Country diary: mist, music and mighty oaks evolve


Low-lying mist has extended this morning’s sunrise into a feature-length spectacle – the light remains diffuse and golden fully two whole hours after dawn. It seems to have inspired an extended chorus, which pours in from every which way at once – blackbird and wren, rook and jackdaw, wood pigeon, great and blue tits, an occasional estate peacock, and the shatterproof duuurrrrrb of a woodpecker.

The view, on the other hand, evolves gradually as I walk, revealing a new detail with each step. The park oaks are given individual moments of glory as they fade into view: prime specimens with even crowns, infants still protected within individual enclosures, dead giants lying where they have fallen over the years. Best of all are the stag-headed veterans. When they loom, ancient, druidic, it seems almost anything could follow out of the mist.

Out of the mist. Castle Howard, North Yorkshire.

What does follow is more music. It rises rapidly in pitch like a narrow-necked vessel filling with liquid then overspilling: a welling, glimmering flood of notes. I have to wait for the mist to burn off in order to see the singers. In flight they flicker pale like owls, but on landing assume the colours and textures of those fallen oaks – furrowed browns and sun-bleached greys.

They land in tandem and stand facing one another for a minute, as motionless as a pair of carved bookends, improbable French-curved bills almost touching. Then they relax and begin to potter and probe. I can see where the firmer ground lies, because they lift their bums a little higher to give more impetus to the downward thrust, and the white feathers there catch the light.

Once again, these Castle Howard birds appear to have chosen one of the most well-trodden areas of the estate. It means thousands of people may see, hear and rejoice in their presence over the next few months. It also means their nest and any offspring will face a high risk of disturbance as well as predation this year.

Later, I hear a song thrush that has incorporated curlew motifs into its own strident pick and mix – both the cour-lee and the coming-to-the-boil ripple. I wonder if, one year, the originals don’t return (on current trends this is more a likelihood than a possibility), how long the thrushes will remember and reprise them, and my heart hurts.


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