It doesn’t happen often but on occasion something in the natural world seems to align; the weather, the season, the time of day, the magic. This morning was one of those rare occasions when nature decides to show itself beyond constraint and without reason, to bask freely in the open in all its abundant glory, a secret world finally at ease and gifted to willing eyes at the right time, in the right place. For three golden hours this morning I had the best experience of my birding life and it was here, in this humble wasteland, my edgeland; for that my feelings towards this place are justified, vindicated. Life here is booming and I feel privileged to be a part of it all.
I had taken this week away from work, partly because I felt I needed the break and secondly because as the season of Spring was growing fast I wanted to spend some time in the edgeland and watch as nature prepared to breed new life into these fields, these hedgerows and woods. I was then a little dismayed to have noted in the forecast a week of rain and wind; Storm Ewan was to pass through and bring with it sleet and even snow. Lucky then that the forecasters appear to have been as wide of the mark as Michael Fish when he dismissed the 1987 hurricane as an impossible event.
It is bitterly cold as I cross the rail bridge at eight twenty this morning in scarf and gloves but the early Spring sunshine is beating down upon the fields with that golden, crisp new light that only this time of year can compose. In spite of areas of water-logging and evidence of Winters great assault upon the pale and limp remnants of last years growth, the fields glisten with dew and damp on emerging fresh new grass and buds. The edgeland at last appears to possess a new sheen, a layer of high-gloss paint added to the canvas of a painting that sat unfinished through the dark months, renewed, rejuvenated.
The rasping calls of three Mallards pass overhead before coming to a halt in a splash on the canal and as I cross the lock Blackbirds scald from the opposite bank. I make my way across the river field to a break in the hedge and turn to walk along the bank of the Sence. As I stride up to the edge, quivering tails of black and white burst from the undergrowth and come to rest atop a cluster of teasel on the far bank. Two male and two female Reed Bunting chatter away and chase one another around in circles above the rippling, high water. One male comes to rest in a tuft of grass on the bank where I observe him for a good ten minutes of so, picking away at something clasped between toes that I can’t quite make out. The Reed Buntings, I have found, are one of the most charming birds along the river, especially the males with their black cap and bib, even more resplendent at this time of year, sunken black eyes and vivid white moustache. Throughout my walk I hear their sip sip seeep throaty, high pitched calls; one of the sweetest notes of early Spring. An abundance of Wrens bring the vegetation alive as if the banks themselves were shifting and swaying. What growth there is now is remarkably sparse in contrast to the wild thickets of nettle that will again shroud the banks in a blanket so thick and so deep that by May my path across the river meadow will be an extra five or six metres from the waters edge; perfect nesting space and plenty enough to house the huge population of Wrens that seem to dominate this stretch of river.
Downstream at Willow point the old, gnarled tree is playing host to Long-tailed Tits and a lone Robin, bellowing hurried song from the high branches whilst as the water breaks around the island a Moorhen scrambles up the bank and dives for cover. Crows, Magpies and Pigeons are gathered in numbers in the island trees, gazing out across the rich pasture towards Major Oak. a Keee Keee echoes around the field and I look up to see a Buzzard soaring high on the rising thermals and realise it’s this threat that has garnered the attention of the Corvid onlookers. The Buzzards playful, gliding flight captures the mood of a morning doused now in sun so warm I have to remove my scarf and gloves for fear of overheating.
