Tag Archives: wood pigeon

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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jaywalk76

November 28, 2010. Late morning. Cold, clear and sunny. No snow last night, but a very heavy frost. A sparkling high-definition winter’s day, with everything at its sharpest and most intensely coloured. The horse pasture below the church is a white sheet of crystals. A jay flies low and settles on the ground. Not often encountered this year, though for the past week or so a pair has visited the garden, ever-wary and off at the slightest of movements. This must be one of them. The light is behind me and for the first time I see its true colours – both deep and pale pink, black and white, and that flash of sky in the wing, a pure azure more perfect in blueness than all other blues.

Beck brook is partially frozen over, as translucent and flawed as old glass. The feeder from Histon is sealed across, though further up, a clear stream of water flows between shelves of white ice. On the ground each blade of grass is a colony of towering crystals, and each leaf a crisp, curled shard of colour that shatters under the boot. Beyond the brook, in the middle of a winter-wheat field, the green just breaking through, is a solitary little egret, slender and white, hunched at the shoulder, standing on one thin black leg in the sun. Perfectly still, it doesn’t even swivel its head or long bill, as if frozen solid. Last seen, in this same vicinity, in early June. An hour later, when I have looped around, it passes overhead, towards the north, long neck tucked back, legs and yellow feet stretched out behind. It flies on stiff concave wings, never straightening or flexing them, holding the curve of the air. That each species has its own distinctive wing movement and flight pattern, as one would expect, is still endlessly fascinating, still wondrous to me.

In the patch of woodland along the brook, blackbirds aplenty scuffle through litter, and fly off with a protest into the undergrowth. There is a steady, slow-motion falling of leaves from above, a reluctant descent of minerals through air, from field maples and oaks. A couple of squirrels, in different locations, retreat to the biggest trees and eye me from on high, their thick, soft tails arched forward over their backs. I am on the lookout now for our local tribe of black melanistic squirrels, though these two show no sign of the tarbrush. I tarry for some time at the brook where it curves round to pass under the road-bridge. The sun has brought out the birds. On the bankside, robins, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, and a solitary redwing, with blushed flanks and a striking pale supercilium through the line of the eye, pass back and forth over the water, here clear of ice. These last are usually highly gregarious. A moorhen picks through the shallows. The clear light transforms this sombre, uniformly dark bird into a creature extraordinary, for it is exquisitely, subtly two-toned – deep grey-black above and paler slate-grey below, separated by a wavy white line; in front, a small red bill, behind, the double white tail, jerking incessantly. Then an unexpected delight. A kingfisher alights on a thin branch arching over the water, as kingfishers do. Facing away from me, I see only the iridescent turquoise-blue back but as it flashes away downstream it reveals its orange-red underparts. A little winged jewel. I’ve not seen one since mid-July.

Walking upstream I put up a male mallard. It flies high in a big sweeping arc and as it turns back towards me, five others, two drakes and three ducks, in tight formation, wing fast overhead in the same direction. It soon catches up with its crew, and off they go, united. A flight of mallard against a big winter sky – what could be more evocative, more symbolic, of an English winter, except perhaps the scent of woodsmoke? A single lapwing flies west on broad rounded wings – strange to see one on its own. Then five minutes later, half a dozen follow suit. Reaching the big fields beyond, hazed green with young blades of wheat, I find dozens more, scattered evenly over a wide area, working the frozen earth. Green-black bodies, white below, with distinctive wispy black crests, they look small against the great expanse. White gulls wheel lazily above, landing occasionally. The hedgerow harbours several dozen fieldfares which abscond one by one as I approach, making small noises of discontent. They keep looping forward into the next tree along, blue-grey and rust-red in flight, flashing white underparts and black tail.

A final epiphany thanks to today’s special light. Woodpigeons, as plump as college porters, sit in a pasture, larger than life, sunbathing. The commonest bird in these parts, easily overlooked, yet in coloration and marking, really quite stunning. That white wing bar in flight, for example. But up close, the degrees of blueness in the greys of head and wing shading into the magenta-pink barrel-chest, the splash of white and shimmer of purple and green on the neck, make this a most handsome bird.

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raindawn62

August 6th, 2010. 4 a.m. I walk out of the village through wet and deserted streets, King of the Road. It’s raining steadily. A low blanket of cloud covers the sky and eclipses the dawn. Except for a faint glow to the south from the lights of the city all is dim, as murky as pond water. A week of showers has softened the land and I can once again smell the earth, the odorous earth. I linger awhile beside Sparrowhawk Copse but there’s not a sound, not a peep. In the far distance the lights from a delivery truck strobe through a  hedgerow.

