Country diary: a winter walk in the company of birds

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My regular walks have been a chance to get to know the locals better. Just as I have routines, patterns, repetitions, so do they. We share the need for shelter, food and safety. They like their distance and are careful that I don’t come too close.

The kestrel is outlined against the winter sky, topmost on the little hawthorn that juts out from a stony bank. Wheeling away, he flies across the field to another favourite perch, a long-dead tree still standing angular and pale against the hillside.

Between these two trees and a gnarled alder, this neat little falcon has three vantage points for hunting the rough pasture that is the haugh. Sometimes I see him on quivering wings, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ windhover riding the “steady air”. Able to detect ultraviolet light, a kestrel can track the movement of mice and voles through long grass by their constantly dribbled fluorescent trails of urine.

With daily familiarity I know where to spot the heron too: half-hidden by marsh thistles in the trackside bog, near the spring-fed water trough, by the wood edge where the deer are seen.

It rises up with a petulant screech and I smile inwardly, as if for a moment I lift off on those wide wings. From the willow-ringed pond a white-rumped moorhen scurries for cover among the reeds, leaving a wake of urgent ripples.

The fast-flowing bend in the river is where I usually see a dipper. Standing on a rounded boulder it turns through 360 degrees, bobbing all the time while scouting the river for invertebrates.

On seeing me it squirts out a white blob before flying off with just audible wingbeats; strategic stones are obvious from its droppings.

Looking down, there are tiny landmarks on my well-trod path. A shard of pottery, white with a blue rim, a pigeon’s feather grey with its broad black bar, a fluff of rabbit fur. It surprises me how these have been in the same spots for many weeks.

Looking up, I’m pulled from my thoughts by a racket of bird calls as a birling mass of crows and jackdaws bursts from the crown of the oak tree into the December sleet.

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