I tread back along the bank to rejoin the river meadow and the footbridge across the water. By the break in the hedge that I passed through just thirty minutes ago, nothing more than a black dot perched on the splintered innards of a small Willow – a result of Storm Doris – catches my attention. As I raise my binoculars expecting to catch a Robin I am struck by a copper breast, but Robin it isn’t. The male Stonechat flits down from the Willows bowels and into the flattened grass left by the tyre tracks of the farmers Landrover, picks at something on the ground and ascends back to the tree. The Stonechat is, in my view, one of Britain’s most exquisite little songbirds and, as you may remember from a previous post in Autumn is a rare visitor to the edgeland. I am overjoyed to see this little birds return. He is most likely passing through on his way back to higher ground in North-West Leicestershire so it is once again a real treat to see him stopping off in these unremarkable lowlands to feed. I watch him for some time as he leaves and returns to his Willow perch over and over, dumpy yet delicate in appearance his russet chest glows in the sunlight against the deep chestnut-black of his head. I watch as he clings sideways to long-dead stems of Ragwort picking at anything on the plant remotely edible before each time returning to exactly the same Willow. Suddenly he is joined by a female, another first for the edgeland; it seems today everything is in pairs, new relationships or renewed love after a Winter absence of heart. Because both birds keep returning to the same tree stump I tread closer to see if I can find any signs of early nesting. Passing through is the likely scenario but to have a nesting pair, here in the edgeland, would be something very special. There are no signs of building works and my footfall disturbs the birds. They fly together to the river bank but do not travel far. An hour later, as I pass by again, I watch them feeding, clinging amongst the teasel on the bank before flying back to the same Willow. I make a mental note to check back at the spot when I next return; I live in hope of finding something remarkable.
Crossing the Sence and the ploughed field, now more a lake, I head to the sewage works. Black-headed gulls, a hundred or more, fly high above the field calling like the Cornish coast. They circle endlessly, reminiscent of vultures above a carcass. Crossing the beck towards the sewage works woods I pause to watch a Buzzard perched nonchalantly, as is the Buzzard way, in a tree just some ten metres away. He looks me right in the eye, careless and unfazed. Indeed it is I that loses the game of stare and move quietly away towards the woodland. I look back to see the Buzzard preening and can’t help but smile, enchanted by his typical bravado. The moment I step clumsily into the woodland ride I spook a Green Woodpecker from the floor and he cackles away, laughing at my obvious lack of tact. The woods themselves are relatively quiet save for a pair (another pair!) of Great tits dancing quickstep from twig to twig hoovering up the never-ending cloud of Winter Gnats that swarm across the sewage works year round like a plague.
Out of the other side I slip quietly into the small scrub and make my way around to the sheltered farm track that leads into a field of corn stubble. I’ve been keeping an eye on this track, with bramble ten feet high on one side and tree hedging the other I imagine it to be a fruitful place for seed feeding finches. Today I am not let down. I peer around the bramble and watch as the ground moves, so alive it is with Dunnocks, Sparrows, Blackbirds, Chaffinches and Green Finches. It’s like peering into a great aviary; birds everywhere. The chirping song of hungry Finches and Dunnocks chasing sex-possessed is almost deafening, by far the most riotous sound I’ve encountered across the patch. I step from my hiding place into the open track and suddenly the sky is wings. Dozens upon dozens of urgent clapping wing-beats. In turn, this frightens a mixed flock of Redwings and Fieldfares beyond the hedge into a rupturing volcano of flight. A cacophony of cackling ensues before all of the thrushes come to rest in a large Oak some fifty yards further into the field.
I head back up the track and walk a few dozen yards of the open farmland. On one side is a wire fence, a Hawthorn hedge and beyond a solar panel farm. I watch on as a Pheasant ducks and dives and weaves in and out amongst the panels making quick his escape. It is then that my ears receive the vibrations of a most recognisable song, an increasingly scarce song too; ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheeeeeese’. Two male Yellowhammers, enemies no doubt, bellow at each other from atop the hedge in a fight to lure in a female. She will of course go wherever the song is sung best so it is a fierce competition and one that up until now I hadn’t heard in the edgeland. It is a song most welcome, given their steady decline.
From there I head back into the sewage works woods and am met suddenly with the clattering of branches and an outrage of alarm calls, shortly followed by the deathly squeal and squawk of a hawk. Like a firework I hear the whistle and feel the parting of air as the largest female Sparrowhawk I have ever clapped eyes on whips violently past at head hight a matter of inches from my face fast on the coattails of a Green woodpecker. She rises and dips beyond the wire fence and tunnels like a bullet through the gap between the two imposing water towers. I raise my binoculars for the thrill of the chase but she’s far to quick to be caught within my gaze. All around songbirds scream with fright and crows rasp aghast at the horror unfolding on such a calm Spring morning. I keep my binoculars raised in case the chase comes full circle and for a few moments silence seems restored. Above the brow of the water tower the hawk comes back into view but this time without any sense of urgency. As she rises up towards the canopy I can quite clearly see the limp, lifeless body grasped within her talons. This silent assassin will not go hungry today.
