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.


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.






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.


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.


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.




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:


And out of here.


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.


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.


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:


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.




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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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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