Turn

I went to see a buzzard today, and to feel how the year has turned and how far I’ve come.

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Buzzards often hang around near this small wood – a fairly dense collection of various types of tree, probably planted as a windbreak or screen for the farm behind, because the ground is flat and open just there: exposed enough for a small windfarm to have been sited on the other side. The turbines change direction depending on the wind: today they were mostly facing north-northwest, turning their usual circles, on a brilliantly sunny, briskly breezy morning. There were several dragonflies enjoying the warmth on the path.

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Autumn’s colours have begun to take hold – the sunshine made flames of the cherry trees planted on the outside edge, and picked out the turning maples. There were rustles underfoot.

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A jay screetched from somewhere in the interior and made me jump. The only other sound was from the turbines nearby, which sound a little like the air-noise you sometimes become aware of just before you hear the engines of a fighter jet racing across the sky – a hiss, the sound of air being compressed and chopped and propelled, I suppose. Some days they also make a slight underlying whine, a bit like a washing-machine quietly churning away before the spin cycle. But today there was just the low hiss, the rhythmic shadow on the field falling and lifting, falling and lifting, turn, turn, turn

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and boom! there was the buzzard. It came sailing over the top of the trees and circled overhead, checking out my movements before it wheeled away in search of prey more to its liking. A beautiful, pale-coloured bird, not the largest I’ve seen here, and also not the loudest: just one small plaintive cry – one of my favourite sounds, something that lifts you right out of yourself instantly – before it headed elsewhere. I said hallo to it, and felt the sun’s warmth, and remembered previous walks here, and admired the colours.

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Black gold

Autumn is pushing at an open door. Here is September, which I am conditioned to think of as the main source of Newness (thanks, school). It also means this:

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Half an hour was all it took. The blackberries slipped off their stalks with the slightest persuasion, and started little avalanches among their neighbours (boxes held beneath each heavy stem to catch the bonus bounty as it tumbled). Pick all your voluptuous words and string them together and you still wouldn’t come close to the swollen abundance.

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There is a whole long riverbank of this. The water slipped by, quiet and clear. Not many birds watching me collecting the fruit, apart from a robin tick-tick-ticking at me a couple of bushes further along the footpath, and some goldfinches tinkling overhead. A few mallards and moorhens on the water. Woodpigeons clattering through the ash trees.

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The ivy has just started to open in a few places. It’s already attracting bees. Soon there will be thousands and thousands of these tiny flowers.

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And so we tip into another season: that wearyingly hot, dry summer now feels as though it belonged to another year entirely. Everything is changing, turning. Jumpers on. Let’s go.

 

Small things

After the deep freeze in early March, now the long drought. It has been hot and dry for weeks and weeks, and trees are stressed and dropping leaves, and flowers are over before they’ve begun, and grass has dessicated to dusty strands and simply stopped: suspended, it is waiting for the skies to open and the air to cool, and it is not alone.

Along the river path, lined with drooping nettles and shrunken brambles, the greens are browning. The river was low and sluggish today; the fields simmered quietly, crops trembling in a heat-haze rather than a breeze. But the path was alive with butterflies – I saw a comma, a gatekeeper, a peacock and a lot of whites, large and small. Apparently the way to tell these apart is to look at the corners. This is a small white, judging by that advice. It looks as though it’s had a stressful summer.

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Banded demoselles skimmed the surface of the water. The river was full of the tall reedy greenery that springs up at this time of year, while the plants on the banks were looking healthy enough – clumps of Himalayan balsam, busy with bees; splashes of tansy and the last of the thistles, and a plant I asked Twitter about and was kindly told was small teasel, dipsacus pilosus – tall, thistly flowerheads, with white flowers that were attracting insects.

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The big horse chestnut that marks the halfway point between one mill and another is already rusting and the conkers seem very advanced for the third week of July, surely.

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A mallard moved her young closer into the reeds as I passed, watching me until she judged I’d moved far enough away. The only other birds I saw were wrens, goldfinches, sparrows and great tits. All the small birds are still ekeing out their riverside lives in this great heat.

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On the way back I found a kestrel feather on the path. I’ve seen kestrels from here many times, hunting in the scrubby field next to the water. Now I can’t stop picking up this feather and thinking about the bird it came from.

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Here today

People need homes. But it was hard not to feel grim about the sight (and sound) of housebuilders’ diggers eating up more of the farmland I think of as the skylark fields.

The people who will live in these new houses will have magnificent birdsong to accompany their lives, if they open the windows and listen. Skylarks live in the surrounding fields, dozens of them, protecting nests with their astonishing flight songs, hurtling skyward out of here:

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And out of here.

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These are the views to the left of the path. To the right, metal fencing around the building site comes up to the path for a short distance, and behind that piles of excavated earth, a new road (or maybe it will be a pavement), a temporary car park, cars, hard hats, a generator whirring, heavy machinery rumbling and clanking, distant shouting.

A corn bunting was sitting on the fence and scratching away at a phrase every few seconds. I know this now, but I didn’t then. I only knew it sounded like a new bird to me. I took a couple of poor photos, and recorded a short clip on the phone, and once home asked Al what it was. He knows about these matters that matter, and told me what it was. I looked this bird up.

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A corn bunting “is most usually seen perched on a wire or post,” the RSPB said. It seems a metal fence around a building site will do just as well. It flew across the path after a minute or so and repeated its call from the field edge, where the cow parsley is now going over but other flowers are taking its place – white campion, mallow, poppies, hedge mustard, and others I can’t name. The skylarks rose and fell and sang all the while in the background, deeper into the field. Here’s a good recording of a corn bunting from Xeno-Canto, better than mine.

