Tag Archives: wagtail

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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walk69

October 24th, 2010. Late afternoon, again. A bright cold day, with high cirrus and even one or two piles of cumulus in an autumn-blue sky. I take the long muddy track past the spent strawberry tunnels – half a square mile of plastic slowly deteriorating, muffled snatches of Slavic from the last lonely workers within – and across the green weed-field beyond, one of the few to have lain fallow all through the year. A family’s out walking, the small boy behind pushing his bike through the grass – it’s rare to see anyone venturing out off the roads or paths. The big lapwing field is now down to rape, striped with seedlings. This western side of the village is bathed in the wash of A14 traffic but it’s open and I can walk in the last of the sun, now just a finger or two above the horizon.

Skirting the deserted golf course I strike south towards Girton, perched on its slightest of ridges. From this direction you can see why it was settled, just a few vital feet off the fen. A strip of sown borage between the verge and the field is still in striking blue flower. I disturb a kestrel from its post in a hawthorn and it quietly flips over the hedgerow into the golf course. A hundred yards further up, I unnerve it again, and this time it flies low and slow across the sweep of brown field in front, barely two feet above ground, sharp-winged in the light, eventually settling into the earth itself, looking small and insignificant in the clod. It defecates forcefully, ejecting a hot squirt of mouse and small bird, then flies up to its watch in the hawthorn once more. But the fields are otherwise utterly empty. It is only on the closely-mown turf of the driving range, just below Girton, that I see a few birds. A handful of fieldfares and redwings, last seen in mid-March, and a scattering of active black-and white wagtails. Migrants, taking a break. Among them a resident green woodpecker, its black mask gazing at the sky, red nape and olive-green back lit by the lowering sun.

I pass through the churchyard at Girton as a single tolling calls the villagers to evensong. Feral pigeons, white and grey, huddle on the shutters of the squat stone tower. The church is white and lit within, as empty as the fields. In the recreation ground only a teenage girl sits still and solemn on a swing. I cut through the ‘community woodland’, with paths and benches set in an impenetrable thicket of ash saplings, and set off along a very muddy and slippery ‘permissive footpath’, between wire fences, across the fields towards Histon. A woman and her dog pass hurriedly by. Nothing moves in the fields. Over in the west, the far horizon is a Chinese landscape of castles on forested mountains set between deep plunging valleys. The sky behind is softly layered in a spectrum of colours – deep orange merging up into yellow, then into green, then into indigo blue. Dusk soon overtakes me and the light is sucked from the land. It is a long three miles back home without the company of light or landscape or creatures, but I pick up on the concrete strips of the guided-busway, which will guide me, if not buses, back home. In the east, not high above the heave of the earth, a more-or-less full moon appears, bright but tiny, a mere farthing in the darkness. I hear only the sound of my breathing and tread of my feet. I become aware of a vague shape in front, a figure approaching, a man in fact, who soon emerges round-faced and stocky, of oriental extraction, beside me, and without breaking stride we exchange a ‘gd’evening’ and pass on, each fading back into our separate black nights as if we had never existed.

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crayfishwalk65

August 31st, 2010. A two-hour stroll round the village bounds before sunset. The evening is dry, sunny and still, and after a wet and windy month all the more so. Only the faintest patterns and tracings of high cirrus cloud marble the pale blueness of sky. Gone are the dry acres, parched lawns and cracked ground of summer. The land is once again green. The gently rollicking pastures dip and rise under a close new turf. Verges and banks have sprung a thick crop of grass, field ditches filled, fulfilled, now falling, foliage washed clean, though there are very few flowers out at this time of year: amongst them, the flat off-white heads of yarrow, sometimes pink, the little two-toned yellow toadflax, the mealy, grey-green couscous balls of fat hen, and the clear yellow sprays of Canadian goldenrod, a garden escape; also, well into their season and still flowering, the lipped orchid-like mouths of the white dead-nettle, in whorls up the stem, the five purple-veined pink petals of the common mallow, and up the ravaged guided-busway still a few white campions and the last yellow flowers on the great spikes of mullein, with downy leaves as soft as lambs’ ears.

In the flat open paddocks to the west of the village a mixed party of wagtails flits nimbly about the horses’ hooves and blowing muzzles, picking off invisible insects disturbed by the great animals as they slowly tread forward, step by step, grazing green blades. I have hardly seen any of these ground-hugging birds this year. The five British species are difficult to identify, with summer and winter, and adult and juvenile variations in plumage. These are mostly, I think, grey wagtails, the first I’ve seen, with lemon yellow underparts, though they could be summer visiting yellow wagtails, or both. Amongst them is a solitary pied wagtail, or it could be a juvenile yellow. Who knows? What pleases me though is the way these slim, delicate creatures and towering muscled horses, unlikely companions, move forward together, at ease and as one.

Beck Brook is a respectable stream once again, knee-deep in water. Peering over the edge of a footbridge, a slow, jerky movement on the bottom catches my eye. And there it is, surely the weirdest creature in these parts – a crayfish, lumbering through the brickbats, lumps of concrete, bits of iron pipe and odd bicycle wheel that litter the muddy bed of our brook at this point. I had been told there were crayfish here, and I must have stared into this very same bit of water fifty times this year and never caught a glimpse of one. It is uniformly brown with a sheen of green, like the mud around it, with no distinguishing markings, about 6 or 7 inches long – a primordial iron-plated bulldozer with two enormous grabbing claws. The bulging eyes on top of its head, long black antennae waving around, multiple legs, segmented body and strange, blunt, fan-shaped tail-plate are grotesquely alien by any standard. This is probably the American Signal Crayfish (with bright red undersides to the claws, which I cannot see) that has almost wiped out our smaller native White-clawed Crayfish. I spot another, some six feet away from the first, but this one is missing a claw and about two-thirds of one antenna – a heron perhaps, or mugged by another male? It seems none the worse for wear. I toy with the idea of catching these two and having them for supper, if indeed they are Americans (the native English is protected) but, as hungry as I am, they are pretty repellent and ‘er indoors would be less than pleased with my foraging.

From a distance, the trees on the northern edge of Histon have taken on a bronzed, autumnal tint. But these are horse-chestnuts, their leaves curled and riddled and burnt with disease, prematurely aged by blight and the leaf-miner moth. It is the same everywhere now – you can pick out the horse-chestnuts from a mile away. Much of the wheat has been harvested (though still some stands), leaving great stretches of stubble studded with rolls of straw the size of small cars. Agricultural machinery grinds and trundles in a far field, and the village roads are busy with tractors. All this noise and activity however doesn’t disturb the smooth, mind-stopping tranquility of a late summer’s evening. Swallows still weave and loop through the air, a small flock of goldfinches dive into a hedge one after another, and a single grey heron lopes off into the pale lilac sky. Yet all is utterly still.

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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.

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