Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sometimes it is best just to look

A BRIGHT, blustery day of warm sun and biting wind. A day of white clouds scudding fast across the blue, of autumn leaves whisked through the air and beechnut shells crunching underfoot.
Of boats wrestling with their anchors in mid-river, tugged one way by the falling tide and the other by the wind.
Another day to wish I’d brought my camera with me, though I’ve photographed this stretch of the Deben 100 – probably 1,000 – times before. Though always lovely, it’s never exactly the same twice.
Today, among the swans jostling for the children’s bread by the boat club, a single tufted duck turns its head to fix me with its bright yellow eye. Though I’ve seen them on the fishing pond a mile or so upriver, I’ve never seen one just here before, or quite so close.
I watch him dive, and can track his course as he ploughs an underwater furrow, throwing up a smoky trail of mud in the water.
Soon afterwards a familiar squeaky whistle, like a child’s Christmas-cracker toy, tells me the wigeons are back for the winter.
And there they are, a few small families of dapper little brown ducks, the males wearing their yellow facial stripes proudly.
Where the wigeon go there are likely to be teal too, though I can’t see any today.
What I do see, though – and hear, most distinctively – are curlews. There are usually one or two hereabouts, wading in the shallows, probing the mud with their long scimitar-curved bills.
Today there are at least half a dozen within a short distance. I watch one in flight held up in the wind so it seems to hang for a long moment just in front of me.
This is when I miss my camera most, though experience tells me I may just be missing the chance of yet another badly focused blur.
And I tell myself too that sometimes it is best simply to look.
A gathering of black-tailed godwits are examining the mud along the frothy line of the water’s edge, heads done, busy beaks like hypodermic syringes. Nearby are a few redshanks, and the turnstones are back for a stopover too.
On the other side of the river wall, over the riverside meadow, a pair of kestrels are hunting. Normally so skilled at hanging still, today they are being blown about by the teasing wind.
And as I watch, a crow flies between them, making straight for the kestrel nearer me with obvious aggressive intent. At once the kestrel darts off over the river, the crow in rapid pursuit.
I’ve often watched aerial battles between corvids and raptors, and this is another, the crow clearly the attacker in a swooping, swerving contention. Once again, I reflect that watching these wild birds is like watching fighter planes in the Battle of Britain.
And once again it ends with the raptor escaping by flying away higher than the crow cares to follow.
So my eye returns to ground level – or, rather, water level – and immediately catches the humpbacked dive of a cormorant. Which surfaces again a few moments later – and in fact it’s two cormorants, coming up only briefly for air and a look around before returning to the underwater hunt.
Now, you might think I’m over-egging this description, but I can assure you it’s an entirely accurate account of things I’ve seen just before sitting down to write.
Nothing, in fact, I haven’t seen often reasonably often. But the catalogue of birds tells me as surely as the state of the trees that the season is truly changing.
I went out to walk the dog, not to go birdwatching. But in a place like this, at a time like this, how can you not take note of the birds?
And note again how the turn of the seasons and the lives of the wild things put human cares and concerns somewhere nearer their proper perspective.

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