Nature Notes

Lunch with an Otter.

A text came from my son at college, whilst I was at work. ‘You’ll never guess what I’m having lunch with!’ There followed the most exquisite video clip, taken on his phone. An otter, hunting the shallow stream at one of the entrances to Andover College, rolling, roiling and revelling in its element, stirring up chalk sediment, a crisp packet and riffling the thickening mat of watercress bobbing on the surface. In broad daylight, between a busy roundabout, car parks and classrooms.

I tweeted it (with his permission of course) and, with over 57K views, it went viral.

(NB, video below not playable, find it on Twitter @nicolawriting)

He’d walked right past it at first, glimpsing it before he realised what it was and stopped, in the midst of his long, countryman’s lope and walked backwards. Otter.

He watched it move under the gin-clear, chalkstream, fluent as a water snake, spiralling and turning on itself with the ease of a gymnast’s ribbon, writing itself in cursive flourishes through the water. He glimpsed a paw; a hindfoot kicking off, a thick, Labradorian tail working hard in a tight spot. He described how it swam thorough the pipe-tunnel of a road bridge and went up the bank: water thickening into fur, dissolving back into water. He saw the champagne belt of bubbles, fizzing in its wake, a bubbling galaxy of stars exploding in the dark water behind it. 

He enjoyed the spectacle for as long as he could. An unlikely wildlife watcher, perhaps; bass guitar in hand, leather jacket and Dr Martens on, a lad in need of a haircut, grinning, texting his Mum.

It’s not his first otter, but it might have been his best. He has spent a lot of time tracking otters with me, overwhelmingly fruitlessly (though not always). Even now, we cannot go near a body of water without ‘a quick look’. So his reward, a naturalist’s dream of a ‘walkaway view’ was richly deserved. He left and went to band practice.

The otters on the Andover’s River Anton are remarkable. A female with three grown cubs lives in its tributaries and lakes around the town, well-monitored, cocking a snook at what we think we know about otters. They remain tricksy animals to watch, predictably unpredictable, keeping to their own unroutine, napping at will. Any sighting of them largely given to chance.

But what is incredible is how this large predator, back from the brink, will adapt to live alongside us, given half a chance. As so much wildlife is willing to do.

Much like that other recovering top predator, the peregrine falcon, whose fortune echoes that of otters. The BBC cameras trained on Parliament, cut away to focus on a falcon tearing at its prey among the pinnacles of Westminster, while things fell apart inside. They panned away again. Another walkaway view.

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Nature Notes

Running Wild

Weeks like these, I get my wildlife fix on the run.

Meeting my son off the bus fifteen minutes early, means quarter of an hour’s birdwatching on the hill inbetween. Or at school, helping students with their GCSE Speaking and Listening exams, I am delighted that some have chosen water vole conservation, plastic in the seas, or the subject of foxhunting to speak on. I watch the bare-faced cheek of rooks on the end-of-break bell, pulling litter out the bins for crisps and crusts.

On another trip to the bus stop, I fit in a run. It is a dun, damson and brown afternoon, rain-soaked and tractor flailed. But there are mauve and blue flashes of jays, white-bottomed as bullfinches in plum colours.

I run slowly, quietly, and discover I’m not the only one seeking the flat shelter of the valley bottom. Suddenly, I am running with hares, peeling off from potential boxing matches to join the chase for a few strides. Two muntjac deer are swept along, bumping shoulders, white flag tails up and waving, like the aerials on bumper cars. Roe deer jump the ditch ahead. Then, flowing through the wood and out into open pasture, the cream and brown gallop of a herd of fallow deer. They come loose from the wood as if a ribbon weft of them has been pulled through the warp of the upright wood; a fabric unravelling, a wood unspooling. They are the same colour as the trees and the earth, rain-darkened flanks running to pale bellies like cave paintings of themselves. There must be forty of them, just fifty metres away. I can hear the snick of the toes of their splayed, cloven hooves coming together, the rumble of a gallop slowing to a trot. They are not running from me and I wonder if they are running from what I might be running from?  It’s a profound, uncanny experience. They melt into the wood ahead and I discover that I’ve run for a full half hour.

