A Rail of a Time

waterrail

Having the luxury of an entire week away from work my first instinct this morning was to head straight for the edgeland. I’ve mainly been visiting the edgeland in the evenings and so I was excited to get a fresh perspective on the place during the morning and mid hours. It paid dividend and I had the most productive day since my rediscovery of this glorious 90 acres with two new birds added to the edgeland species list which can now be found on the tab at the top of this page.

I didn’t have to wait long to catch my first awe-inspiring spectacle of the day. In the second field from the rail bridge a burst of noise from the opposing hedge catches my attention. I watch for several minutes as a small male Sparrowhawk chases a frantic pair of song thrushes in, out, over and under the hedge. A master of rapid flight he twists and turns faster than he beats his wings. He halts mid-air and doubles back in the blink of an eye and makes a final grab mid hedge. He’s unsuccessful this time and melts away into the distance, somewhat dejected.

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River Sence from the footbridge

I head straight for the river meadow beyond the canal line where I want to spend the main part of my jaunt paying closer attention to the river Sence and its inhabitants. After reaching the footbridge over the river I instead turn right and follow the snaking length of river towards the island where I think will be my best chance of finding a so far allusive Kingfisher. Treading carefully to avoid disturbing anything stirring below the banks Wrens give the game away with non-stop alarm calls. There seems to be dozens of them, a small army of Wrens keeping guard over the river. Embarrassed but undeterred (a deer stalker I would not make) I follow an inward curve close to the makeshift hedge of teasel, grass and hogweed. There is a small beach-like section here on the opposite side of the river below a Willow where mud and dying reeds have created a tiny inlet perfect for the Moorhens I’d previously seen here sifting through the soft silty substrate. Today though the Moorhen has been replaced by a new bird, a stunning bird, a first for the edgeland and a first for me.

Water rail. Usually shy and retiring they are rarely seen except for in the winter where poor weather and dead vegetation force them out into open spots looking for small fish, snails and invertebrates. I watch as she wades and sifts with her beautiful mottled chestnut-brown back turned towards me. Turning slightly she reveals a long and bright orange-red bill, perfect for picking through the reeds and leaf litter gathering near the banks. Gloriously Blue-grey underparts complete her as she suddenly lifts an eye and senses my presence, breaking quickly for the cover of the Willow and out beyond the bend.

I cross wide of an inaccessible stretch of the river overgrown with nettle and rejoin where the bend turns inwards creating the beginning of the island. Following the bend around I stay low as several perching sticks in this stretch are perfectly placed for Kingfishers but still they allude me. I reach the barbed wire gate that marks the end of my route and the beginning of a private section of pasture that bridges the gap between myself and civilisation. I’ve notice Crows gather in these fields in large number, undisturbed. The grass here has always been lush and provides a perfect wormery and no doubt a variety of invertebrate dishes for hungry corvid bills. The field is bound in the distance by a long line of fully grown Hawthorne trees, not hedge, and they are brimming with berries. With my binoculars I can see a large flock of Fieldfares in the distance rushing in waves from tree to tree but they are so far off they do not yet count as an edgeland species. Give it a few week I say to myself.

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Sewage works woods.

With the day to myself I decide to extend my walk and cover parts of the edgeland I have yet to visit this autumn. The Sewage works and its wooded boundaries have provided some good viewing when I’ve been at other times of the year. Heading back along the river I cross the bridge and breach the ploughed farmland that separates me from the low hum of the rotating sprinklers of the sewage works. To the right of the site as a small deciduous woodland actively managed as a ‘nature trail’. I follow the woodland edge and spook a Great Spotted Woodpecker from a Silver Birch but the bird settles again in range of my binoculars and I take in the stunning red, black and white bird as it scans the trunk in search of an insect meal. Another new bird for the edgeland list.

In stark contrast to the male Sparrowhawk I saw in the fields before, an identifiably larger, more muscular female now rises from the canopy and swoops behind the woodland edge and out of view. Blackbirds explode in flight and call from the undergrowth as I make my way through the otherwise of the wood and into a small scrub around an acre in size. The patch is awash with bramble and Thrushes and Blackbirds spring from thicket to thicket to the sound of my footfall, gorging on ripe blackberries. Common Ragwort is still in flower, their vivid yellow attracting Marmalade and Marsh hoverflies. Lower to the ground Common Carder Bees savour the sweet sugary nectar of white Nettle flowers, their last feast before winter.

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Small scrub behind the wood to the right of the main sewage tower

With winter around the corner, strangely the scrub feels like spring. The birds are in raptures of voice and I sit hidden in the dense scrub overlooking the woodland edge for an hour watching Wrens, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Robins, Great tits and Blue tits all busying themselves with the multitude of flies and insects still on the wing, their season extended by the mild, midday sun. I write notes in my field diary, glad of the warmth that’s come both not just from the sun but the wealth of wildlife surrounding this hidden spot, song seeping into the oxygen I breath, through my lungs, into my bloodstream and around my body. Look up ‘bliss’ in the dictionary and there should be a snapshot of this moment captured in ink on the page.

As I stand and stretch my legs a Green Woodpecker cackles laughter as it leaps from a grassy bank a few yards away and ascends into that clumsy surreal flight that makes a Green Woodpecker silhouette so distinguishable from any other. I head back through the wood but it’s quieter now save for the screech of a Grey Squirrel, scorned by my presence. I walk around the back of the fenced off Sewage works, an eerie barren land of shallow pools, grassland and humming sprinkler arms now the haunt of Magpies by the dozen and in summer, Swifts and Swallows by the hundreds. On the other side of the works is another field of scrub much larger than the last. It was once the exit for the sewage works but now abandoned, the old road running through the middle to a padlocked gate unrecognisably overgrown. The only path runs horizontally alongside the Sewage works which leads out onto a cricket green and football pitch. The scrub is incredibly dense hence no man, woman or dog has even attempted to tread a foot-way through. As soon as I see this wasteland, this scrub, one thought springs to mind. This is perfect Kestrel country.

As if on cue, seconds later a Kestrel rises from a telegraph wire some hundred metres away and hovers drone-like above the scrub, scanning the ground for mice and voles. There are few sights so familiar in the English countryside than that of a hovering Kestrel. It is recognisable nationwide by birders and non-birders alike. A vision that has crept through car windows on long, laborious A-road and motorway journeys and into the general knowledge of Joe public. I fix its wing-beats with my binocular stare because hovering means hunting and often if you watch for long enough you will see the Kestrels sudden swoop into the undergrowth only to re-emerge seconds later with talons gripping tail clad prey. Not today though. The Kestrel hovers, then moves, then hovers in a continuous cycle. It’s not her day. It is the end of mine though.

Content, I head home. It feels now that the edgeland is beginning to unfold before me. It is beginning to accept me, revealing some of its secrets nervously, gently. Never before would I have imagined what just four hours in this previously invisible, unappreciated world could bring. Even in Autumn when a great proportion of flora and fauna in various forms has retired to dormancy, is overwintering or already succumbed to their life-cycles end and the outdoors feels that little bit quieter, sombre even, days like today surprise me. They inspire me, recharge me, fuel me. Only the natural world can evoke these feelings in me and I am so humbled that it is doing so from my own doorstep.

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