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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