Nature Notes

The Long Twilight.

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The domed hill is shedding chalk rivers of rain. Chains of bubbles slide past either side of the raised camber, as if there were otters beneath the slick, wet surface of this river-road. Yet, after another 12 hour deluge, the late evening is quiet and still.

Blackbirds are piping alarms from the wood. Urgent chinks of sound chipped off like flint-knapped sparks, catching fire into shrill screams. There are waves and volleys of other avian urgency: chaffinches, robins, the loud ticking-off of wrens and the repeated, crest-raising churring of tits. A tawny owl is under siege, half way up an oak, eyes tight shut. It hears me and floats silently off, like a chunk of bark detached from the tree, taking an unshakeable veil of tenacious little birds with it.

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I walk on though the grainy mugginess of the evening and hear two or three more groups of birds mobbing owls. By now, the calls belong less and less to the tits and finches and more to those singers with the largest, light-gathering eyes; the early risers and late-stayers, the blackbirds, thrushes, robins and wrens. The mobs become more mobile as the owls wake to hunt. The songbirds are late to relinquish the day – perhaps on second or third broods – and the owls are impatient to begin hunting; the nights are short enough. There is a fraught, fractious overlap: an uneasy twilight that lengthens inexorably into undefined boundaries.

A stoat appears ahead like a perky, too-long train. It hesitates to cross the open road, then bolts back, tail up like an unlit match on the last carriage, a stretch-limo streak of red, a fired elastic band: exit, pursued by blackbirds.

I climb to the fence between the field and wood, bordering the badger sett. Cobnuts gleam like milky fairy lights against dark hazel leaves. There is not a breath of wind to stir them. Before me is a great ski-slope of powdery chalk spoil, white as washing powder. I don’t have to wait long for the badgers; they crash and thump about and the growing cubs yikker in rough play – all unseen behind a wall of waggling nettles.

Then in full view, 5m away, one reverses out, hugging and scraping a pile of chalk as he comes, then powering it out behind with great, bear-like feet. My bare legs are showered in dust, and chalk cobbles roll down to my feet. I can hear his long claws clicking together. He looks up once – his black nose completely whitened, black stripes powdered out. The owls call now in earnest. Not a blackbird speaks. When I get home and take my boots off, they are white with chalkdust.

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Nature Notes

An Almanac of Anger & Hope.

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I don’t know at what point the melancholy strikes and despair seeps in, but I am sure there is a pattern: a seasonal almanac of frustration and bitterness.

Chalk grassland, rarer than rainforest, has been overgrazed for another year, resulting in no flowers so far, since April:  fewer butterflies, bees and other insects and all the birds that hunt them.

Only the first roadside metre of verges are being mown – a welcome concession. Yet still it is done where it is not needed, where natural growth is low and visibility good.  Pyramidal orchids, twayblade, broomrape and scabious (plants it is illegal to pick) lie in severed swathes. A self-heating mulch that kills twice over: the heaped sward encourages more nettles and docks that outcompete those remaining on the bank.

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The agronomist walks the crop with the farmer, planning further spraying. Nothing flies up around them as they walk into the silent wobble of a heat-haze. Around most fields there are 9m stewardship strips of glorious wildflowers. But around each field too, is a 10 or 20m strip of close-mown grass, formerly swaying with insects. It is not made for hay. It is not a gallop, no one has access to it or uses it. Again, the mulch sits on top, feeding nettles so that next year, a spray will be needed. It’s a stupid, pointless, damaging cycle.

On a walk, visiting family declare the landscape stunning (it is).  How green! There must be harvest mice in the fields! No, I say. This field, like most others, is a factory floor, a sterile laboratory!  I love the country here, profoundly. But it is broken.

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I rally, showing them 4sqm of thistles and knapweed around a gateway, by way of explanation. It boils with bees, hoverflies, scarlet tiger moths, skippers, marbled white, meadow brown, comma, tortoiseshell and even brown argus butterflies. Yet by the following afternoon, that too is gone. Chopped, tidied away – and all the bright insects gone with it.