Back in the car, I think how nature adapts to live and run alongside us quite well, if we let it.

I raised my voice this week in protest at the new trend of netting trees and whole hedgerows, to prevent birds nesting in them – and scupper plans for development, whether planning permission has been granted or not. And to a Tesco store in Norwich, netting off a trolley park that swallows had nested in in previous years, to prevent them returning there and making a mess of the trolley handles. Nature is a wraparound, intrinsic thing, woven through our daily lives and our shopping. Deer joining in with my Couch to 5K efforts, and swallows at the supermarket should be celebrated for the wonders and joys that they are.  

Nature Notes

Arcturus and the Foxes.

For the first time since October, blackbird song woke me before my alarm; a bar had been crossed.

The strange, unprecedented February heatwave triggered synapses alert to a season far more advanced than it actually was. It tripped a search, all senses primed, for joyful, familiar markers, a litany learnt and ingrained over decades. It is glorious. It is premature. It is not late April.

We scanned the village pond for signs of frogspawn and found none yet – but the frogs were there. Under green water, a princely webbed hindfoot waved and sculled away. The white seedheads of Old Man’s Beard, or ‘betwine’ lay thick as snow, masquerading as jelly-eyed frogspawn.  A blossom out of season.

There were a few celandines and the quince began to bud tiny red boxing gloves; flowers it was not yet ready to let go. Tightly balled handkerchiefs of tension. The only blackthorn blossom was in the towns, snowy on the roundabouts and dual carriageways, where it could bloom and berry and complete its purpose, away from the tractor and its flail.  

Above them were the basket-roofed nests of magpies, hoofed into trees like lost footballs, the middle winded out of them.

Against a swimming pool sky, I expected swallows and house martins, but we were weeks off that. The hot blue sky empty of birds didn’t correlate. There was a juxtaposition, a world turned upside down. It felt too much like presentiment. A power point slide of the near-future.

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But here came the brimstone butterflies, tumbling out of the ivy, up off the warming earth as if the primrose petals couldn’t sit still for joy and took off. A comma butterfly rested on a wall and the bees woke up. Half an hour in the garden and there were white and buff-tailed bumble bees and a hairy-footed flower bee, ginger legs dangling over the hellebores.

Past sunset and it was still 12 degrees. I went through pockets of damp mist chill and sudden rises in temperature. I put my hand down to feel the days’ heat emanating: a hand on the brow of the feverish earth.

 I went to bed uneasy, my cheeks burning.

The foxes woke me up. A vixen screaming loudly by the wood, and the woo-oo-oo of two dog foxes coming closer from opposite directions. There was a ruckus of yowls and screams. I leant out the window but all was dark. A car pulled up the lane and the headlights swept the field and caught the molten-orange eye-blink of vulpine eyes, 100m away. Tawny owls called from each corner of the wood and all points inbetween. A muntjac joined in the barking and set next door’s terriers off. The stars seemed unnaturally bright and close. Orion cartwheeled over the lane and the spring star Arcturus twinkled orange red. A celestial fox eye caught in a headlamp.

Nature Notes

An Extinction Rebellion.

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‘We are bovvered, though’ read a placard above a picture of Catherine Tate’s apathetic teenager Lauren Cooper. ‘We can get an extension on our essays, but not on our planet’ read another, and ‘This pale blue dot is all we’ve got’, ‘Respect your Mother’ ‘There is no Planet B’ went others. Articulate, thoughtful, funny and passionate, just like the people holding the banners.  The youth strike for the Climate Emergency on the last Friday before half term was a revelation.

It was also heartening. I started an Environment Club at University and my life has been chaptered by protests; mostly environmental ones. I’ve witnessed local extinctions on my home ground of birds that feature in the oldest books in our culture: nightingales, turtle doves, roding, breeding woodcock, nesting lapwing – all in the last 15 years. I’ve poured my heart out about that on these pages and in the book I’m writing.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, the end of the world was pretty nigh, too. The idiocy of the grown-ups then, was nuclear war or ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. No irony in the acronym, surely. The Domesday Clock was set at three minutes to midnight. I grew up to the chilling sound of the four-minute warning siren practice, and didn’t believe then, what the grown-ups told us: that, living in Greenham, just a mile away from 96 nuclear warheads (each with the equivalent destructive power of 16 Hiroshima bombs) we’d be safe hiding in a makeshift den of our books and some cardboard boxes under the table. We’d all seen Raymond Brigg’s animation When the Wind Blows. The end of the world as we know it for these students (and us) is not so easily stopped, even though we know how. The clock hands have moved another minute closer.

