Between the rail bridge and the small scrub nothing has stirred. It is one of those bitterly cold mornings when even the wildlife prefers to stay in bed, as I did despite my early alarm. The most frantic bird activity tends to take place from dawn through to around 11:00am and again in the evening, something I’ve always known but struggled to observe due to my penchant for a weekend lie-in (this will surely change when the mornings brighten and the sun carries with it some long-awaited heat). Still, it’s 09:30am and all on the edgeland is uncharacteristically quiet. One of those days when, despite best intentions and forward planning, nature just doesn’t seem to want to play ball. That’s the beauty of nature though – it doesn’t always stick to the rules.
Beside the small scrub is a farm track shadowed by Fort Knox razor-wire in the form of bramble, so mature and untended that over the years it has scrambled over, between and beneath itself in a race to catch the best of the sunlight, the thickets wide enough to get lost in and tall enough to look up to. I’ve been keeping my eyes on the track in hope of Bullfinches, yet to be found on the edge, who have a particular liking for holloways and narrow tracks where they can congregate to pick seeds from the gutter undisturbed by man. Today there is nothing. The small scrub usually throws up a whole host of tits and finches, backing onto the sewage works woodland it provides a perfect feeding ground with cover in the woods should one of the many Sparrowhawks in the vicinity decide that it’s lunch time (an ill-fated Chaffinch met its grizzly end in this very spot some weeks ago, just metres from where I was stood).
The reason for the unnatural silence, at least in the scrub, soon becomes apparent. Perched nonchalantly atop an old elder tree my gaze meets the topaz eyes of a male Kestrel. My clumsy feet force the snap of a bramble runner and immediately he breaks from the tree. Cursing myself, I follow his flight as he makes for the water tower of the sewage works, the metal work cast black against the skin of the porcelain sky behind. It is easy to forget when stood beneath a hovering Kestrel just how impressive their plumage is, especially the male, but as he swoops into the boundary of the sewage works, ducking before ascending almost to the tower-top the magnificent rusty plumage of his back is brought even more to life by the industrial blackness of the tower. Perching precariously on the metal trim that holds the towers weathered panels in place a third of the way up, it’s almost as if he’s showing off. Bold colours in all their detail are all the more highlighted by the matt background, the cool shark-blue head and tail are book-ends to his mottled, fiery middle. He is a stunning looking bird, possibly one of the pair that usually grace the large scrub on the opposite site boundary.
Despite the cold, worsening as it is, the Kestrel has lifted my spirits. I make my way into the wooded meadow that runs along the boundary of the two main treatment facilities, separated by the large scrub. The usual suspects are around, though not in the numbers they have been; Goldcrests, Wrens and Robins frantically, but silently scouring the lichen-covered branches of the Hawthorns in search of an easy meal. Being the sewage works, often kicking out some stench, the site is usually awash with gnats even in the winter. This morning though, with the frost still firmly on the ground and the sun not yet burnt away the low, mizzy cloud, even the knats are conspicuous by their absence. The silence is broken by the cackle of a Green Woodpecker rising from the long grass (laughing at me no doubt, in my frozen red-faced sorry state). Unusually the bird perches in a Willow over the beck rather than beating a hasty retreat, and sits calmly scraping clean his beak against the crackled Willow bark. I always think that Green Woodpeckers are unspeakably attractive, in colour at least; fit for the rainforest with jungle-green plumage and vivid red head-stripe, but it is their often ungainly manner, pre-historic, almost dinosaur-like build and stance, that make them almost comical to observe. The woody is in no rush and if the birds are not out in force today at least those that are on the wing are showing well. People often expect the Green Woodpecker to be a tree dweller like their spotted cousins but they are in fact ground feeders, spending much of the spring and summer raiding ants nests on grassland, parks and gardens with that long, spear-like bill. The bill though is a tool, used to disturb the ant-hill, shifting the dirt and poking around in the tunnel systems below. It is the woodpeckers long, almost amphibian tongue that flicks, licks and laps at any invertebrate unfortunate enough to get in the way that keeps him well fed. This woody must have found something to feed on in the mud, because he’s still having a hard time wiping clean his bill.
The Large scrub is again deathly silent, loomed over by a stocky Buzzard on the far edge in another Willow. The Chiffchaffs I’ve seen here (including a lone Siberian Chiffchaff) look to have moved on in recent weeks. Instead the only birds in sight are the Dunnocks and Robins scuttling around beneath the mesh fence that divides the scrub from the sewage works. Along this boundary fence though, at this time of the year when the trees are stark without leaf, it is a chance to get a good look into the innards of the facility. No matter the time of day or the time of year, the sewage works are ghostly, devoid of human life on first glance, despite the car-park behind being entirely full. Here though, in the stinking bowels of the facility, there are signs of more active bird life.
The whirring filtration arms gently spin above the water basins, trickling water as they turn. As the water filters into the basins below and oxygenates the water, dozens upon dozens of Pied Wagtails line the basin rims. The filtration system draws in the insects, gnats, flies especially, like a weir or waterfall. The Wagtails queue patiently for the metal arm to pass and each time, as the surface of the water is broken and rippled by the droplets from above, the wagtails descend into the basin, picking hungrily at any invertebrates dispersed by the movement. It is, in effect, an industrial feeding station of grand proportions. As the arm moves on, the Wagtails rise from the pool and await the next rotation, patiently aligned on the rim again. Only this time, hemmed in between the black and white of the Pied Wagtails, shines a brilliant lemon yellow. A Grey Wagtail, the first on the edgeland, has joined the flock of its cousins. Safety in numbers, they are all family. The image would have made a perfect photograph; a seemingly black and white snapshot taken on colour film, the warm yellow of the Grey Wagtail photoshopped in as the centrepiece, the eye catcher. Grey Wagtails are of course far less common than the Pieds. They are private, shy birds that will not venture into towns and cities, car parks and pavements, shunning the habitat of the ever adaptable Pied Wagtail for the more serene, traditional riverside existence.
I succumb to the cold and decide to head home, the wind has picked up only adding to the bitterness. Now, after midday, to my dismay and contrary to the general rule, the birds are awake. As I make my way over the fields back towards the rail bridge I stand to watch a flock of Goldfinches skimming the trees by the edge of the gravel pit, below them Blackbirds and Robins thrash around amongst the leaf litter. Crows and Magpies rattle and rave away whilst the Redwings and Fieldfares dash from hedge to tree and back again. It seems this morning was just a brief interlude of stillness, the calm before the storm. In just a few weeks time, maybe sooner, the dawn will be a chorus once again.