I walk up the guided-busway to Histon then along puddled tracks to my now favourite place, the scrubland. A single, disembodied kraawwk is shouted down from the cloud, close overhead, startling and pleasing. Who could deny that this is a greeting – from one creature to another, crossing paths in the wet, lonely dawn. It was a heron perhaps, for not long after I disturb one from a ditch and it flies low and slow up the black line of water, shedding raindrops. A cock crows somewhere far away. That’s it for the dawn chorus today. Ten Canada geese fly out of nowhere, heading south, very low and in close V-formation, uncannily silent. Out in the overgrown scrub I gather plump, glistening blackberries, oval blue damsons, ‘the plum of Damsacus’, and round cherry-plums full of juice. These last fall into my cupped hand with the lightest of touches. I am soaked through of course, but no fruit tasted better, wild and rain-washed and straight from the bush.

I make my way homeward. The rain eases off and the clouds disassemble, revealing clear blue sky high above. At my approach mute woodpigeons spill out of each tree in turn, in twos and threes. Their quills thrum with the first few wingbeats then ease into silent flight mode. As I pass Beck Brook, at one of its widest spots, a full four feet across, there are a couple of sploshes, loud in the dawn, and a V-shaped wavelet ripples the channel between blooms of pondweed – the bow-wave of a water vole, ever-elusive. Sometimes all we are offered is a glimpse or a trace – of vole, or sparrowhawk, or the divine. It is enough for now, enough to whet our appetite, to ramble on, seek further, drink deeper.

hedgerow harvest - blackberries, damsons, cherry plums

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sunrisewalk61

August 2nd, 2010. Just after 5 – the sun’s up but shuttered behind a bank of lilac-grey cloud streaked with fire. The morning is hollowed by a massed choir of woodpigeons all round the village, each uttering its own unique version of the deep, guttural, five-note call of the species – coo-COO-coo, coo-coo. Individually, the voice of a woodpigeon sounds unpracticed and laboured, muttered rather than spoken, sometimes breaking off abruptly after the second syllable as if the bird just couldn’t be bothered. It is a coarse, rustic sound compared to that of the sweet-talking collared dove. Yet, en masse, in a thousand different pitches and tones, these woody breath-notes coalesce to a great soul-soothing murmuration that spreads peace and tranquility over the land. And this from a bird so commonplace that we barely give it a thought (except as a bane to the farmer, and as meat for the pot).

I am captivated by another bird sound this morning – that of the white-eyed jackdaw, one of my favourites, not least because each year a pair nests in my chimney. Jackdaws are sociable birds, always cheeky and cheerful. They remind me of Italians, with all due respect. They salute each other with sharp, staccato calls that have a distinctive echoing quality, ‘tchak-ak’, ‘tchow-ow’. I always assumed that this puzzling phenomenon was indeed an echo of some sort but I now think, in some cases at least, it is really a split-second response from another jackdaw. If so, this is truly remarkable. A gang swirls by, releasing a volley of greetings that sound like the shots fired in some old arcade game, a kind of fly-by shoot-up for fun.

A wandering muntjac breaks the curved skyline of the harvested rape field, making its unhurried way to the cover of an adjacent slip of wooded scrub where it will lie up for the day. It is probably the same animal I saw in this field some days ago. I come here because it is one of the few spots in this flatland where there is an uninterrupted view for several miles from south-west to south-east. In my corner of England, where we are usually hemmed in by hedgerows and windbreaks, a clear prospect of two or three miles seems like a blessing, as good as thirty miles elsewhere.

At my approach a kestrel breaks from the trees and circles round out of sight. From a distance its flight is like that of a woodpigeon, with deep rapid wingbeats, but its longer tail and more pointed wings give it away. I backtrack to find it, and as I turn a corner of the field it launches out again from the windbreak, some one hundred yards further off. It is very wary of me, this particular bird. It circles round in front again and settles in an isolated bush in the midst of the field. As it lands, the thin branch bends and springs back in slow motion. As I watch it through the binoculars, a commotion breaks out at the bottom end of the field. The noise is unmistakable. It is a green woodpecker, panic-stricken, and I just catch a glimpse of it diving low through a gateway being pursued by a shadow – a hawk-shadow hot on its tail. Then silence. I make for the opening, expecting, yes hoping, to see a hawk mantling over its prey. But the field is empty. It might though have killed on the wing and carried the limp green body into the trees. I am certain this is my elusive sparrowhawk. We are right by the willow copse where I think one rests up. I listen and listen, and then, from within, comes the faint sound of mewing – sparrowhawk, surely.  I have yet to get a clear sight of this bird.

