Mallards

WWT Caerlaverock, Dumfries and Galloway

The fog had lifted but a thick cover of cloud prevented any sun from coming through. We drove through a blizzard of autumn leaves along the coast road. I noticed a buzzard sitting on a telegraph pole hunched against the dull damp weather. It was low tide and the mudflats of the estuary stretched away till they merged with the grey sky. A silver lattice of water-filled gullies criss-crossed the furrowed mud, brightening the view.

We stopped at Castle Douglas nature reserve and walked through the Castle woods. It was silent and seemed devoid of birds although there were bird boxes positioned on many trees. The recent mild weather meant that some wild flowers were still flourishing – foxgloves and red campion among them. Black pods hung from the broom and red berries glistened with dew drops.

After a welcome stop at the small homely cafe we walked back through the woods and drove on to the Wetlands Wild Trust reserve at Caerlaverstock where the BBC Autumn Watch team were installed. Chris Packham and Michaela walked by with a retinue of cameramen and sound recordists.

A honking sound drew us to a large lake where hundreds of mallards, mute swans,mu Hooper swans, Canada geese and other water birds were dipping and diving. We watched from a glass-fronted viewing shelter and listened to a running commentary from a lady whose task it was to feed the birds from a large orange wheelbarrow.

An incoming tide washed the mudflats to a pale grey sheen as dusk fell and we headed back to a log fire. A hind sprang away across a field, her coat dark with rain, white tail flickering like a glow worm in the dim light.

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Looking for spring

Bramble leaves were purple with cold. Black fungi and yellow lichen crept over bare branches. A dead badger lay by the roadside and debris from fast-food outlets littered the verges. Overhead a buzzard was being mobbed by a crow – a macabre aerial ballet. The clear chalk stream of the River Frome was flowing fast under the bridge and a skein of mallards flew sketchily across the grey sky.

It was a gloopy sort of day. A curtain of thick grey fog hung over Portesham Hill. The road was covered in a slippery layer of stinking mud. Hedges had been flailed creating raw splinters of wood that poked through the mist. I was looking for signs of spring, but, apart from a celandine, some catkins and an isolated patch of fragile white blossom, everything was still steeped in winter gloom.

However, in my sister’s garden the surface of the pond was corrugated with clumps of frogspawn. It was all clustered on the shaded side of the water – a myriad of eyeballs , small black pupils unseeing, but warding off predators. I remembered the nature table at school and the excitement of watching tadpoles develop. I was fascinated by the change in the frogspawn from black dots to squiggles, and loved drawing the different stages in pencil on sugar paper, revelling in the word ‘metamorphosis’ which seemed to sum up for me the mysteries and excitement of the natural world.

When I was nine our class was occasionally taken down the road to a long sloping garden owned by an elderly lady called Mrs Fiddler. She kindly allowed the children to come and play on the grass in fine weather. At the top of the garden was a pond which drew me into forbidden territory. I would hide in the grass next to the water, watching the newts and other wildlife. In the spring I’d scoop a lump of frogspawn into a jam jar and smuggle it back to school, keeping it in my desk. I took it home at the end of the day and tipped the gelatinous soup into a large glass bowl. I once caught a great crested newt and somehow got it home. It looked newly painted with orange and black splodges on its belly, but it vanished overnight from its fruit bowl. I searched guiltily for a corpse for days but found no trace of it.

Today I lifted a lump of the rubbery jelly from my sister’s pond and drove home carefully with it in a washing-up bowl. All these years later, yet I can’t wait to see my frogspawn begin to turn into froglets.

Notes from a green planet

Early morning on a muggy day – no wind and a canopy of blue-grey cloud. Biblical rays of sun breaking through here and there. Light rain stippling my skin. The church clock has stopped at midnight when the jackdaws jammed up the works with their nest.

A mayfly spiralling upward towards a swallow on the wire. I could hear swallows under the railway bridge and think they have nests under the dark ledges, but can’t see them. A froth of cow parsley lines the verges like umbrellas at a wedding. Mallards taking off with splashing sounds from their reflections on the stream.

Frisky Friesians were in the footpath field so I chose the lane. Past a badger’s sett no longer in use, the white chalk greening over. Beeches and sycamores crowd up to the edges of the lane creating a dense green tunnel. Does green have a smell? I think so – a peppery, garlicky, sagey sort of scent. It has a sound of quiet rustling. Large rain drops are now landing on big leaves with a tapping noise.

Some places seem to be discrete environments where outside influences don’t exist. Here in this green place there is a profound silence only broken by birdsong. It’s like being in a dream – a deep green planet spinning off on its own. Muddy puddles reflect the trees, creating a watery liminal woodland beneath my feet.

Out of the dream and into the open lane with the sound of the stream the other side of the hedge. Snails like humbugs and spat-out boiled sweets slither over stems, some crushed like eggshells on the tarmac. Plantain with coronets of white flowers, dog roses displaying perfect rain drops, buttercups, dog daisies, comfrey, campions – all attracting insects from cow-pat coloured flies to bees like tiny golden bears. The elderflowers smell like honey.

The rain is ponderous now and the cow parsley has an antiseptic hospital-white smell. There are seven swans a-swimming on the river and a single swallow dipping overhead. A clump of ox-eye daisies on the edge of the road defies passing traffic, the sound of the rush-hour is starting and I’m getting wet …

Lodmoor – a snapshot in time

 

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A sepia landscape, static as an old photo. Silky shawls of brown reeds fringing still water. A hundred years ago the country was on the brink of war – the lull before the world changed forever. I thought about my grandpa and his diary of the conflict, charting his journey from country lad to gunner.

I walked quietly through this monochrome place, through mud, through a swarm of black flies, scanning the celluloid water for signs of life. The lack of colour became unimportant as I tuned into the sounds around me. Honks, whistles, squawks and eerie cries came skimming across the wetlands and reed beds. Why is it that water birds have such a bugling repertoire compared with other birds – perhaps because the element of water adds a glorious echo to every sound, encouraging exuberant rowdy singing …

Lodmoor is the perfect habitat for herons, egrets and a home for the European eel. A splashing sound in the reeds made me stop – may be an otter, but I couldn’t see anything. Today was a day of sound and imagination, in the absence of colour and clear views.

I heard a sound like a small donkey coming from the torn edges of the reeds – a Canada Goose. Mallards, Pochards, Coots and Swans were all gliding in slow motion through the still water, their outlines broken up like frames from an old film as they passed behind the stems of the reeds.

The air was smoky with clouds of pollution blowing from Europe. Overhead three Marsh Harriers were silhouetted gliding against the haze – two females and a male. One of the females had lost several primary feathers from one wing and part of her tail, giving her a vulture-like look as she circled clumsily waiting for a kill.

Suddenly I heard what I had come for – the hollow rhythmic booming of a Bittern. One, two, three times like the distant sound of a heavy gun.

Frank House 1