These fragments are scattered like the last pieces of a jigsaw we’ve lost the picture to and can’t make sense of, too many of the pieces lost. The picture, if we remember it, might look like something out of an old Ladybird book, from the ‘50’s or 60’s; just after things began to go so wrong. All hail then, the farmers who do things well. Do a difficult balancing act of providing food with a light touch on pest and herbicides, that leave or create areas for wildlife, that prove that it can be done.

 

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An evening walk on Lambourn downs and fish and chips between the gallops and Sheepdrove’s organic, poppied fields sets me right again. A pair of barn owls the colour of wheatfields are hunting; their flight light as moths in the cool air.

While we have nature left, and good people who care for it, allow for it, know its value and encourage it in myriad ways, there is hope.

And hope is the thing with feathers after all.

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Nature Notes

Nightjar Nights.

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On Greenham Common, the heat shimmers off the heathland, blurring the horizon, and the cows gather to stand in the pools. We seek the shade of the alder gullies that fold off the flat, gravel plateau like creases in a tablecloth.

In the evening, my daughters and I walk on a smaller fragment of heath. It is still hot and the scent of summer heath is warm in our nostrils; the pines melting sweet amber sap between the flakes of their bark-skin. The flowering grasses dust a heathery haze on our bare legs. I have come to show them nightjars – but we are too early. I take them off on a familiar route, but before long, have taken a wrong turn in this place I know so well. We end up short-cutting across yards of peaty-wet mire. We manage the first upended log stepping-stones, but soon run out of those. There is nothing for it, but to hitch up our summer skirts, and walk through with shrieks and laughter. I smile inwardly in the glow of winning an argument with my newly-teenage daughter over wearing her birthday-fresh trainers, but say nothing. The black peat- mud oozes through the lace holes in my boots, finds the gaps in my almost gone soles and finally, pours over the tops.

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But we come onto the open heath at just the right time: gone sunset on a sultry night, the strange, warm, mechanical sound of a nightjar already churring. It is the sound of the very engine generating the pine-resined, energy-sapping, languid heat of this midsummer night. The bird comes to investigate us. Silently, its outline hawkish, wings snapping up in jerky, puppety flight, white wing spots visible like two moons.

It lands in slender outline on a pine bough, characteristically sideways-on, and calls again. Another appears and the two go off around our heads, lower and lower until we can see the wide open, moth-catching gape of one, its tiny bill open. We twist and turn about, trying not to fall over as they dance around our heads, as if suspended on invisible strings. Another begins to churr from deeper within the common – and a fourth calls ‘cooic, cooic’ near the lane. At that moment, the froggy call of a roding woodcock lifts our eyes and a muntjac barks.

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It is 10pm on a school night. But the light holds as if it will not go dark tonight. No–one can sleep anyway. We make our way back across earth that radiates heat against the palms of our hands, the bone-white birches gleaming like coral, the sound of the nightjars filling our heads. We can still hear them when we get home in the hum of the fridge and our electric toothbrushes before we go to bed.

Nights in Long Grass.

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Nights like these, I find it almost impossible to be a functioning member of the family. All I want to be is out. More often than not, we all go. June nights are intoxicating, romantic, sensual affairs full of birdsong, big moons, moths, long grass and wildflowers that scent the nocturnal air. To immerse yourself in it is such a sensual experience it feels illicit; a guilty pleasure. There are leverets and fawns in the grass, fox and badger cubs to watch and owls hunting to feed their ever growing, increasingly mobile chicks.

After the high winds and heavy rain tested trees in full leaf, everything settles again. Banking the sides of the lanes are torn leaves, whole, leafy branches and small, hard unripe fruits: tiny green conkers, soft, green beechnuts, pliable ashkeys and bird cherries without a flush of red on them.

The white umbels of hogweed follow cow parsley, and twiggy, pithy elderflower comes into its own, offering up great, showy, creamy plates of heady scent to the air, like a juggling waiter. Whitebeam, wayfaring tree and guelder rose are all in blossom, lightening the green, and rambled all over with bramble roses and dog rose briars. The marshmallow-hued, heart-shaped petals are scattered all over the earth. My daughter’s friend asks if there has been a wedding.

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Lambs are growing strongly away and more than once, the white, woolly caterpillars of lambstails land in the garden, or at our feet, picked up from the fields by kites, buzzards and corvids – and dropped. Sometimes there are aerial skirmishes – sometimes, they seem dropped deliberately, just so the bird can practice its agility in catching them before they hit the ground.