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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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snowrun8

11th Jan, 2010. Route4 anticlockwise. Out well before sunrise so a real dawn run today. It is nicely cold, the sky is overcast again, surprisingly light. I stop to chat to a tough little 60ish woman of the village who is delivering the local paper on her old bike. “Out for a run then are ee?”, and then, inexplicably, she starts laughing, loudly. I am a little taken aback, and then I remember, back in the summer, when I was up a ladder clipping the front hedge, she did the same thing, bursting out into laughter when she saw me. I don’t know whether it is me that she finds so hilarious, or the world in general. I hope it is the latter. There was something of a thaw yesterday, and a refreeze last night, so conditions are icy. On the guided-busway track, there is a completely different feel and sound to the snow. It is crisper, and more crunchy underfoot, with a bite, and where it has been compacted by walkers, runners, cyclists, horses and even vehicles, it is slick and dangerous. ‘Do not refreeze after thawing!’. I run gingerly, with small steps. A couple of rabbits flee in front of me, squeezing under the metal paling just like Peter Rabbit squeezing under Mr McGregor’s kitchen-garden gate, a favourite childhood image that comes back to me after half a century. Away from the street lights now the snow in the fields has a definite bluish tinge.

I turn west onto the grassy drove towards Longstanton, and am surprised to find a pair of running shoes in the middle of the track, frozen into the snow, both facing the same way, a stride apart. I’m pretty certain they weren’t here a few days ago when I passed this way. They look fine, but it is difficult to tell. There is a story here. I find it hard to believe anyone would carry a spare pair of shoes on their walk or run, so someone must have abandoned them and continued barefoot or besocked through the snow. I look around for more clues, other items of clothing. I even look in the ditch. Was it that he (for they were definitely men’s trainers) simply decided that it would be fun to run barefoot in the snow, like a Tibetan monk, or was it that he was jogging so slowly that the snow froze round his feet, rendering him immobile mid-stride so that he lurched forward face-first into the snow and had to undo the laces and abandon the shoes. This is not so far-fetched as it seems, for there are reports that the feet of ducks on Canadian lakes and ponds sometimes get frozen into the water, rendering them helpless, flapping their wings, until someone comes along and hews them out of the ice, or hews them for supper.

Past the Detention Centre… no inmates to be seen out and about (do they lock down at night?), only security guards checking cleaners and workers in and out … up the greenway to Longstanton and past the thatched church, locked unfortunately, where I had hoped to sit in the silence awhile. Back on the no-through-road towards Oakington, tarmacadamed and slick with black ice, forcing me to run on the grassy verge, or rather walk. I was just thinking about the lack of life I had encountered this morning when at least 500 wood pigeons pass overhead, flying fairly high out of the west, casting a definite momentary shadow over the land, forcing me to look up. They are remarkably evenly spaced, covering a good portion of sky, flying steadily, like bombers over Dresden. A sight to see.

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winterun 2

New Year’s Day, 2010. It’s cold but brilliant. I head east up Water Lane. It’s already 8.30 but no-one is about to greet me, except the rooks below the vicarage that call down their rough and crusty craa-craas. South now, along the guided-busway again, towards Histon. The snowmelt pools and puddles from recent rains are frozen over, opaque round the edges like trachoma eyes, and the sod is frozen hard and jagged, difficult to run on, dangerous to fall on. The sun is straight ahead now, almost south I’d say at this season, and low on the horizon, even at this time of day, a little above eye-height and sending my enormous shadow back to where I’ve come from, exposing strange long regular swales and rises across the parkland opposite, the fossilized remains of a medieval open field, no? Some way off in the middle of a winter-wheat field, just showing through, sits a flock of seagulls, huddled and motionless, taking in the first warmth.

I reach the crossing, turning east again, with the lightest flecks of snow, diamond dust, floating past horizontally, more like pollen, and then north up the bridle-way and farm-track into the face of a freezing wind blowing steadily down from the North Sea. It’s cold, very cold, and I am forced to keep running just to stay warm. On one side of the track is a line of squat but mature horse-chestnuts, pink-flowered in the summer, half an avenue leading nowhere, but now every third tree dead with disease and one indeed now crashed to the ground, split straight through the bole. I race for shelter where the track runs beside a hedge as a huge flock of wood-pigeons, perhaps 500 strong, rise up over the horizon, surprisingly lithe and fast in high flight.

Back through the park of Westwick House, ignored by the sheep, grubby in their winter coats, plastic tags hanging from both ears like embarrassed revelers the morning after, except for one that eyes me suspiciously all the way. Then onto the road back home, passed by a single iced-up car, and a plucky girl delivering newspapers on a bike. I am, not surprisingly, knackered. Happy New Year.

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