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.


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.






I think today was the day that the scales tipped decisively in favour of Spring. There have been some bright flashes among the murky, oh so rainy/sleety/snowy days so far in January, but today the sky was full of promise from the beginning. The sky was blue, the temperature rose, and the birds responded.


A short lunchtime walk turned into a string of robin boundary points: four in half an hour, there and back. All giving it everything at their best territory lookouts: all delightful. At home, something has happened to one of the two robins that charmed and enslaved me late last year: they came daily to the door for food (from opposite sides of the garden) for weeks, but somewhere along the way one has perished, or set up home elsewhere.

I read a bit about robin territories in The Life Of The Robin by David Lack – this little book is a scientific study and extremely charming at the same time, no mean feat: highly recommended – and it seems that a lot of boundary changes can happen at this time of year. The more timid of the two is still seeking out suet, but only when I am back indoors (the other would hop around my feet. Was its boldness its undoing? I hope not). I’ll wait to see if a pair establishes in the garden by nest-building time.


I reached the boundary of the parish. Here, houses give way to fields where I hope to hear skylarks again later in the year. Today’s song at this point belonged to yet another robin, belting out his best tunes from the safety of this scraggly hedge by the culvert taking all that rain elsewhere.


The one or the other

Spectacular trees on a beautiful autumn day. It started with a frost, and built from there. Sunshine setting the branches aflame; sparkling water, two hours of tramping across fields and along the riverbank – and I saw hardly any birds at all.

But the trees, oh the trees.


And a month ago I walked part of this track in unpromising drizzle and met a kestrel: one of the best bird encounters I’ve had on this path. We watched each other from about a hundred yards away for a good five minutes – me muttering “you beauty” under my breath and taking as many pictures as possible with my inadequate camera, the kestrel sheltering in the lee of the trees and surveying the copse (and me). The rain then eased, and it took off and drew a gentle, sloping circle around me before heading off to continue its hunting. Rubbish weather, mighty reward.

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On a mild but blustery early-October day I went to see some trees.

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This view alone was enough.

On the way there, I passed one of my favourites, the venerable oak, accompanied by more oaks, and birches and beeches and chestnuts, and below them the waving, browning bracken. A hand to the bark before moving on.


With every fresh tug of the wind more seeds helicoptered away and leaves floated slowly downwards and the sighing and rustling grew to a wave-crash on shingle: a stormy sea.

The woods were busy with grey squirrels and far above, tiny high-pitched chatter, seep, seep, as families of long-tailed tits, great tits and blue tits moved among the firs.


(They’re up there, believe me.)

Needles plummeted. Leaves crunched underfoot. Acorns everywhere. And an enormous sweet chestnut, laden with fruit, cases spilling open on the ground:

And on the way back, the oaks on the common, standing in their little ditch, just starting to turn, roaring with each new wave, and once underneath their canopies and looking closer, there were the hawthorns (I think) that long ago pitched camp here too. How long have these trees been here? When was that sinuous path made through the meadow?




Everything is heading downwards. The slide into autumn is well under way, and gravity is winning.


The rainwater changed everything. It had been raining all day, settling into a steady fine drizzle, but there were blackberries to be picked, and this was the final chance for a while.

Two weeks ago under hot mid-August sunshine, the riverbank had been a profusion of flowers and dragonflies, bees and butterflies; a breeze carried the cries of skylarks across the fields and the leaves moved lightly. But this time everything was was dripping, drooping, dwindling. Heavy, expectant, poised for downhill. A touch of autumn vertigo.


Blackberries in their thousands weighed down the hedgerow. September gold.

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And more gold.

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It all got a bit Tunnicliffe as hops clambered over the blackberry bushes and a sprinkling of elder, hawthorn, and dogrose in autumn form showed up among the ivy.

I like autumn. There will be those blue-sky days when the air is like glass; beeches in full golden sail; shiny new-wood conkers; sparkling frosts. This was an early glimpse of another, soggier, greyer autumn and a reminder to make the most of the best days – it is but a few short steps down to winter, before the cycle begins again.


Ah, Mull. I wasn’t prepared for how wonderful it is.

Off the ferry in fading early-July light after a long day of journeying, and only a few minutes along the single-track road the sprinkle of houses ended and then we were driving through a high green pass, the land on both sides rising steeply into mist and darkness.

The main impression on our travel-befuddled minds was mystery, on that first journey: miles of shadows in dark forests and cloud-obscured peaks, until the houses reappeared by the dark shimmer of water in the loch and we found our temporary home, with still a glimmer in the sky even in the final hour of the day. Where on earth had we come to?


