Nature Notes

The Dewpond on the Height.

“Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim …
We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales—
Only the dewpond on the height
Unfed, that never fails”
— Rudyard Kipling

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Just off the beaten track of Wigmoreash Drove, not far from the beech hangar, is a dewpond. The high chalk ridgeway rises in a long, smooth curve between two villages and is a remote place of open downland and dark night skies. On a good day, the views are far reaching and panoramic. On a good day, the pond is a mazy jewel set between the vertebrae of the whaleback. Today is not a good weather day. We have come, our two families, from either side the hill, to restore the ancient dewpond. And we are wreathed in cloud.

Romantic and mysterious, dewponds are the only source of water up here. There are no springs, rivers or natural ponds. Rainwater sheds quickly off the smooth-domed hills, or percolates slowly through their chalk to refill aquifers that run the chalkstreams in the valleys far below. For a place that was once the sea, it is exceedingly dry.

The idea and construction of dewponds is as old (if not older) as the hill fort and long barrow that sit upon the same ridge. With no apparent source of water, they rarely, if ever, dry out.

The top of the lonely path that skews up Gallows Down and past the pond, has long been a place for summer picnics, driven to by pony and trap. The beeches, perhaps 200 years old, are scarred with initials, dates and memorials. It is difficult to know how long ago Wigmoreash pond was made, but 341 years to the week that we are in it, its name changed to Murderer’s Pool. Adulterous lovers from either side the hill apparently murdered wife and child, leaving the bodies in the pond. The two were sentenced to hang in Winchester Gaol. Their bodies brought home and hung from a double gibbet, built for the purpose on the no-man’s land between the two parishes, on top of the ancient long barrow.

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Pioneer willow, ash and thorns have grown up in the centre of the pond, threatening to suck it dry and crack the bowl of it. James Sadler from Combe gets in with chest waders to cut the trees down, and we haul them out, creating a bund around it for now, that will serve as a season’s nesting place for birds. It is cold, wet work, but a privilege. Care has to be taken not to break the chalk pan – but it holds water and is sound.

Gangs of dewpond makers would travel the country through winter and spring. It would take four men four weeks to make a pond that might last 100 years. A wide, shallow lens, just 3ft deep in the centre, was dug out and layered in thick straw then crushed chalk. A cart and horses would be driven through and over the final layer of chalk, crushing it to a fine powder. Water would be added until it became a thick cream, which was smoothed into a porcelain saucer and left to harden. The dewpond makers from the deserted village of Imber would make as many as 15 a year. Before filling naturally, their surface would ‘shine like glass’. The filling of them and their mysterious retention of water even during droughts, has long been debated.

The insulating straw is said to create a thermos effect and initiate dewfall above the surface of the pond. Appropriately for today, they are also known as mist or cloud ponds; their creation – especially near a key overhanging tree, distilled water from the very air, year round. It is considered now, that the shallow bowls simply hold rainwater: yet the shepherd testifies that water is replenished by morning – though the night is dry.

When we are finished, we bump along the drove in the back of the Land rover, splashing through milky puddles. The gibbet appears then disappears through shifting mist and sheep cling to the gorze like low, wet clouds. The creaking of gate hinges that are no longer there and the tinkling of sheep bells turn out to be the whistles of red kites, brought low by the weather, and goldfinches chiming through the docks. But the sonorous cronks and knocks of wood on wood come unmistakably from the ravens; judging, passing comment, passing sentence.

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Days later, after a sudden storm, we go back up to the dewpond. The view and tranquillity of the place is restored. The pond is fenced for its preservation and is a wonderful resource for birds. Next to it, a trough and bowser provide water for sheep. Buds on the cut trees have burst, the sap still rising. The soft grey fur of pussy willow catkins, in their halo of yellow pollen, are pale, lit matches.

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In evening sunlight, the little disc reflects back, clear-eyed and brilliant: a lens, a satellite, a mirror to the sky. And when cloud dulls the surface, it is a fallen moon. Skylarks sing upwards and yellowhammers flit between thorns. Then for a moment, a rainbow arcs right over the hill like a banner, its middle lost in cloud, an end in each village.