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United Nations state we have 12 years to prevent climate change catastrophe with irreversible elements. There is no historic precedent for the predicted devastation. Another global scientific review warns that if we continue to act as we are, almost all insects will be extinct in just a few decades and life as we know it will be unviable.

I’m privileged to work with some incredible young people who care very much about their studies, their environment and their future. With overwhelming scientific evidence, they don’t believe they’ve got one. I know several of the students who protested and am very proud of them. It will have been a big decision for them to do this. They do their homework. They don’t miss school. They are hard-working, inventive, humble, self-deprecating and very funny. At times they demonstrate kindnesses that would shame most adults.

My youngest (11) wants to be an entomologist. She probably knows more about insects and the basis of life on earth, than the average adult. Their extinction keeps her awake some nights. My middle child (14) wants to be a marine biologist or an environmental artist. She’ll be speaking in her upcoming GCSE exam about plastic in the sea and what we can do about it. My oldest (17) wants to work in the music industry. He listens to contemporary punk bands who write songs about women’s rights, men’s mental health, the NHS – and the environment. He writes them too.

Unlike us, they have everything to lose.

Our only planet is burning and all we’re doing is fiddling. The kids are not just alright. They are right.

Nature Notes

Brown hares, snow hares.

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I never meant to go out that far, that high or for that long. At least, not before getting some chores done. But, when it stopped snowing after more than 24 hours, the world was so transformed, so breathtaking in its beauty, I was utterly taken; spellbound.
The light coming through the end of the holloway flung long blue shadows from the trees like a throw line towards me. Christmas-carded with snow and so heavily weighted, the branches form a tunnel low enough to have to crawl through in places.

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The open down is a glittering moonscape. The tussocky meadow anthills smoothed into unearthly, rounded humps.

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I climb up alone, beyond the place the snowplough stopped on the road below me, creating a white wall higher than my head. The snow that had been at my welly tops, was now well above my knees.

All the way, I have the company of hares, or at least, the impression of them. I track the lines of their crisp prints in the snow, measuring two, then three of my strides to one animal, as it increased speed. Criss-crossing, racing, up and down the ramparts of the hill fort, mostly on top of the snow, sinking three or four centimetres in, they too cast their own blue shadows.

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In a wedgewood-blue sky, the sun dazzles off the wide snowfield and a frost layer of ice crystals that sparkle on top. I am enthralled, enchanted; bewitched by the blueness of the snow, the polar silence, the arctic curves and folds. The panoramic aloneness of it.

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A succession of 4x4s try the adventure of the road below. They hit the snowplough wall and are stuck. Another from the opposite direction seeks the road, finds only fence post tops; the drift, skimmed smooth and innocent over the top as if with a palette knife, would swallow a Land Rover whole.

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At the top of the hill are more cookie-cutter hare prints. I can clearly see how far the hindfeet overreach the forefeet, crossed like the legs of an animated director’s chair, between great gaps of suspension above the earth. It makes me smile.

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The Wayfarer’s track is heavy going. I sink to my hips in great, cold duvet folds of snow that fill up my wellies. I have to surge and swim my way out, grateful that no one can see me. The dogs are struggling; summiting the drifts, then sinking up to their necks. I should head home. But I want to take it all in. I want to see all my beloved, familiar places transformed like this. I don’t think I can ever go home again.

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And then, 974ft up, at the height of the hill, 26ft short of a mountain, three hares dash up from the ground in a cloud of powdered snow and sprint a figure of eight ahead. Bright, chestnut forms, burning against the snow like sleek racehorses. Brown hares. Almost-mountain hares.

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Nature Notes

Hedgebottom Foxes.