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The corn bunting is on the Red list after a “dramatic population decline”, the RSPB says. The UK population fell by a horrific 89% between 1970 and 2003. “This is mainly because fewer seed and insect food sources are available to them on farmland,” the society adds. Corn buntings are also a late-nesting species, and so vulnerable to nest destruction during harvesting.

Breeding success relates directly to the availability of insect food. Corn buntings take insects from crops, set-aside, grassland and field margins. The RSPB has advice for farmers on land management for corn buntings and says on its website that there are 11,000 breeding territories in the UK.

A mile or so further on, the paved path runs out at the farmhouse and turns into a foot-worn track across the common land where horses and cows graze and jackdaws, crows and starlings gather in large groups.

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A buzzard was circling in the far distance over the forested hillside; a woodpecker was drumming up there too, somewhere. Half a dozen swallows made regular forays out from the barns behind me and over the common before swooping back to their nests. I’m glad they’re back again. I do wonder whether the corn bunting will hang about though.

A little bit of bread

The crop is several inches high now. There are skylarks among it – and above it.

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A male kestrel was hunting along the railway embankment at the far end of the field, searching up and down the trackside, and taking short pauses on the telegraph wires.

Nearer me, a yellowhammer was loudly repeating his very particular call; I caught sight of him at the top of some hawthorn before he dropped back into the long hedge that divides two fields. One field is under cultivation and the other is thistly scrub. The hedge is full of birds, but his song stood out from the chorus today.

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The wild plants along the path are coming into flower now. There will soon be a lot of poppies and thistles – great clumps of greenery have sprouted up everywhere. One thistle was early:

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The hawthorn is past its very best now in places, but the elderflowers are opening. And still the glorious cow-parsley froth goes on. It’s particularly lovely under the trees in the coppice, where the light and shade do magical things.

 

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More bird calls came from inside the coppice; blackbirds, a robin, something I couldn’t identify. I stood on the edge and looked in. The air was cool and green in there. But I sat on the path with my back to the wood, just shaded by it, and watched the fields for skylarks instead. Over and over again they rose from their few inches of cover and sang, and fluttered way above me and sang, and sang some more, and then abruptly flipped the switch to Off and dropped out of sight. A fast train shrieked past, just a field away; the road rumbled in the further distance; a small plane crossed; another train sped by; but suddenly it was just me and the skylarks for a minute. And light on the leaves above.

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Fresh breath

The river was low and lazy this hot May morning. The air was clouded in places with insects, drifts of seeds, and handfuls of hawthorn confetti. The riverbank has exploded into all the greens and whites imaginable.

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Apart from the purple comfrey flowers, this is the entire palette just now, bar the odd dandelion along the footpath here and there. The hawthorn and the cow parsley are locked in an Ultimate Froth competition, with garlic mustard and nettles providing backup. The big horse chestnut tree is in full candle. The willows are drooping their new leaves down to the water and the ashes are finally extending green fronds outwards. Everything looks cool and fresh, astringent, new.

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A tern patrolled the water, fishing: graceful wingbeats, a sudden turn on a sixpence as it spotted something, plunged, ascended, again and again. Dunnocks were busy all along the hedge, wrens called at intervals, and a singing robin accompanied me to the edge of his patch before returning to his preferred lookout. No sign of a kingfisher or the kestrel today. No sign of the magpies either, but their enormous nest was still visible among the new greenery, top left on the other bank.

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After all that green, the glorious expanse of red campion in the field next to the river was enough to pull anyone up sharply. I wonder who else has seen it, perhaps from the higher viewpoint of the A-road that roars nearby. It’ll be here a little while yet.

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Of the field

They’re back, the people at Wicken Fen said. The skylarks are singing. It was the push I needed. The thaw had set in at last, after days below zero: the colours had been restored to a soggy, boggy, claggy world. Still the kind of air that bites at your ears and a rain-later sky, but off, out, away.

I stopped on the path between roughly ploughed fields to try to hear the skylarks that usually live in these fields. The sounds came through faintly, on the wind – just a scattering of notes from that great flow of song – they were further on, behind the copse. And then I heard the buzzard cry. A sound to transport you instantly from a world of buildings and traffic and plastic and litter and thoughtless barging through life. Beautiful, beautiful bird. It crossed the fields in seconds and circled the copse for a minute or two, and then decided to hunt further away, nearer the river.

As I reached the patch of open ground next to the copse, which is full of thistles later in the year, there was a quick movement from the ground upwards: a kestrel. She sat in a distant tree, but with binoculars I watched her watching me and her surroundings – then she moved deeper into cover.

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I moved one pace forward and – a flash of white: I just had time to focus the binoculars on a jay before it hid – I traced the blue into the copse until it disappeared. First time I’ve seen one here.

Around the final bend to the copse, and the view opened up to the spread of land between the road and the train line, which is about 2.5 miles across at this point. A flat, open space of fields, with wind turbines in the middle thanks to that flat openness, and there, on the neatly tilled and sown fields around the turbines, there are the skylarks. Alauda arvensis, the lark of the field. I couldn’t see them, but their song soared above the muffled roar of the road and the intermittent hoot and thunder of the trains. All the notes, one after the other, over and over. The wheel has turned again, they’re back, on we all go. I can do this; you can do this; we can do this.

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