We’d come somewhere entirely different. The field in front of the byre – in fact a wildflower meadow – sloped gently down to the shoreline. The Burg rose on the other side of the loch, its distinctive stepped outline coming and going according to the weather. A buzzard visited daily, using the skein of poles and wires bringing electricity to the house as lookout posts for small prey moving about in the rippling grasses and flowers below. I miss Billy still.

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And on one heartstopping occasion a hen harrier dropped down from the crag and flew over the meadow. A battleship-grey Presence, gone in seconds. I never thought I’d really see one, and certainly not that close.

On grey days the clouds moved down almost to the lochside. The vast space and the shrouded quiet, pierced by an eagle crying out high above. We saw eagles almost daily once we’d grown accustomed to their scale; a golden eagle over Tobermory, a white tailed eagle above a densely forested hillside; another being mobbed by gulls.


On sunny days the sea glittered in jewel tones; seals investigated us from a few yards out and the birds’ late spring continued.



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At the byre we saw Coll and Tiree across the water, Dutchman’s Cap nearer in. But looking west from Iona the Atlantic just went on and on as far as the imagination dared.

After a sunny day came a spectacular sunset. The Burg shrank to a silhouette and the glow grew for almost two hours before the final blaze.


We’d arrived at fledging time, like long-haul flyers who experience two sunsets in a day; back south juvenile birds of all types were already foraging for themselves but here it was the last days of feeding young and encouraging them out into the world. Broods of swallows were still sitting high up inside chapels and under eaves on Iona, sparking into a split-second of gaping and calling as a parent dashed in with food for the thousandth time that morning. And on Mull itself the white tailed eagles were still bringing food to their single chick, glimpsed on its huge pile of a nest at a distance through the warden’s scopes.


Moy Castle, of I Know Where I’m Going fame, is just as stark and commanding as you’d hope if you love this film too. Entirely appropriate for a powerful curse and a highland romance. And proving that towering and fortified can also come in small packages.


The 15th century tower still sits at the edge of a broad bay; the MacLaine family moved out into the nearby house in the middle of the 18th century. There is a freshwater well inside and it is said no-one knows the source of the water supply. Sheep nibbled at the grass around the castle and on the waterside; out to sea we could see distant Kiloran (Colonsay).


The sheep were everywhere; roads, hills, beaches. On Erraid – where the sea cuts off the island at high tide, and where RL Stevenson set Kidnapped – we saw them rounded up by the farmer with his four dogs, deftly bringing them in from the shore in groups.


Herons took up position in the shallows awaiting the tide’s turn and the rich pickings when the sea refilled the narrow channel to Mull. A lapwing hurled itself into the air as we neared its hidden nest and made hurried circles and strange swannee-whistle calls, distracting and alarming. We turned away and watched cows ambling across the sands.

I was unprepared for the grandeur of Mull; its scale and its beauty. Delighted by the differences.



An hour by the river. A break from everything; an intake of breath. Hot, still air criss-crossed with damselflies, butterflies, dragonflies, bees and birds. The water moving quietly under the sun; small fish breaking the surface occasionally.

Dunnocks and wrens issuing competing trills from opposing hedges.

Banded demoiselles glittering over the water, X marking the spot only fleetingly.

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Blue damselflies doing their thing.

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A tern, all graceful curves, moving up and down the river, and from time to time suddenly folding and diving into the water with supreme style and the smallest of splashes.

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A yellowhammer, at the top of a bush, singing his falling note, over and over. I find it a strangely mournful phrase from that cheerful yellow face – but I was delighted to see him.

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Lots of butterflies, including several commas. A well positioned comma is truly a beautiful thing. And on closer examination there’s a tiny yellow ladybird beneath, among the bramble flowers. Oh, the brambles stretched high and wide; maybe half a mile of them, eight or nine feet high in places, all humming with bees.

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Once upon a time, I spent a largely sleepless night in the US listening to the unfamiliar sounds of a big city; among them a car alarm that appeared to be designed specifically to grab your attention, seize you by your neck and wring it until you told the authorities, or ran away screaming, or perhaps smashed the car to smithereens. It was a hideous music, changing every two bars: rising pairs of notes followed by falling triplets, a high trill, a low shriek, an insistent whoop whoop and then back again to the rising pairs, a Da Capo without Fine.

Here instead is a reed warbler I heard today, working to infinitely more beautiful effect. It simply does not draw breath. It hurls phrases one after the other, a medley of insistence that you Move Along Now, Nothing To See Here and all from its secret hiding place among the reeds. Little brown bird, how I admire your effort. Watch out for cuckoos.