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A blank-window pallor gleams through the bottom of the bare hawthorn hedge on the hill above. Where protective tree tubes have been, the hedge bottom is open and spaced evenly by slender trunks, giving it a cloistered appearance. It is an unusual vantage point for me: a steamy kitchen on a Saturday-job afternoon. The scribbled thorns above arched panes of castellated winter sky, make it look like a flat trompe l’oeil painting. A hare sits silhouetted under one of the arches, cleaning its long ears; a pre-Raphaelite figure combing her hair at the window. It stretches its back like a cat; a Mariana in the moated grange, framed by a pillared casement that Tennyson, Millais or even Shakespeare might recognise. I stop toying with a loose curl around my finger, stretch the ache out of my own back, put down my binoculars and snap out of a reverie.

At home, the sky seems brighter through the wood’s lattice of leaded lights and a change-up of bird song. The mistle thrush astounds us by turning up the volume, calling the whole wood out with his special brand of dogged, melancholy optimism. At noon, an owl calls three times from the wood.

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I walk the dogs later, hoping to reach the big beech hangar on the down before sunset. I don’t, so I stand and watch the gold soak into it, like syrup into burnt toast. The hanging wood looks like a great creature on castors, drawn back and poised at the point where gravity is about to let it go, screaming downhill. It looks full of rollercoaster tension; all the frisson of crepuscular, vespertine activity hidden inside.

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Neither dog spots the fox. A broad stroke of sunset gilding its back, it moves through the blurry myopic squint of earth haze and night air and melts into the maize without a rustle.

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I drop down into the familiar sunken lane with a primal thump of fear and doubt. The lane could be black water for all I can see. It isn’t of course. But something, not a dog, trots past panting lightly.

There are small disturbances in the hedgebottom at head height, the tiniest flurries of flicked leaves every few strides. Voles and mice darting away, trembling at owl cries. At eye level, a shadow doubles back and runs past in a zoetrope of flickering motion. I seem to have become tangled in a thread of foxes.

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Wavy-limbed oaks are wrapped in jumpers of ivy, their sleeves unravelling around a fuzzy, diffuse moon. At midnight, returning from a friend’s house, a woodpigeon calls from the wood. The moon is in the village pond, alerting me to the still, black water and the sharp smell of snow.

Nature Notes

Shifting mists.

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Each day, tentatively and in small increments, there is a little more light. And signs, too, of the season to come before we expect them: snowdrops and bluebell shoots, blackbird notes, the first drumming woodpecker and the gold lamb’s tails of lengthening hazel catkins; sherberty yellow daubs against the cold, wet, teabag-browns of the wood, their citrusy yellow powder, bright as a yellowhammer’s head.

The cold weather pulls the birds into the garden, ready for the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, possibly. A mistle thrush sings strongly at the top of the oak, leaning into a north-easterly and carolling into the darkest part of the year, when we have swung furthest from the sun, to call it back. Below him and his singing, I’ve hung the mistletoe bough from the house in the apple tree, where I have also left some lights, until the batteries run out. Green-gold sprays of mistletoe I planted 12, 10, or 5 years ago are sprigging from the apple bark.

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I walk for hours from home without seeing a soul. Wreathy mists come in and out like the ghost of a sea this once was, making strange islands of distant Pewsey Vale, White Horse and Liddington Hill. The mist unfurls like breath, like a shifting, magic carpet rolled out, like a silk scarf trailed along the valley floor.

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There are fresh rumours of otters in the lake of the big house. It seems at first outrageous. Yet here is the river source, nothing more than an ooze, widening into a ditch, widening into a stream – enough, for these tricksy, ethereal animals; silk scarves in animal form, nosing upstream like the mist.

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In the evening, there is the glass clink and clitter of skim-ice broken in the trough; and the curlicue purl of breath from a dunnock singing on the boundary hedge. It reminds me of the white mist of the morning.

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Gone sunset, and I shake out more straw in the barn for a cold night; a stored summer of thick gold ribbons for warmth and colour. My son gets home in breathless, infectious awe, from riding his mountain bike alongside a hunting barn owl. Twice, there and back.

