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.

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