Nature Notes

Birds of the High Arctic.


There are swallows on the wires on the Coldharbour Road. Their blue-black glossiness burnished by the African sun. A slow moving galleon of cumulous cloud pulses with distant lightening: a mobile silent disco sailing by.

The weather is classically April; bright, silly, unpredictable. Though it is late and the sloe blooms are brownish, a blackthorn winter-weekend follows heat. Fat snowflakes fall like cherry blossom past the swallows in the air.

Spring returns with the flashing speed of cloud shadows. The warming earth disgorges spiders in the grass and heats the greasy, comforting smell of lanolin off the sheep. On the hillfort, the view is castellated with a defence of meadow ant nests. Grey and red-legged
partridge have scratched open small doorways in them.IMG_3259

A pair of wheatears smartly hop the clods with a flash of ‘white-arse’ the Victorians sanitized with a misnomer. And then, like a kind of waking-up, birdsong I haven’t heard in nine months: garden warbler, or blackcap? And gloriously, the lilting, lemony decanting of willow warblers into flowering gorse.

I have my eyes on the skies for passage migrants and strain to listen in the wind-silences for cuckoos. Anything could turn up.

There are ring ouzels on the hill: silvery mountain blackbirds wearing white mezzalunas. And there’s something else.

Four birds are moving slowly, feeding like starlings and calling like golden plover. They waddle like super-slim woodpigeons, then stand upright. In evening light, their feathers are dun scales. There is a white eye stripe, an apricot blush, a small bill and a sweet expression. I realise, then, I have learnt that strange birding alchemy of a bird’s ‘jizz’: the gist of a bird that outlines or defines it. Waders. But none I’ve seen before.

I get as close as possible without climbing the fence. The birds ignore me, and that almostIMG_3344 clinches it. That, and knowing, on migration from the Atlas Mountains or Mediterranean, they leave one mountain plateau for another. A few breed in Scotland, on the open tundra of munros. Little ‘trips’ of them sometimes stop at favoured, high, plateau-esque places en-route, like our almost-mountain, our 297m ‘marilyn’.

In Shakespeare’s time the bird was taken for a ‘dotard’, a doddery old fool: easily approached, it made good eating and in a role-reversal, the hen is more colourful, laying her eggs and moving on, leaving more than one ‘doting’ male in her wake, raising their offspring.

They are a rare
thing. Birds of the IMG_3261high arctic.

I return the following evening, my shadow long on the down. Clouds are like ink on wet paper against a coral sky. There are only the cries of lapwing. Whatever I thought or hoped the birds might be, they have moved on. The sunset is the colour of a dotterels breast.


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