The back door opens and the light spills out.

Nature Notes

Trespasses.

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The fog and its hiding, muffled property lends me a welcome, invisibility cloak that I wear in repudiation of some kind of exile.  Walking alone and further to get to familiar places sharpens the senses. By the swing gate, the upturned aspect of ash twig-ends, ending in lamp black buds like deer’s feet, show me the way: up and onwards, with light steps. I pull on a bunch of dangling ash keys and let myself back in.

The drip and distillation of climbing into the cloud purifies, condenses and collects my thoughts. Long-winged ravens sweep past unseen, rustling like stiffened taffeta just beyond the fog’s blank page of white sky. When I reach the gorse and look back, there is a perfect fogbow: a  gauzy rainbow of faint blue and red in an unbroken halo below. I could almost dive through it.

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Another day, another transgression. The new growth on the hedgerows is a damson pink to match the breasts of a pair of bullfinches keeping pace with me, until I lose their white bottoms among the snowberries. Woodpecker and owl holes are revealed in trees.  A stand of ash and yew trees are splashed with the white tell-tale emulsion of a kite roost high above.  A woodland pond has re-filled with the week’s rain and is pitted all around with an impasto of prints: pheasant, wild duck, muntjac, roe and fallow deer (slotted brackets that increase in size and depth with the species) and is stitched all around by the bills of snipe and woodcock.

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The pond is framed by an arc of bramble and the straw-braided, bright red berries of black bryony. But the smoke-blue smouldering seedheads of Old Man’s Beard, Traveller’s Joy or Father Christmas are my favourite. The thick, twisted ropes of wild clematis travel up and onwards through the hedges, in defiance of the hedgecutter, reaching the tops of trees. Adam Thorpe called it bedwine in his chalk country novel Ulverton. It becomes an emblem of time-travel, or the linking of stories and ages through a place, a constant thread. Bedwine, betwine – it comes into its own at this most magical, inbetween time of year. The grey, frosted globes each covet a filament of golden light within. Nature’s own fairy lights and baubles.

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Midwinter; and a mistle thrush leans into the wind, carolling, to counterbalance an earth tilting furthest from the sun. The days grow longer now by slow increments. The mistle thrush, the ‘stormcock’, continues to sing poetically and powerfully from the top of the oak, above the apple trees and their mistletoe. One evening 14 fallow deer cross the road in front of us, a big dappled and antlered buck bringing up the rear. We name them twice over – Dasher, Dancer, Donner and Blitzen … I am still seeing things – more, perhaps, than before. I am not cut off.

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One night, my daughters and I watch the Geminids fall like coloured glass from the sky, through Orion’s upheld, cartwheeling arms. We spy the Christmas Comet Wirtanen as a chalky thumbprint near the Seven Sisters, and confirm it through binoculars. A fox barks and is answered. Owls call. Golden plover whistle over.

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After a stormy spell, my son – who drove our Christmas Tree home with ‘L’ Plates swinging from its trunk – watches the illusion of the Cold Moon being hurled through the racing sky and clouds. It makes us dizzy and we laugh at the trick of it.

After all that wind and bluster, the hill is visible as a sharp black silhouette, the apex of a barn roof arcing behind the wood blown clean of leaves. Still there.

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Nature Notes

Owling.

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I own neither a passport, nor a house, but last night, saw 4 species of owl within a mile of home.

I heard the first before I saw it. The yelp of a little owl from the farm as I walked my youngest daughter home from school. We scan the outstretched limbs of the trees overhanging the field – the autumn filigree of beech mast, all nuts expelled, against a big heaven – until we find the owl’s small, rounded outline and approach carefully. A tree’s length away is enough: it bobs up and down with a stay-where-you-are pee woo woo; fierce eyebrows pale in the failing light.

Walking the dog half an hour later, the day begins to fold. There are quince bright as lightbulbs or lemons in the bare hedge. Field maples stake the boundary at lamppost intervals: wet pools of yellow light in lost leaves, glimmering up from the earth. The sunset has formed an apricot browse line under the sentry beech that marks the footpath, against the rain-dark, navy serge of Wiltshire’s vales.

