Tag Archives: yellowhammer

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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pikewalk51

July 8th, 2010. A 5-mile walkabout before breakfast, north up the guided-busway, east by Reynold’s Drove, south by Cuckoo Lane, then west along the Cottenham-Oakington road. It’s been a while since I’ve taken this route.

It rained during the night and there are puddles again on pavement and road but I suspect it has only wetted the lips of the land. I walk out into light drizzle that soon peters out. From north to south and from east to west the sky is covered by one, unbroken, uniformly dove-grey layer of stratus. Slowly during the course of the walk dappled cloud formations emerge out of this undifferentiated ocean of vapour. They come into being from unbeing, bringing texture and hue and shape and movement to the overcast sky. So the world is made manifest from the unmanifest.

The moribund busway is fairly busy with commuter cyclists at this time of morning but few return my greeting. Most are plugged in to iPods and MP3s and simply don’t hear my g’mornings. Neither do they hear the skylarks, yellowhammers, jackdaws and collared doves that compose the soundscape around them. They are, for the most part, utterly un-plugged – disconnected from the world and the people around them – at least when they’re cycling. If I were king……

I am always thrilled to see a heron. They are such big birds. And they evoke the primeval. As one flies away from me, following the brook as it winds through the fields, its distinctive wing movement is all too apparent – deep, slow beats with the whole wing held stiff from the shoulder, mechanical, laboured, quite unlike the supple, bowed wingbeats of buzzards and rooks, for example, with their splayed and upturned primaries.

The wheat in the fields is yellowing in patches while the barley is all pale golden-beige, almost ripe for reaping. Hay-fields have already been cleared and present open expanses of closely-cropped stubble. Brambles are in violet-pink flower (rather than white), now dominating the hedgerows and waste grounds. Dozens of medium-sized, dark brown butterflies that I take to be Ringlets or Meadow Browns work the flowers along the steep bank of the brook, among which are occasional clumps of the lovely blue-purple meadow cranesbill. Of white flowers out now are large daisies and mayweeds, white campions still and yarrow emerging, but the largest and showiest are the pure white, trumpet-shaped bindweeds, three inches across, the scourge of farmers and gardeners, but surely one of our brightest flowers on a dull day.

Large Bindweed

As is so often the case, just as I come into the village at the end of my walk, lamenting the absence of wildlife, I am truly taken by surprise. I peer over the bridge into Beck Brook, as I customarily do, expecting no more than a mallard perhaps, or a moorhen. But today, here, where the brook is at its most streamlike, perhaps eight feet wide and a foot deep at this driest of seasons, I see something remarkable…..not one, but two, wild fish – proper fish, big enough to eat. How can I get so excited about fish? Well in six months I’ve never seen anything larger than a paperclip in this rivulet, not even a fingerling. The first is sculling slowly upstream, silverish with dark dorsal fin and tail. Allowing for the distortion of water and the exaggeration that fishpersons are prone to, I’d say it is about 10 inches long. I’ve no idea what it is – it’s shaped like a trout but is definitely not. Nearby, on the muddy bottom, lying as still as a corpse, as they do, is the unmistakable body-shape of a pike, or rather, a pickerel. It is slender, perhaps a foot long, olive green with dark, broken vertical stripes, and that distinctive, flattened snout like a dolphin’s beak. It barely stirs – it is in hunting mode. I don’t know why the discovery of two substantial fish in the stream should be so thrilling, so significant… perhaps I need to get out more …. but I know now why heron frequent this surprising sliver of water.

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walk29

April 10th., 2010. Saturday. A high, empty, silver-blue sky, with just the faintest smear of cirrus over the west. I walk in sunshine for three hours. Horned cattle and their calves graze the old airfield. Horse-chestnut leaves have emerged, hanging limp like newly-hatched butterflies. I take the old track towards Histon accompanied by yellowhammers and reed bunting. A woodpecker drills wood somewhere far off, the sound carrying on the air as if amplified. I disturb two cock pheasants duelling at the entrance to a field. As they scuffle and scrap they growl at each other, like dogs, then catapult away when they see me, in opposite directions, protesting to the heavens. Skylarks are singing above both the rape and the wheat fields.

I walk through the northern part of Histon village. The allotments here are the centre of earnest activity. Old men arrive on bicycles armed with rakes and hoes, like peasants going to war. Plots are groomed and fretted over, laid with strings, and parted with drills as straight as arrows. Seed potatoes are lovingly placed in the bottom of trenches. Grown men (for it is mostly men, there being but a single female amongst them) are down on their knees, with a pinch of seed between finger and thumb, engaged in delicate operations.  Each works to his own, proud of his patch, eyeing his neighbour. Long live the allotments.

I cross the Histon-Cottenham road and walk on baulks between big fields. A lone tractor-driver, cocooned in his cab, is harrowing a field that stretches to the horizon. Man and machine move very slowly across the landscape, not much faster than a team of horses. It’s a more lonely life now, for sure, out in the fields. Skylarks still sing somewhere above my head.

I cross back over the road, to head home. I chance on a drove that tunnels through trees and leads to a travellers’ settlement, hidden well back from the mainstream. Drew is fixing a hole in the track and eyes me suspiciously. “What is it that you’re looking for?” he says, first off. This throws me. The directness of it. But the Irish countryman in him comes out when I talk of animals and birds and he recalls how last year he took the little children in the pony and trap down to the end of the drove so they could catch lizards in nets. We talk horses. I like this man. He shows me the way ahead over the ‘moor’ to meet up with the ‘Roman’ road back to Oakington. His ‘family’ spread consists of one fixed abode – a small brick bungalow – and about a dozen caravans. There are white vans of course, smart new sheds, chicken coops. Two coloured ponies are tethered nearby, cocks crow, fires burn rubbish, a dog barks, washing flaps on a line.

There are small overgrown pastures here, and I have difficulty getting through to open land. I bushwhack through a bank covered with fallen trunks, last year’s brambles and emerging nettles, collecting thorns and tears along the way. It’s worth the struggle, for on the other side a green lane runs along a field, and there, in an old gnarled, oddling apple-tree are a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers, working the bark, tapping here and there quite gently. Unlike green woodpeckers, which are extremely wary, these seem unconcerned by my presence. I watch them for some minutes, barely 20 feet away. Through binoculars I see every feather. They are strikingly black and white, these birds, the male with a crimson nape, both with bright crimson rumps under the tail, as if they had sat in a spill of red ink. This is a noteworthy encounter for me, having seen this bird before only fleetingly.

I now recognize this tract, having been here not long ago, stalking buzzard. I look up and sure enough, there they are, a pair of buzzards circling upwards, 200 feet, 500 feet, higher and higher, round and round they go, not a flicker of a wing, soaring elegantly with outstretched wings on a thermal fountain rising from the warmed earth. From my earthbound position, they are both moving clockwise, opposite each other, as if fixed together on a slowly spinning arm. As they rise their circling becomes tighter and tighter, the birds closer and closer, until at one thousand feet or more, reduced to mere specks in the heavens, they reach the apex of their flight and merge together as one.

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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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