Nature Notes

Rain birds, sun blushed. Pluvialis apricaria. 

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On the highest hill we are under the rain. Exposed as we are, we can see it coming towards us, a wall of grey obliterating the landscape in its path. Later, there are spectacular rainbows.

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After sunset, I walk out onto the big arable fields on the highest hills. Hares are silhouetted on the skyline against an apricot sky. They lope, graze and pause to clean long ears, pulling one at a time through their forefeet.

It is almost dark. Redwings call as they migrate over – and then I hear the first disorientating whistle of the birds I’ve come for; plaintive, loaded, melancholic. I turn around and around but can’t pinpoint it until, with a rushing sound and a quicksilver mist, the birds sweep past.

Golden Plover. Pluvialis apricaria, which roughly translates as: rain bird, sun blushed. They may have bred in Iceland, where they are fondly seen as the sweetest harbingers of spring, like our swallows. They are said to foretell rain. Certainly, on wilder, wetter, windier nights, they form bigger flocks. Then, their whistle is such a pure, clean sound, cutting through the wind, reminiscent of oystercatchers, anxious and fearful: collectively, they are a ‘dread’ of golden plover.

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The birds come round again – or perhaps it is another flock? The almost-human and haunting whistles again, too tueuu; the birds so fast and shifting, their notes are always behind them, leaving me pirouetting for them in a darkening field.

Then more drop from the navy sky, whiffling down with a flash of pointed wings, then vanishing into the inky blue field, leaving the air full of the sound of unseen wings. I step slowly forward and there is an eerie rushing, swishing: a great snaking rope payed out at speed; an unsettling, surround-sound, an invisible monster in the dark that would frighten me to death if I didn’t know what it was. They are flying so low that I cannot see them above the night-blurred margin of the close horizon.

Ten more steps and they lift with a softer, seductive sound: a wave drawing back from shingle, a 1lb of sugar poured into a jar, the prolonged shusshh of a satin dress slowly slipping off a bed and falling to the floor. I draw level to where I think they are and pass: their nervy flights shorter, less anxious and not calling now. They and the night have claimed the hill.

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I walk the last strides off the field backwards and this time when they lift I see them briefly – flashes of sharp, upright wings like flickering sails skittering over the surface of a dark pond. A silvery shoal, low, low and gleaming like knapped flints in the starlight.

I walk home exhilarated and slightly dizzy, down off the wide, dark field, higher than anything else I can see, into the velvet dark below, feeling like I’ve been up among the very stars themselves.

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