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Nature Notes

Winter’s Spring.

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The weather swings between seasons. Water fills ditches and rivers travel backwards; the River Lambourn’s source backs up to higher East Garston, where it is winterbourne. Another dusting of snow makes the hill blanch pale. At the snowline, a snipe goes up with a cry like tearing fabric.

The wind bites, so I take the sheltered route up Old Gallows Lane, the grass showing through snow on the old cart track, with its castellated banks of snowy anthills. Curtains of bramble catch at my shoulders and hair. I am not the only one seeking shelter: blackbirds, bullfinch and bramblings flit through the thorns, a small muntjac trots through a square of sheep fence and a hare bolts from my feet.

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In the open, the north wind takes my breath from me. It flings grains of snow like sand, stinging my face, hands and wrists. The hard snow rattles against bunches of ash keys and the last, curled leaves on the whitebeams; the wind blows like an oboe through the gate.

A faint tinkling draws me to a stand of hogweed stems, the weathered seedheads, tattered frames of inside-out umbrellas. In this micro climate, there has been a mini ice-storm. No frost, but all is cased in clear glass, from the low cloud freezing. Each square of the sheep fence has become a hollow ice-cube; has an angled, 3-dimensional glass shadow, blown out into the air above the hill. The barley twist wire and its barbs have been immured and smoothed, sheathed by several millimetres of ice-glass, so that the fence looks preserved in a clear amber glaze.

The hogweed stems and seedheads are encased, too. Tiny, horizontal icicles, 2-3cm long, have formed in the wind and point the way it went, accusingly: petrified, glacial fingerposts. In gusts, the ice-needles fall, tinkling against the glassed, slender, doric columns of the stems.

On the way down, snow cloaks the nape and shoulders of the stunted oaks – but they are built to take it. Nuthatches trip up and down the boughs, in measured steps.

All is soon green again, save for snowdrifts of honey-scented snowdrops.

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The temperature rises, doubles. Spring seems to arrive. The warm sun gladdens us all. A Queen wasp emerges from hibernation in my hut and flies out the open door and the first bats flit down the lane at dusk. It is gone Valentine’s and the birds are building. There are the roofed baskets of magpie nests, stuck like footballs in trees and sparrows peel ribbons of honeysuckle to line their eaves nests. At evening, the little owl returns and begins calling for her mate. Fieldfare flock in their hundreds in the bare trees, babbling like a rushing stream – and when they fly away like shed leaves, the tree silhouettes have changed: the twig tips thickening and clotting into bud.

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Nature Notes

Black Kites, Bicycles & other Local News …

img_5535To celebrate our local newspaper’s 150th Anniversary, I show the students at school a short film from 1952 when Newbury (through its newspaper) was chosen to represent British life to the Commonwealth. It raised an interesting debate on the changing face of journalism, women journalists and the importance of local news – as well as how the town and its villages had changed. The film was sent around the world and translated into twelve different languages.

I was thrilled to see it featured Peggy Cruse; local reporter in my own village and the paper’s first female journalist. Peggy emerges from a cottage garden I know, cycles off to collect stories, and returns home to write them, as I am doing now. I liked her style. Her reports included local news and reviews, fashion – and when the first nightingale was heard. Peggy died last spring, aged 93. Regrettably, I never met her.

But I grew up reading the paper, some of her words and particularly the nature and farming columns including From the Hedgerows which inspired my Nature Notes (now in its 14th year).

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Deadline day is drawing near and I am wondering what to write about this week. I only get stuck when I have been stuck indoors; for inspiration, all I need do is step off the doormat. But then, just before dusk, I receive a text from my friend on the other side of the hill: rare bird, 50 guesses is all it reads. I give up after 3.

From the Land Rover, we spot it high over the valley, its positive id beyond my certainty. It was seen earlier by an experienced birder and my friend (who knows a thing or two). Black kite, heading for the trees: we slew sideways at speed over slick, just-thawed thin turf. It’s an exhilarating chase. We catch up with it at the kite roost, its comparative differences easier to pick out: grey-brown, slightly smaller (yet oddly larger looking, too). It flies through the carousel of dozens of red kites going to roost, its tail a clear fan, lacking the diagnostic wafer delta of a red’s. It’s a thrilling, rare, unlikely thing.