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The fresh evenings of big, backlit cumulous clouds are gold-gilded. After the astonishing heatwave, castellanus clouds predict a possible riot of storms. We walk through fields of moon-daisies, stirring up moths with our feet: lie down for a hare’s eye view of the landscape. Tawny owlets begin calling for food, awake now, and hungry. We seem to push the chicks ahead of us in a wave of calling ‘chisseek, chisseek’ as they part-fly, part scramble unseen through the understorey. A large roebuck pronks out of the wood and rides through the green corn with great leaps and guttural barks.

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And as we follow out of the wood a barn owl floats into view, its big, satellite-dish head turning, heart-shaped, to the ground. It stalls like a paper plane hitting a head wind, folds itself up like a white page of origami and dives into the blue-green sea of wheat like a gannet.

Somewhere off, out there on the inhospitable, bare-knuckled flint rubble of the down – where there seems to be no soil at all – comes the haunting, thrilling wail of a stone curlew luring me away from the path home.

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Nature Notes

Digger on the hill.

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We go out just before sunset on a glorious day where the sky is swimming-pool blue. A warm breeze provokes whitebeam leaves into light. It is not strong, but it is a portent of the weather to come and enough to turn the wind turbine on the far hill, so I hear it in my head like blood pulsing: whump, whump, whump.

The grass camber between flint wheel tracks is soft underfoot and flows like a stream with feathery silverweed cinquefoil. Away from the menace of the hedgecutter, hawthorn has been allowed to flower in great, clotted-cream waterfalls, alive with all manner of bees, hoverflies, moths and other insects. Its petals polka-dot the nettles.
We three generations of women – mum, my eldest daughter and me – creep along the ride through the woods, lush grass brushing our fingertips as we carefully avoid the snap of dry pine twigs and brittle beech mast. A glimpse of the deep combe below is heavenly, the light casting deep and lovely shadows.

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We reach the centre of the badger sett. Under dappled beech and nettle-light are piles of white chalk rubble. The birdsong is rich and full. We settle to wait.

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The sun is molten on the ridge. Eventually, the light leaves the wood and the birdsong quietens. Blackbirds chip and pink their anxiety to roost and pheasants cough nervously. There is a change in the atmosphere and the wood takes on a grainy, cinematic quality. Very close by, disturbed flints rattle quietly over chalk cobbles and the nettles wag: the badgers are out.

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Half a striped face appears, then disappears. Then above the nettles on a mound of chalk, two sets of ears, like mirrored crescent moons. Another badger emerges from a hole to our right like a silver invisibility cloak; an animated piece of night, silent, grey, long tail sweeping, exquisite dished face concentrating on the ground. To our left, another appears in a last pool of light, its fur beautifully backlit, a smudge of chalk drying on its nose, the pale claws of pigeon-toed paws so long, they almost overlap. We hold our breath. It shifts its head up, down, appraises us and bolts. But does not seem to disturb the others. Right in their midst, we are afforded more views of disembodied badgers – the glint of an eye, a head that seems to float in the gloom, a powerful, silver-grey shoulder pulling a roll of bedding out to air.

Badger, becheur, brock, digger: we are immersed in their world where they are half-seen, mysterious and almost silent; piecing together a jigsaw of badgers, like the shards of a landscape: light, chalk and the night.

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Nature Notes

Hill forts, islands & leavings.

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When we booked our recent holiday, reading out the description instigated a family fit of giggles. Our holiday destination nestled below a 298m hill and its Iron Age hill fort. It was the gateway to a National Park under official dark night skies and a historic, bloody battle was fought on its slopes. Our house sits below a hill just 1m lower with its own impressive Iron Age hill fort. It is within the North Wessex Downs AONB (perhaps 1m down from a National Park?) under designated dark night skies. If you were stretching the comparison, practice for the Merville Battery assault during D-Day was enacted here, on the slopes, with real ammunition and bloody consequences, albeit later.

But of course: Northumberland was wilder, more remote, more rugged. The house was bigger, nicer and there was a brilliant chef (in the form of my lovely Father-in-law). And the dark night skies were infinitely darker.

We took the causeway out to Lindisfarne where the sea glittered like shook foil off  expansive white sands. There were eider ducks and flocks of knot and dunlin out on the spits and sand bars, and between the bottling, bobbing heads of hundreds of seals, an otter, porpoising.

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We took Billy Shiel’s boat from Seahouses to Inner Farne on choppy seas under louring cloud. We were soon out among the birds: gannets forming huge yellow-and-white ‘W’s in spectacular dives and puffins whirring past like bright bees. The seabird colonies here are globally important and I inhaled the famous scent of guano from the ice-creamed cliffs and declared it a mix of wet sheep and otter poo, a subtle nuancy no-one else on the boat recognised.

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It poured. On the island, puffins ran down turf burrows and razorbills with white ribbon bridles jostled with chocolate-brown guillemots. We spotted cormorant and shag nests and the blue enamel pears of guillemot eggs. On the boat home, soaked to our underwear, a pod of six dolphins broke the surface, rolling like the smooth submerged cogs of something working below the surface we couldn’t fathom.

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On our last evening, we climbed Humbleton hill again, huddling in strong winds in the 17thC summit cairn and looked out to Scotland, the oxbow of the ottery River Till and Wooler Water below us, with views towards Yeavering Bell and its ancient herd of wild goats. Squared plantations and garrisoned woods darkened into ranks, bristling with pike-pines as we thought of the 800 Scots who died here fighting Hotspur in 1402.

The dark night sky darkened. There are stars in our hair and on the shoulder of the hill. The lights from a distant car sideswipe the hill like a searchlight, we shy away from it instinctively, fugitives from the light and the rest of the world.

The last bird I hear is a grey partridge calling me home and the ‘go back, go back’ cries of red grouse. We take an emotional leaving and pack off back to our own hill fort and its dark night skies. 1 metre lower and a whole country distant.

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Nature Notes

Eastwards: the Cheviots in Spring.

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Low, red-roofed Homildon Cottage forms the gatepost to Northumberland National Park and St Cuthbert’s Way all the way to Lindisfarne. It nestles below historic Humbleton Hill (the cottage keeps the older name) and its garden gives way to bilberry, heather and the unfurling fiddleheads of bracken. There are lapwings nesting beyond the back gate and curlew calling from the hill. All the luxurious lie-ins we’ve promised ourselves are irrelevant in an instant.

We are out first thing on the high, domed Cheviots, mountain biking, walking, birding. The dry stone walls are limed and whitened with lichen, punched through with oak and sycamore roots, haunted by wrens and redstart and threaded through with hunting stoats. The hills are alive with meadow pipits, skylarks, bright-billed oystercatchers, wheatear, whin and stonechat. And an evocative soundtrack to die for.

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Red grouse display and call ‘like a duck falling downstairs’ according to my son, and follow with their famous, ventriloquistic ‘go back, go back’. But we won’t, not yet. Snipe ‘sing’ with the sound of someone sawing through wet wood and when one goes up drumming above me, my heart catches at the sound: atmospheric and all but lost at home. As this small, slender bird with a long bill flies, it makes silvery twists and dips, shouldering in to scoop the sound out of the very air, making it flow over right angled tail feathers that stick out like horizontal stabilisers on the tail of a plane. The sound is a thrumming, a wuthering, a kite on a string that swoops and rights itself before hitting the ground: a sound like someone furiously bowing a cello.

We are here at such an exciting time. The migratory spring birds are coming in off the East Coast, the numbers of willow warblers doubling daily, their song a lilting laugh. Harthope valley is full of golden gorse and its scent of coconut ice cream. We walk alongside the beautiful Carey Burn as it tumbles round rocks marked by otters. I scan warm shale slopes for ring ouzels and get left behind as I try to take it all in.

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The boys bike over Hart Heugh and Broadstruthers for some exhilarating descents whilst my daughter goes for a wild swim with the dogs in a mountain pool below a waterfall. The rest of us are in fleeces. A dipper pipes back and forth over her head and a lizard skitters over golden saxifrage. And we are there the moment the sand martins return, all dusky brown and glittering as if the Saharan sand is still on their wings.

On the wide, white sands below impossibly romantic Bamburgh Castle, we gaze out to The Farne Islands and hatch plans among the incoming puffins.

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Nature Notes

Cherry Dew.

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The scent of cherry laurel in the keepered woods is a sensory mnemonic: it triggers a search. The bluebells are emerging where the canopy is native and open and, near the badger sett, I go looking for toothwort and find it. A ghostly wildflower that lacks chlorophyll and springs from tree roots, it resembles a teetering tower of piled teeth, built by a toothfairy.

Wild cherry rings the woods and a song thrush repeats its ‘cherry dew, cherry dew’ refrain. A wych elm leans out towards the light, the pale green rosettes of its papery seeds clustered like garlands along the branches. This is a time of confirmation; of waking up, breaking out and checking: I visit the same haunts, looking for different things; hoping that despite man’s best efforts to ruin and ignore the thing it relies on for life and imagination and sanity, spring will still deliver its promise and comfort.

A richly furred bee-fly checks its long needle-like proboscis into the tilted jars of the toothwort, monitoring the health of the season. One parasite feeds from another: a word that has such negative connotations, yet is part of the necessary interconnectedness and shared reliance of life on earth that we still struggle to appreciate.

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There are reassuring firsts: swallows scissoring up the air in colours like a Breton top and the first lilting, laughing, descending notes of willow warblers. I search in vain for adders, but find a slow worm solar-powering up on a bank of violets, primroses and wild strawberries.

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We tentatively search out badger setts and fox earths, appraising them for activity, good viewing and wind direction, keeping a distance around the fox earths, using binoculars to check for fresh scat and food remains. The vixen will move cubs without hesitation should she sense us. The Hever Wood badgers have heaped great mounds of fresh white chalk rubble from their tunnels, scraping deep grooves in earth that resembles porous bath enamel: almost impossible to get a spade into. The soil is thin, the sloping tunnel entrances worn smooth as luges.

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In the middle of the afternoon, across the deepest of the hidden combes, a vixen basks on the sunny hillside. She burns orange above a neat white ruff, swivels wide, black-tipped ears towards us, yawns and lies back on the grass. Her 7-week old cubs safe and no doubt sleeping in the earth nearby.

Later, writing the word ‘lapwing’ in my hut conjures them up: I hear the bubbling cry and spill my tea to look for them. I worry how vulnerable they are, nesting exposed on the open fields. The tractor and sprayer goes out again and I wonder if the driver will spot them, marked or not. My eyes are drawn habitually to the hill and the sheep scattered over it. The shepherd’s not moved them off the big down for the fifth spring in a row, as he should – meaning it will not, again, be golden with cowslips and their attendant insects.

I heard a new word this week. Solastalgia. A word coined with an interesting etymology, increasingly in use. It recognises an old, localised, previously unnamed phenomena, on the rise, experienced globally. It is a homesickness or grief for a familiar, loved landscape that has changed as we live in it: through clearances, enclosure, development, agribusiness, war, mining, climate change – the word has settled in my heart with a mixture of fear and confirmation.

We are stockchecking spring, with our hearts in our mouths, like we might stockcheck a Library before having to close it, despite its increasing relevance and our need of it. We are ever hopeful, yet fearful this might be the last time lapwings nest on this field or that one; that the hedgehog run over by the phone box, might be the last. That the adders have gone. That, for the first time in 1,000’s of unbroken years, a cuckoo will not return to this place and be recorded by someone; a shepherd’s nod, a villager’s smile, a child’s echo down the lanes to school, a housewife’s tweet.

Nature Notes

A Spring of Hares.

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April weather and the season is on. Celandines that had pinched petals in tight pursed pouts, open to shine, glossy and reflective, back at the sun. In a week, balled fist-buds in a landmark sycamore give up the fight against winter and relax, opening palms of crumpled, damp-handkerchief leaves that tremble in new winds. The tree becomes a lime-green beacon among fellows yet to release their grip. I drive home daily into a storm of blackthorn blossom between chequerboard hedgerows, the white flowers-before-leaves of blackthorn interspersed with the green, edible, leaves-before-flowers of hawthorn.

In the woods, chiff chaffs chime like anarchic metronomes and at the badger sett, bedding has been pulled out backwards to air. On the field-edge, a hare bolts from my feet. Its flattened ears come up as it slows to a rocking-horse lope. And then it does something I’ve heard of, but never seen. It stands right up on its hind legs, balancing on tiptoe, like a meerkat. It is completely still, perfectly poised and, forepaws held down by its side, looks like a strange child. It stands over 3ft tall.

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Later in the week, the same fields have been have been drilled with spring oats. From the top of the hill, they form a chain of creamy chalk squares, a tilth fine and pale as apple crumble; white fields that dazzle in the sun.

When I am on them again, I spot four pairs of long ears on the ridge: eight sundae spoons dipped in chocolate, rising, falling, swivelling in a language I’m not privy to. I creep closer. The four animals sit in a circle, facing in: a counsel, a trip of hares, a wisdom of ears.

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One stands up, dog-like, then arches its back like a cat; another leaps vertically, kicking like a bucking horse – and the race is on. They gallop along the ridge of crumbly white earth, the whole of the deep-shadowed down behind them. A fifth joins in, rising from the earth. They look magnificent, a sleek string of racing thoroughbreds; the engine house of their hindquarters powering them forward like a great cog, hindpaws overreaching front. The lead hare, the doe, rounds on them suddenly and the bucks jink away; the fourth leaping over the third. This jack tries his luck, sniffing round the jill. She half rears in warning. He backs off and another approaches. She leaps forward to cuff his whiskered face: he retaliates and the fur flies. They dance like boxers on their haunches, wildly paddling front paws, before making contact, claws like gloved knives, sending puffs of fur on the wind. Then they are down again, looking improbably tall, these ‘corn stags’ until, one by one, each lays their ears flat along their back and lies down, sinking into the earth as if nothing were ever there. I breathe out. A blackcap sings from the hedge.

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Nature Notes

An Apparition: Starlings & the Peregrine.

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On a bright afternoon, we go birding in the Land Rover, not anticipating much. The last embers of redwing and fieldfare flocks glow – and babble like a stream through the trees. Near the dewpond, it becomes apparent there is a huge flock of birds, just over the ridge of the hill.

We pull up and get out. Below, and at eye level, is the biggest flock of starlings either of us have seen on these hills. They have formed a great feeding flock before dispersing and migrating north. Thousands of birds ripple in a black, lacy wave above the escarpment, 1,00ft up. They rise and fall as if someone were lifting and settling a bedsheet.

Lit by the evening sun, the view below is breathtaking. We are higher than the kites chasing and tumbling in pair bonding displays. The starlings feed on worms and invertebrates, among the sheep dung. They are spotted with petrol iridescence; their plumage dotted with wet scales from a rainbow. The feeding flock twitters and warbles with a sonic mix of radio, internet chatter and static. When they lift and come over us like a great net, with a perfectly positioned and choreographed flap-and glide of thousands, it is with the sound of the sea.

Something changes.

The flock drifts eastwards, but a spectral ball breaks away, rises in front of us and hovers: a dense orb of birds. A black eye that obscures part of the valley below like a migraine absence on the retina, that shifts unnervingly like a mote in the eye. In this most atmospheric of places, it is a powerful image; eerie, disconcerting and utterly thrilling.

The flock feints, stretches into an ellipse, flattens and elongates like a bouncing ball, hissing as it shape-shifts. Yet this unearthly swarm is doing something very real: it is performing the collective trick of safety in numbers. It is surviving.

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We search for the cause and find it: flung high above the starlings like a deadly Japanese throwing star is a peregrine falcon. It reaches the heights, then plummets in a stoop. The flock moves, a beetle-black fluctuation of jet and stars and silver, a single, intelligent organism of thousands of individuals.

The falcon tries again. Again, the sound of the sea pulling back from the shore: the globe of moving static and white noise flinches sideways.

The falcon powers upwards once more, drops and plunges into the shoal black glitter of birds and the effect is instant. Like a needle piercing a cell, a pin popping a balloon full of feathers, the form explodes and the birds fall to the ground.

Out of sight over the ridge, the peregrine has killed one of their number. For the survivors, the panic is over. There is no grieving. They cover the hill like a dropped veil, resume their chatter and feed.