Country diary: lapwings flock together in a great, morphing mass

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The sun sets the water ablaze, creating a dazzling trail of Greek fire, the light glittering as it bounces off the breeze-ruffled surface into my squinting eyes. I wish there was some way of distilling that molten brightness and drinking it; it is such a potent antidote to the past few days, which were hardly days at all, just a few hours of sickly gloom while the valley festered under cloud and murk.

December can be a squalid month: dark, muddy, windy, waterlogged. The pocket of Wharfedale where I am living is overshadowed by the Chevin escarpment, and the sun barely creeps above it at this time of year. When a bright day finally materialises, I feel a vital urge to bask in the sunlight, and will spend as much time as possible between work manoeuvring myself into the valley’s high places, open spaces and sun traps.

This is one such spot: the wetland nature reserve surrounding the small lakes created by the inundation of the old gravel pits. The sight of sunlight and water together is heartening in itself, reminding us of life’s fundamentals, but this area of water, woods, rough grassland and reedbeds is also home to a busy avian community. I have seen little egrets flying above the adjacent River Wharfe, and I think I spot one today. Cormorants, coots and black-headed gulls congregate on the wildfowl lake.

Best of all, for me, are the lapwings (Vanellus vanellus), which overwinter here in relatively large numbers. At one point, a hundred or so rise up from the banks of a lake and flock together in a great aerial organism; a morphing, contorting mass which recalls the shapeshifting grace of a starling murmuration, twisting and turning in apparent unison. Lapwing flight is sometimes mischaracterised as clumsy, but in this massed form they reveal enormous powers of control and coordination.

As the flock’s collective mind changes from one moment to the next, so does its appearance, oscillating between the main colours of lapwing plumage – black, white, and iridescent green – as the angle of flight shifts. Up there in the cold December sun, the birds seem wild, bright and brilliant.

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