We don’t offer our sighting officially as, without a good photo, it would not have been accepted. Instead, I record it here.

Notes and records of intimate, local knowledge matter. Our impact, small, personal, impermanent: as easily undone as accidentally lasting, but a record, all the same. Words written and read (for clarity and action) are important. My friend keeps a blog, but makes an impact on the landscape too. Conserving it where he can, planting trees, hedges, woods, beetle banks, bird cover and nectar strips – and possibly, hopefully, reinstating dewponds that Peggy will have picnic-ed by. I am reminded by a quote from the poet Norman MacCaig, ‘Who possesses this landscape? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?’ Neither, of course, is the answer. I plant mistletoe in the trees that may appear years after I am gone from here. I like that mistletoe is a tenant, too and cannot be guilty of trespass.

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The mistle thrush sings now in the lighter evenings. A counterbalance of melancholy-joy delivered from treetops in Nightingale Wood (empty now of nightingales) and into the teeth of the gales that assail us. It is the same song sung down the centuries, its impact greater at this time of year. It’s a song that goes back millennia, linking centuries like a flock of long-tailed tits, spooling out through the birches and across years like bunting. It’s a record that all will be well again, that the snowdrops are up; that bluebell shoots are poking through the earth.

The 1952 Film from the Office of Information can be viewed here:
http://www.newburytoday.co.uk/news/home/20390/nwn-reaches-out-to-the-commonwealth.html

All complete copies of the Newbury Weekly News can be viewed on microfilm in Newbury Library, from its first issue in 1867.

Nature Notes

Silver Downs and Anthills

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The night before it snowed, I took the moonlit road to the downs. The ribbon of tarmac gleamed like chalk and disappeared somewhere among the stars. At the top, the sheep lay like grey wethers – stones deposited by the last ice age; ancient beasts with the moon on their backs. The few lights of Newbury twinkled brightly in the clear air below – but there was not a light behind me.

The full moon lit the amphitheatre of slope and valley and in a moment I saw why the field below is known as the ‘moon field’. The circular wood, off centre, appeared like the dark shadow of the moon, held in a silver bowl: a photo-negative of the sky above.

The snow that fell quickly was almost gone by the following afternoon. Except on the hills, where the snowline was clearly defined. Here it lingered in frost hollows, field edges and slopes that fell away from the low winter sun. From home, the big hill gleamed through the black trellis-work of Nightingale Wood like a white sheet. And beckoned.

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The hidden valley was filled with snow, 2inches deep: the violet-whiteness of a shirt in moonlight. Meadow anthills rose above it, a foot high, gently steaming where the sun had warmed the tops. They are always warmer than the surrounding air and the earth they’re built from; perhaps from the activity within, or the angle of the top, tilted like a solar panel to the sun, or simply because they are raised up. Each one cast a long, blue shadow twice their height, so they stippled the combe like a trout’s back, or dappled it like a horse’s flanks.

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Yellow meadow ants farm and protect the larvae of the declining chalkhill blue butterfly. The anthills are dry cushions; fragrant pillows of wild thyme in summer that make excellent mounting blocks, or stiles, when you find two either side a sheep fence. You can jump down whole hillsides, leaping from one to the other, there are so many. They are raised platforms for fox poo communications, peregrine plucking posts (scattered with feathers and the scarlet gobbets of woodpigeon flesh) and sentry posts for summer wheatears that perch, straight-backed and militarily, to look-out. And they provide food for partridge, that scrape an entrance into the ants’ colony, or green woodpeckers, who unfurl a sticky clockspring tongue from behind their skull for them. Then, the excavated, misshapen mounds heal and grass over into strange shapes.

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After the snow is gone, the frost remains and sinks each day deeper into the ground, stretching out white fingers with the wood shadows, further and further each day. In the horse field, my daughter picks up ice formed in the pits and divots of the deeply muddy pasture, turns them upside down and finds exquisitely formed ice kingdoms and tiny palaces.

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On the hill, water freezes over flints to make smooth, glaciered cobbles of sharp, knobbly stones and the ridgeway is white with crushed ice several inches thick. My son lifts a 4ft shard of ice, lines it up with the sunset and stands it against the hill fort fence, like a megalith.

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Nature Notes

Love & Comets: A Brother’s Re-Leaving.

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My brother and his family came home for Christmas. And by home, I mean where our parents are. He lives in Australia. My nieces have not seen (nor the eldest remember) an English winter.

We want snow for them or at least, a lasting, Narnian hoar frost; but instead, we have bone-damp weather and mud to the doorstep.

My city-living eldest niece loves horses and this we can give her. But we worry ours are not the sun-glossed animals of Australia as they come schlocking through mud past their fetlocks, with burrs tangled in manes stiff with mud. We groom them, and wear their mud.

We ride into a swirly, vanishing mist that mingles with steam from the horses’ flanks and nostrils. The sun strobes through freshly smashed hedges that smell of Christmas, but look like hell: especially to the birds that have come (like Waitrose’s robin) from Scandinavia to find them.

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My brother talks of exotic wildlife the other side of the world: flying foxes big as kites, possums, parakeets and light too bright to look at. His clothes’ labels read ‘dry in the shade’, which makes us fall about. Our trees are bare, our colours a mud palette; a patina of wood-browns and dead grasses, long folklore and the subtle, cryptic colours of tawny owl’s wings. But shafts from a weak winter sun are mirrored by wet holly leaves and the wood glimmers with a billion tiny suns.

This is no pastoral, but I’m bound to it all the same. I trespass a frost-cornered field to avoid the indiscriminate flail’s deepest, unkindest cuts. At night, poachers leave the entrails of a field-gutted deer, and a cairn of dead hares piled like mockery. Worse, a barn owl is found shot with a .22 rifle, off a fence post. It is a bird I know.

We walk. On the edge of my brother’s hearing, blackbirds shrill a ‘pink, pink’ with voices like knapped flints. There is a predator, I say, an aerial one, from their alarm, chipped out like flint flakes. I expect blue sparks. There is the scent of fox, the sugar beet smell of decaying sycamore leaves, and the particular crunch of chestnut leaves, frosting up. If I were led here blindfold, I tell him, I’d know where I was, and that it was January.

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The Narnian frost comes after all and is breathtaking. My brother runs for miles over the hills.  On his last evening here, my youngest daughter and I spot a solitary figure on the hill, silhouetted next to the gibbet on its high long barrow – and I know it is him. I am driving the two miles from Mum’s and flash my lights. He knows it is me. Above him, the pink comet of a contrail makes an arc and becomes a black javelin as it clears the down’s shoulder. The sky, cobalt at its height, fades to snow-blue, then lemon.

On Twelfth Night, it hurts to take the tree and all its decorations down after such a wonderful, memorable Christmas. Through the short days, we leave a few lights for the dark.

On the morning he is gone, the vapour trails of his and other journeys are rose-gold in the sunrise. And a little snow is forecast.img_5269

 

Nature Notes

Fond Hornlight, Wild Hoarlight.

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When the mercury dipped, the frost stayed for days along the field edge under the wood; hoary fingers making a frost shadow, where the sun didn’t penetrate. Sunrise and sunset bookend the shortening days in aurora colours of yellow, orange, blue, green.

In the morning, birds sit on the highest branches that can bear their featherweight, fluffed and warming the minute the sun breaks the horizon. Kestrels’ thrush-speckled breasts uplit in tawny-rosy tints; wrens, robins and dunnocks singing in defiance of the cold night, little puffs of breath purling onto air like curlicues condensing off a morning cup of tea.

In a bank of ratholes, below leafless elders, the occupied holes steamed.

Elsewhere, the romantic, rambling, damson-coloured vines of ‘bedwine’ or Old Man’s Beard is the ‘flower’ of the moment. Wreathing through woods and hedges, I mistake its fluffy seedheads as woodsmoke; close to, the individual misted globes hold twinkling, jewelled drops, like little Victorian gaslamps lit early on a winters evening. Woodbine or wild clematis has many names, but for these few weeks, when we bring it into the house, it is Father Christmas.

Lunchtime, I sit with a book, orientated to the sun and the downs. The sycamore leaves at my feet relax and unfurl from their frosty grip with a ticking and crackling, in the sun’s brief warmth. In the next hour, the sun will dip and the leaves will curl back up in frost that has barely left them.

These evenings, there is not much time, the days at their shortest. I go out, anyway. A little owl yelps from Oldlands Wood. The down is a long, black paper cut-out against a blue and orange sky. To my north, the ancient barn roof echoes the shape of the down and I am reminded of Edward Thomas’s poem The Barn and the Down. Each could be mistaken for the other, ‘until the gable’s precipice proved it impossible’ and were it not for the weathervane on the end of the barn and the gibbet at the end of the down, storing all the black dark within, ‘full to the ridge’.

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Above the barn-down, a fingernail moon hangs like the curved bevelled edge of a clockface, venus swinging below. More biblical and more pagan, come lines beloved from Hopkins’s Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves. ‘Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height’.

A profoundly beautiful mist forms in the combe and there is the frosty courtship call of a fox. Stars are held in the bare-fingered branches of the dying oak and the first of the Geminid meteors fall in slow-dives, in bauble colours. I feel then I do not want for much. Only for things to stay the way they are. This is my realm of magic. The seasons’ change are enough, in all their dappled variousness.

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Nature Notes

Winter Gold.

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Golden plover (thank you, James Sadler)

The ninety-acre field could be a bleak prospect. High and exposed, it can appear a vast expanse of tilled mud: six-inch high rape leaves, little else.

Squally showers come on biting gusts, shaking the new leaves to silver with a loud pattering. The mud is heavy on our boots. It seems an incredible, crazy prospect that anything (or anyone) would choose to be up here – but this field is a draw to exciting winter birds – so here we are.

Hares lift from shallow clay forms, to canter, long-eared over the horizon, leading our eyes to a long line of bobbing heads: golden plover. They lift like an ethereal, shape-shifting shadow. An apparition making dizzying, fast passes, before settling like a net cast for fish.

Another shower sends us dancing back to the Landrover and no sooner than we’ve slammed the doors, a tight flock of 40 plover skim the bonnet at a probable 60mph. They whistle like wind through a metal gate.

We drive alongside a loose, restless flock of hundreds of fieldfare and redwing, their flint grey, chalk and haw berry colours, reflecting the winter landscape. From a leafless hedge, bright yellow leaves have blown out in a long line; I mistake them for a beam of light.

The storm clears and dusk is set back half an hour. In precarious light, dozens of lapwing are scattered like violets over the field.

We head for the dewpond in the spinney. The little mixed wood covets the disc of water; a mirror to the sky, its tall pines and gothic hawthorns castellate it like a fortress. All that’s visible of the sky is an upturned pale blue bowl and early stars; an Italianate frescoed dome above a rotunda, the remnant sunset gilding angelic clouds. We wait for the wild duck to come home.

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A raven signals end of day. An owl calls. A vaulted arch of bramble frames the pond, festooned among its own round red leaves with others that have been pierced on its thorns. Under a maple, a year’s worth of sunlight lies caramelised in fallen leaves, pooled like lamplight. It makes a buttercup glow under our chins.

Seven mallard come in quacking, stalling steeply into the wind and water-skiing onto the water. They are quickly followed by more, braking with back peddling wings. Dozens more come. Then lighter, smaller teal arrive, whistling round once to float down with the leaves. More mallard, more teal, and then only teal. Before we leave them to feed and settle, a woodcock flies through them, long, earthbound bill pointed down, seriously, on wings of last year’s leafmeal.

Nature Notes

Hotchi Witchi. An Apology.

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Near-dark, and I am trying to point out a small, still hedgehog under a hedge by the Scout hut to my son. He only sees it when it trots off, a conker on fast little legs. He is astonished I spotted it.

But I have a special eye for hedgehogs. And it is because I have an apology to make, a confession to absolve: a dirty little secret.