As I pass through the sewage works meadow, still lifeless below the bare canopy of dotted Hawthorns, Goldcrests, despite the drama just fifty yards away, peck hurriedly at the Gnats resting amongst the trees. Goldcrests are famed for being difficult to photograph and it is easy to see why; they never stop moving. In much the same manner I realise I am surrounded by Chiffchaffs, also taking advantage of the hoards of flies and gnats spurred into life by the warm sunshine. Never before have I heard or seen so many Chiffchaffs in one place before, especially so early in the year. Chiffchaffs are increasingly choosing to stay resident year round; a sign of the warmer Winters, but even so the vast majority still migrate south for warmer climes come the end of Autumn and I wouldn’t expect to see so many of these charming little warblers come mid-summer, let alone on the first of March.
I enter the large scrub to the drumming of a Great Spotted woodpecker, bashing the life out of a wooden pylon. I can almost guarantee this vision every time I step foot in the scrub, the pylon is riddled with years of drumming holes. Along the margins Robins, Dunnocks and Goldcrests are abundant as usual but the now low-lying scrub is otherwise quiet. Peering into the sewage works I find again Pied Wagtails by the dozen, making the most of the treatment tanks and the revolving sprinkler system that so readily disturbs the surface feeding Gnats it acts as a fast food restaurant.
I head back into the meadow in readiness to head home but the birds just keep on coming. I have now spent many hours in search of my favourite Finch across the edgeland. A finch so bright it’s bullish, hence the name. Time and time again, in the places I would expect to find it, it has alluded me. As if my mornings birding could not get any better, suddenly it appears, well, they appear (pairs again!). I spot the vibrant male first, perched neatly right at the peak of a giant Willow growing from the beck. Bullfinches are a sight like no other when it comes to our more common birds; yes they are vibrant, full of bold contrasting colour but it is the mass that sets them apart. Many of our birds are interspersed with a whole radiance of colour from gold and yellow to red and even blue but the male Bullfinch with that absolute corker of a deep black head is almost entirely, from chin to tail, one, huge block of sunset pink and orange. Even from behind they are resplendent with rosey cheeks rolling into duck-egg blue shoulder and pied wing-tips. He is joined by the less magnificent but still recognisable female as they both descend, gracefully to sewage works innards.
I leave the sewage works behind and head back across the river where I find the Stonechat pair still feeding in tandem amongst the teasel. I leave them to it and with the gargle of a hundred or more starlings from the highwire above, cross the canal locks and back into the final fields of my round walk. Blue tits, three of them, chase one another through the hedge and then, right on cue, as if to fill the need for a gentle climax, my last sighting of the morning is a beautifully bold male Kestrel, all russet and blue with the strongest moustacial stripe I think I have ever seen on any example of the species. He sits, patient and untroubled amongst the Elder by the rail bridge and through my binoculars I can see such details as his citrus-yellow eye ring and could easily count the upturned tear-drop flecks on his pale chest one by one.
Blackbird, Sparrow, Starling, Crow, Magpie, Jackdaw, Pigeon, Collard Dove, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Blue tit, Great tit, Long-tailed tit, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, Stonechat, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Stock Dove, Goldcrest, Robin, Wren, Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Black-headed Gull, Herring Gull, Redwing, Fieldfare, Mallard, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Pheasant, Pied Wagtail, Chiffchaff. Thirty eight birds in three golden hours on common land that’s neither here nor there. That is why our edgelands are invaluable; they provide the remarkable in the realms of the unremarkable. There are no fells, no mountain peaks, no ancient woods, no vast lakes or waterfalls; there are signs of industry, of agriculture, of infertile ground and land for which man has no use. No matter the view; nature never needed one. What there is, is life. As time goes on and just as this land seems familiar, I am touched again by the unfamiliar.