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I walk beneath the big wet coliseum of an ancient chestnut, its bark split into great warped boards, like an antique wardrobe left out in the rain. I spot the tawny owl at the moment we make brief eye contact. It flicks off the branch and is gone through the complexity of trees in absolute and dextrous silence. The empty branch rebounds.

I get into the car to pick up my son from a village 7 miles away, where the bus from college drops him. There is still enough light and as I drive up the road that cuts through the down’s steep escarpment, I habitually scan the fence posts for owls. The short–eared owl, however, comes off the hill and flies alongside a few wingbeats, thwarted briefly in its hunting flightpath. Level with my wing mirror, it turns to look at me: a round face and kohl-rimmed, fiery eyes, held steady, then it powers in front, and is illuminated in my headlights. Pale and striated as winter grass with black brackets at its wrists, it sculls off on wings like long, thin oars.

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Our return journey is made in near-darkness when, in the same spot, a barn owl comes into view off the hill and over the car. It alights on a fencepost. We coast on the clutch until, windows down, we are at eye-level with it. It has its back to us, satellite dish head tilted to the ground, gathering, triangulating and pinpointing sound. We are a distraction. It turns its head through 180 degrees and fixes us with sloe-black eyes framed in a heart-shaped face. A spellbound moment and we drive on to leave it in peace, the headlamp beams filling with December moths.

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Home. Then evening stables. Through a gap in the sailing clouds, I can see the handle of the plough and steer myself by it. The pale orange frost moon rising takes my breath away. Tawny owls call from the wood and there is the shhhhhp of another barn owl. I have astonishing riches. To each horse, I carry the moon in a bucket.

Nature Notes

Rain birds, sun blushed. Pluvialis apricaria. 

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On the highest hill we are under the rain. Exposed as we are, we can see it coming towards us, a wall of grey obliterating the landscape in its path. Later, there are spectacular rainbows.

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After sunset, I walk out onto the big arable fields on the highest hills. Hares are silhouetted on the skyline against an apricot sky. They lope, graze and pause to clean long ears, pulling one at a time through their forefeet.

It is almost dark. Redwings call as they migrate over – and then I hear the first disorientating whistle of the birds I’ve come for; plaintive, loaded, melancholic. I turn around and around but can’t pinpoint it until, with a rushing sound and a quicksilver mist, the birds sweep past.

Golden Plover. Pluvialis apricaria, which roughly translates as: rain bird, sun blushed. They may have bred in Iceland, where they are fondly seen as the sweetest harbingers of spring, like our swallows. They are said to foretell rain. Certainly, on wilder, wetter, windier nights, they form bigger flocks. Then, their whistle is such a pure, clean sound, cutting through the wind, reminiscent of oystercatchers, anxious and fearful: collectively, they are a ‘dread’ of golden plover.

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The birds come round again – or perhaps it is another flock? The almost-human and haunting whistles again, too tueuu; the birds so fast and shifting, their notes are always behind them, leaving me pirouetting for them in a darkening field.

Then more drop from the navy sky, whiffling down with a flash of pointed wings, then vanishing into the inky blue field, leaving the air full of the sound of unseen wings. I step slowly forward and there is an eerie rushing, swishing: a great snaking rope payed out at speed; an unsettling, surround-sound, an invisible monster in the dark that would frighten me to death if I didn’t know what it was. They are flying so low that I cannot see them above the night-blurred margin of the close horizon.

Ten more steps and they lift with a softer, seductive sound: a wave drawing back from shingle, a 1lb of sugar poured into a jar, the prolonged shusshh of a satin dress slowly slipping off a bed and falling to the floor. I draw level to where I think they are and pass: their nervy flights shorter, less anxious and not calling now. They and the night have claimed the hill.

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I walk the last strides off the field backwards and this time when they lift I see them briefly – flashes of sharp, upright wings like flickering sails skittering over the surface of a dark pond. A silvery shoal, low, low and gleaming like knapped flints in the starlight.

I walk home exhilarated and slightly dizzy, down off the wide, dark field, higher than anything else I can see, into the velvet dark below, feeling like I’ve been up among the very stars themselves.