You see, years ago, I mistook a hedgehog for a football. One late summer night with friends, in the dusk-near-dark, barefoot and in a dress, I ran from the touchline that ran parallel with a badgers’ boundary, pitted at intervals with blackberry-filled latrines, and swung a kick at the ball. Only, it wasn’t. I yelped in surprise and pain as the inside of my right foot connected with an immovable pin cushion as my short-sighted, low-light vision clocked the actual ball. Over-wintered itself under a hedge, and partially-deflated, it had long lost its white leather gleam.

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Horrified, we sat in solemn vigil around the bristling, sizable ball. A full five minutes later, it unrolled, snuffed the air, stood up via a press-up in reverse and trotted off. I cried with relief.

Just three years later, driving home, a hedgehog emerged from the shadowed kerbside undercliff and I struck it unavoidably with my near side wheel, killing it. More recently, another got stuck in the cage of our live rat trap. For 40 minutes it defied efforts to free it, rolling into a defensive ball too big to fit back out. We released it unharmed eventually, only to catch a furious polecat in the same trap a week later.

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We seem to have 50 regrettable ways to kill hedgehogs, finding them dead at the bottom of cattle grids or drains, drowned in steep-sided ponds, strangled in garden netting, flattened on roads, burnt in bonfires, or mangled horribly by mowers, strimmers or tractor flails. And more sinisterly, blithely, we thank them for eating slugs by poisoning them with pellets, often in industrial quantities over our farmfields. We do not mean to harm. But we do.

Dead hedgehogs are tragedies – as well as indicators of a wider population. Now, like the moth snowstorms in car headlights of the seventies, they are rarer: declining in the UK at the same rate as tigers globally – around 5% a year.

So, I am good at spotting hedgehogs; I have ground to make up. This summer, I rescued two from the road, weighing their heavy prickliness in my two hands with due reverence for these most marvellous and ancient of beasts. The lines of Philip Larkin’s poem The Mower, ran through my head: ‘we should be careful of each other, we should be kind while there is still time.’

Nature Notes

Fallow and Chestnuts.

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Such still, quiet weather; the sky is an oatmeal-grey. Two muntjac are having a bark-off at either end of the wood. Rhythmic barks at different pitches, each delivered six seconds apart, on a count of three after the last one, in a game of aural tennis. But here, exiting the middle of the wood, are the fresh, neat prints of a muntjac doe, and beside her, the diminutive, 1.5cm prints of her fawn.

I’m hoping to find fallow deer. It is the rut, but these deer are highly mobile: elusive, for an animal so big, hyper-alert, constantly moving. In the stalls created by the boughs of a fallen tree, are flattened areas where their bodies have lain, overlaid with grey, black and russet hairs. Nearby, piles of shiny, acorn-shaped ‘fewmets’.

I settle against the tall barley twist of a sweet chestnut. Midges are biting and it is hard to stay still. Pheasants move over dry, fallen leaves, making the sound of rain. Squirrels working among conkers, acorns and chestnuts scold like querulous, wheezy jays. The only other sound is the smack and patter of chestnut leaves – that fall in great orange licks – and the clonk and clatter of chestnuts pinballing through the branches. The spiky green hedgehogs spring open to reveal glossy, heart-shaped nuts. Once sprung, the nuts are presented like jewels, cushioned on cream velvet. Although small, they make good eating. And the deer love them.

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Off in the wood somewhere, the lid of a pheasant feed hopper bangs. A deer is lifting the tin with its muzzle, to lick corn. I try another tactic, skirting the wood from the outside.
Near the feed station, I duck to peer into the dark cave of the wood. In a skewed, half-hexagon of light from a gap in the canopy, I catch the turn of a palmate antler. As if against a window, there is the thorny silhouette of a brow tine, recurved against the broad, flat, moose-like wing of the blade. A big buck in his prime! I could fit my spread hand along the blade, my fingers reaching down the pointed ‘spellers’ of the antler.

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I find them sometimes, fallow deer antlers; cast off and stained brown with earth, or bleached by sun and winters. Sometimes it is possible to trace the dry channels left by the veins branching down the palm, that fed the living velvet covering the antlers as they grew.

