across Britain. Not so this year, not here. But today dragonflies abound. I see them everywhere, near and far from water. They glide effortlessly, it seems, without wing movement, until, against the light, you see their four transparent gossamer wings a-quivering at the very edge of perception.

I come across two dead rabbits, fairly fresh still and whole, with no obvious cause of demise. Then, on three separate occasions, a rabbit blunders towards me, blind and disoriented, eyes puffed, red, oozing puss. Myxomatosis. There is no known cure for this deliberately-introduced plague, first observed in laboratory rabbits (surprise, surprise), except long-term genetic resistance. Death takes, on average, 14 days.

On a happier note I discover another section of the old medieval track hedged with wild plum bushes laden with fruit – round red cherry plums, oval orange-yellow mirabelles and ox-blood red bullaces. For me these wild plums have been a real discovery this year – far superior to any supermarket plum, delicious raw or stewed, and abundant across the district. I pick several kilos of sweet cherry plums and mirabelles and throw in a few handfuls of sloes for bite, to be savoured later at fast-breaking time.

the startling blueness of sloes, fruit of the blackthorn

There are few birds about, except woodpigeons who seem to relish the wind, and a party of some dozen wittering swallows who ply back and forth over a bean-field. I sit by a field-gate and watch them for ten minutes or so. They swoop low along the edge of the field, in the shelter of a hedge, and when they reach the gate opening and the brunt of the wind they flick upwards and over, twisting back for the home run, all the while making small noises. When I stand up they fly within a few feet of my head.

I walk home with a bag of wild plums at my wrist, an exhilarating wind in my face, and the world all around me in motion.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

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.

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

northwalk36

April 30th, 2010. 5 miles. It occurs to me that my posts, like the evenings, are getting longer and longer, so this will be brief(er), I promise. I leave at 6 for new ground in the north of my patch, up the no-through road to Longstanton. The sky’s full of cloud, of every hue, shape and species. Late April showers, in the afternoon, yesterday and today, have left the land wet for the first time in over a month. Grass and foliage hang heavy with water. Now that the hedgerow and woodland birds have more or less total concealment they sing more it seems, and are heard more often than seen.

I check out the progress of ash trees and oaks to test the folk wisdom of ‘oak before ash we’re in for a splash – ash before oak we’re in for a soak’, which forecasts a relatively dry (‘splash’) or wet (‘soak’) summer to come. My notes record ash trees in leaf on the 25th April, but I’ve subsequently seen some that aren’t. Also the flowers from a distance can look like newly sprung leaves so I might have been deceived in some cases. Similarly, the veteran oak at Histon Manor was definitely showing leaf on the 27th while the younger tree in my garden, and others today, show no sign of green. Time of leafing of individual trees must depend on a number of variables such as aspect, age, soil, shelter, etc. so it’s not easy to ascertain when trees as a species have started to leaf. According to the Woodland Trust ash leafing before oak has occurred only four times in the last 44 years, the last time being in1986.This year, however, there seems to be no significant difference between the two, so I can confidently predict that we’re in for a sploak.

I walk the signposted footpad that skirts round the western edge of Longstanton. On the map it leads through open fields but I find myself channeled through a new toy-town estate of cheek-by-jowl ‘executive’ homes that looks like the set of a soap. But I do see here a single white or pied wagtail (not easy to tell apart), the first of the season, a bird that seems especially fond of tarmac and car parks. Outside the village, I turn south and head back through a herbicidal ‘golf academy’ comprising weed-free fairways  and immaculate greens inhabited by small groups of males in spring plumage. They go in for some interesting rituals and rules of etiquette that I would like to check out but the distant thwack of club against ball sends me running for cover. A cold wind blows up and I have to button my coat. Horses in paddocks have thrown on yellow-checked blankets. In the meadow beside the Detention Centre ancient English longhorn cattle and their calves ruminate on the gathering storm while an even more ancient heron buffets into the headwind. A dark wave of cloud is rolling down from the north.

Nearer home a dozen swallows stitch the high air and a couple of all-dark swifts, devil-birds (Clare calls them develings), scythe through the gloom. They arrived in the village yesterday (my first sighting, at least), after their incredible 7000 mile migration from southern Africa, ahead of their u.t.a. (usual time of arrival) around 10th May. Ten days early! What does that mean? They are astonishing birds, not least because they eat, drink, preen, sleep, court, mate and gather nesting material on the wing, yes, in the air, only stopping to nest, lay and incubate once a year. A young swift, having fledged, may live in the sky for two or three years without perching once. It’s true. If they could lay eggs in the air and catch them, and cradle them till they hatch,  they will have broken free of the earth altogether.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature

springsaunter32

April 20th and 21st, 2010. Not really a proper walk today, just a saunter round the southern edge of the village. Another brilliant day, but now in the late afternoon there is a coldish north-west wind, from Iceland way, but without a trace of volcanic dust to sully the clear blue sky. I go to the brook hoping to see the grass snake again, but find instead a mother duck and five very young, dark-coloured ducklings cruising slowly upstream. I assume she is a wild mallard but I can’t see her clearly. A common enough sight on any river in England in the coming weeks for sure, but the brook here is only 4 or 5 feet wide and not more than a foot deep, and the water is barely flowing. It is set deep between steep grassy banks and there is really nowhere to hide. Yet she keeps them tucked in to the side, taking advantage of any sheltering waterside plants, and at times they seem to disappear altogether.

A kestrel is perched on a post, facing the sun, the first time I’ve seen this little hunter close to the village. Edgy, glancing this way and that, but intent on savouring the last of the day’s warmth. When it shifts slightly and the sun catches its dark spotted, rich rufous back I see what a truly exquisite creature it is. It doesn’t tarry long though… perhaps I am just too close for comfort. With rapid wing-beats it arcs over a sheep pasture and is gone. But here come the swallows, three of them, the first of the season, swooping low over a field of rape. At least I think they’re swallows… they’re some distance away, but they don’t seem to have the white rump that would mark them as house martins. One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day, according to Aristotle, in Greece that is, but three swallows and five ducklings in Oakington?  Surely that makes a sprung spring at last.

April 21st, 2010. 7.30 a.m. A short walk yesterday so I do it again today, retracing my steps, to get a morning perspective. Another superb day, and not a cloud in sight. Nothing unusual or extraordinary to report, but I realize now that there are some creatures so familiar or so commonplace that I have hardly mentioned them. So here’s to the unsung  – the waddling magpies, the soft, mewing collared doves, the skulking and scuddering streamside moorhens, the squawking pheasants, and the choristers who belt it out morning and evening, the blackbirds and robins. And to the rabbits, of all sizes, a-bounding.

A few bumblebees are active at this hour, but I see only a single butterfly – an almost pure white female brimstone, with a faint touch of green. A grey squirrel dashes away up a limb. Incredibly, this is only the third grey I’ve seen this year during some 30 walks. What you don’t see is as significant as what you do see (and I haven’t seen the buzzards for a while). A wide-legged rook stands in the shallows of the stream, like a matron wading at the seaside, bracing herself against tiny waves. Lost lambs and anxious ewes holler to each other across the pastures.

Some people walk to think, but I find that I walk to unthink. In stalking the world the mind empties out and the chatter is silenced. There is no place for thought when you are purely attentive, alert to the slightest of movements and sounds, and open to all possibilities. You are, then, also, forgetful of self. And in that you are no longer apart. You are a child, or a hunter. People say they need time to think, when they really need time to unthink. Thinking is what’s got us into this mess, thinking the unthinkable.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature