Birds of the Night Hill

As another storm comes through, we shelter in the woods. The laurel leaves are shining with wet and the tree trunks dark with it.IMG_2941

We are not alone.  A hare is backed up in the bay between roots of an ash. Its rump pushed against the trunk, a kohl rimmed, lunar-eclipse of a haunted eye glowing like a wet pebble. The animal’s ears lie along its back but begin to rise as we pass, like an increasingly frightened brow. We succeed in not disturbing it and out of the corner of our eyes, the hare and its ears settle back down. Ahead, another gets up to stand tall on all four legs, in a prelude to a stretch. It looks catlike, a new species. It yawns, contracting its white belly to hunch its long back into a railway-bridge ‘n’. And then it pulls the big gear-cog of its hindquarters underneath it, engages its thumping great hindfeet and lopes off with an idling power.

At night, we go lamping in the Landrover, where the wheels can find purchase in the wet,

Woodcock (2)

One of our woodcock, by Debby Reynolds

to see what is about. It is a rough, wild night, with buffeting winds blowing the stars about as well as the lamp in my friend’s freezing hand, outside the vehicle’s window. Nevertheless, we catch the dark orange eyeshine of rubies in the dark: woodcock eyes. They are feeding in every field we cover, probing the soil with a ponderous waddling gait or clamped to the ground in this excoriating wind. On one 33 acre field alone, we count 22 and wonder how many we’ve missed. Golden plover rise in flocks of twenty or so at the furthest reach of the lamp, like distant fireworks – as do, at intervals, meadow pipits and skylarks. There are snipe in good numbers. One of them proves more confiding, bobbing rhythmically as it feeds in our pool of light. We creep closer until the thicker, straw coloured lines on its back and shorter bill delineate an uncommon jack snipe.

It is a good night. We see more hares, a roebuck in velvet and a long-tailed, grizzled badger boar crossing the hill. In another field, a fox bolts from us, scattering small birds, its brush wildly waving, the white tip disappearing like a fizzing comet into the covert.

The waders on the high chalk were an incredible discovery we made five years ago. This year, numbers are the highest we’ve recorded. Perhaps as a result of the increased stubble left or because the ground is so very wet?

From November to March, we also see other, rarer and wholly unexpected waders up here. In an effort to get these birds officially recorded, two birders have come along as guests and have brought a camera. The Landrover slews on slick ground where turf and thin soil have turned to mud over slippery chalk. At moments, we daren’t stop for fear of getting stuck or worse, on this high scarp. I’ve never known it this bad. We see the birds

Grey Partridge (1)

Grey (or English) Partridge, Debby Reynolds

briefly, but tonight, they are flighty, eluding the camera and therefore absolute, positive identification.

Yet, there is one last surprise and an almost impossible spot. Breasting the clods and cuddled sweetly into one another on the big, exposed arable field, are two pairs of grey partridge.


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