I crawl closer. In the semi-dark, there is the long, swan curve of a neck, a straight foreleg among saplings and coppice poles, the angle of a hock. And then a sudden bolt and leap: the heavy thudding of four hooves hitting the ground at the same time, ‘pronking’ and propelling this big buck away so powerfully, I am sure I can feel it through my chest and feet. He leaves a warm, wet swirl of strong, animal scent in his wake: of urine, pawed earth, musty ammonia and frayed bark.

The mist comes down and falls like sieved rain. The cacophony of the pheasant roost starts then and increases, until the racket is overwhelming, coming in waves, ricocheting off the combes and hills. As it will again and again later, the pheasants pre-empting the pop of fireworks, like they do the thunder of the guns on Salisbury Plain, their alarm given seconds ahead of the bang.

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Nature Notes

A Confusion of Raptors.

img_4679I am listening hard in the wind that comes off the downs; trying to silence the rustle of my ill-chosen coat with shallow breathing, directing cupped hands held behind my ears to the sky. Five woodlark are singing over Windmill Field. Still here, pouring their melancholy, heartbreaker alleluias over the earth. I stare hard at the white sky, trying to separate and blink away the glides of motes and floaters in my eyes from the flicker and glide of spiralling birds. There. But then the bell-bong from a raven in the high wood seems to signify something – they silence and are gone.

Homeward, up the wide hedge through the arable, a bird of prey is hunting. It drops from the hedge to move up a space; sits, then does the same again. I don’t recognise it. I catch a black edge on a long tail, the hint of more bars perhaps, a white rump: and then it glides, very low across the open field, putting up the partridge. Long-tailed, wings held in a shallow ‘v’, it is gone into a far, favourite beech that lost its crown in a storm some years ago. I feel like I have grasped at something wonderful and missed. What was it? Could it have been our sometime-resident goshawk? Or a female hen harrier?

From my somewhat contradictory descriptions, a more knowledgeable friend thinks the former, another, the latter. Both birds are seen here, especially in this season of movements and migration. The topography and height of the place, it’s collision of geography acts as a draw; a pause for birds en route.

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Two days later, I walk the route again. Woodlark are still singing. On a hunch, I divert through the wood, towards a plucking post used by a large raptor at intervals; likely, by the size of the birds plucked here, a goshawk.

But before the post is in sight, a large bird of prey flies up from the ground and into a tree just 20m away. I freeze, heart hammering in my chest. Again, I do not know it. It has a greyish appearance, pale chest, a light-coloured, rather small head and is looking right at me. It fiddles on its perch and gives away a dark edged, possibly banded tail, too long for a buzzards’. The dusk is muting the light that might help me.

I rock forward on one foot to stalk closer, but as I do, the bird leans forward to take off. I straighten slowly. So does my mystery raptor. I try again, but the bird mirrors my movement. We repeat the dance until I step forward and the bird takes off. It doesn’t go far. Kites and buzzards swoop over, unhappy at its presence. It cannot be a buzzard, and yet … And then the bird utters a buzzard-like pe-ooo, but higher, purer, clearer. For comparison, two of the circling buzzards mew back. Pheasants racket the wood with waves of angrily spat throat-clearing at this most sensitive roost time. The strange raptor calls again, moving between the trees in a circle around me, feathered legs hanging down. I have ruled out goshawk by now – that would have left the wood as I entered – but this bird seems reluctant to leave. And then, risking looking down and away, to take another step, I see something that seems to make the scales fall from my eyes, that turns the almost-certainty of my identification on its head with a vertiginous swoop.

An unearthed, papery honeycomb lies broken on the ground at my feet. A wasp’s nest, dug up and grubbed out by resident badgers has been recently messed with. Ragged chunks of hexagonal cells are scattered like building blocks around the hole in the ground and a few drowsy wasps (late for the season) remain.

img_4674When I look up, the bird has gone. I stumble out of the wood in the near dark, exhilarated, but with my questions unanswered. One mystery has led to another. Perhaps I have just had a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a honey buzzard, a late-migrating juvenile? And after a possible hen harrier or goshawk at that: such potential rarities within days! But then, this is special landscape at a particularly thrilling part of the year. Anything could turn up, and does. The place is alive – and I don’t think we know the half of it.