Years ago I went to one of those overgrown farm shop places, the sort where they have a Fireman Sam ride outside and plastic picket fencing to corral the ice-cream eaters into an area that might be easier to tidy at the end of the day. Expensive jam and frozen venison sausages, large bags of bird seed and hamster food, and cartoon chickens pointing from one desultory sideshow to the next. It was busy, a hot day with tired holiday makers taking bored kids off the motorway for a half hour before bribing them back to the grind. At the back, beyond the show bantams, goats and picnic tables, an apologetic ghetto of aviaries housed an equally apologetic collection of birds; Macaws, ornamental Pheasants, Zebra Finches. And right at the very end, against the fence that only had the slip road behind it, a pair of Hobbys sat on their perch and looked out uncomprehendingly at the few visitors who bothered to make it that far.
They barely had enough space to hop from one bar to another. This was maybe thirty years ago, and I guess such conditions wouldn’t be allowed now. They looked pretty sorry for themselves, kind of scruffy and sullen, which in red trousers and a Jon Lord moustache is a fairly difficult look to achieve. But then, when I think about where they should have been, and what they should have been doing, it was understandable. I resolved at that point to one day see them in the wild, but it didn’t happen.
For someone who has had an interest in walking and birding as long as I have, there are some headscratching gaps in my Seen list. I’ve never spotted a Ring Ouzel, for instance, despite several holidays to Wales and Scotland when I was a kid. I’ve never seen a Woodlark, or a Tree Pipit. Puffins? Can’t say that I’ve had the pleasure. Crossbills? No. Hawfinch? No, none of them. Not knowingly, anyway. They may have been pointed out to me and I can’t recall or didn’t take any notice because I was too busy being a child or an idiot, or they may have flown past unrecognised, an against-the-sun silhouette, maybe. But if and when I do update my Collins it’s only ever with definites.
Actually, to say I have a Seen list at all is in itself rather misleading; I don’t keep lists, not really, but I do put a little dot against the entries of birds I’m sure about. And that’s about it. My old friend Ray used to sketch birds in the back of his guides, list the sightings he’d made on this holiday or that trip. I know people who keep annual lists; just after New Year I was out with experienced birders who were starting their lists from scratch once again and noting down Mallards and Blackbirds with the missionary zeal of a convert.
I’m slightly intimidated by that level of interest and engagement. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I just automatically assume that I would be bad at it. Consequently my involvement is usually turned inward. I walk alone, I don’t consult others and I am all too easily distracted and find myself going out and sticking my nose into something entirely different from that which I set out to find. The idea that I might have wanted to take a look at the Baikal Teal who stayed for a while on the nearby Ouse Washes was superceded by a trip to the Fenland Drainage Engine Museum at Prickwillow and that’s that, despite having set out to find it. I saw a Kingfisher while I was there, mind, which lifted the heart, as they always do, but I really ought to have someone to kick me around more.
And I am awake early because I have received a virtual dig in the ribs from a casual acquaintance, who remembered a moan I made a year ago, to get up and seek a Hobby while they’re displaying on the Fen. And I’ll go, I’ll go. I’ll take my cue from Houseman, who I was extolling just days before and I’ll go since to look at things in bloom fifty Springs are little room. And they’re in bloom now, she says. So go.
It’s bright and I drift, for some reason, to counting everything. Wood Pigeons. Starlings. Blues and Greats. Everything there is, even the Rooks and Heron on the field edge. Mute Swan and Canada Geese. By seven the sun is strong and sparkles off the ditches and cuts. Mallard and Coot. There are Magpies in between the furrows and Collared Doves pecking at the heated tarmac. Fall into the Fen. Kestrel. Jackdaws thrown like oaths into the wind.
At the entrance to the site two Jays bluster their way into a stand of silver birches, look at me and think and head further away. Goldfinches. A dozen cars in the car park. Heart sinks a little, but I can hear Sedge Warblers rattling through their repertoire and take myself in and around to the trails. Reed Warblers, Reed Buntings, Whitethroats. Tiny things making the morning jangle and chime. Bells and whistles and dramas.
By the larger of the ponds, hemmed in by the straw-coloured reeds, a vast and terrible quiet. There seems nothing left to throw into the search. The day empties into this. The things I’ve memorised have vanished, gone. It seems done. I could chase ideas around but I close my eyes and let the sun warm my face and wait for something. This place, the spot I’m standing now, a year ago was a stage, a performance of Harriers, but nothing now. It is beautiful, the peace, a turquoise sky and rips of white, contrails and vapour-thin veils of cloud, the blue through it, and quiet, so still; the thing I search for when all others have faded. The tenor notes of the Bittern are beautifully dissonant when they thread through the reeds, a deep and alien note of gentle secluded melancholy that is unlike anything else. It does and doesn’t fit. It is comforting and disconcerting. It hums and rasps, a dark brown grum of peace.
Along the track, and past the woods, the poplars and willows bending and rustling. Further in, a broken mutter of Woodpecker hammering. The trainline that runs along the side of the reserve hisses and squeals every few minutes.
A larger pond ahead and a shelter before it. People are gathered here, not many, but probably everyone who is on site, all of them gathered and sat on the benches provided. Swifts here, new arrivals. And Swallows, too. The sun is warming the water and the reeds and the midges and flies are starting to rise in the air. A couple of hundred metres ahead, Marsh Harriers rise and a Buzzard works hard to gain an upward spiral in the modest late morning heat. More drama, intuitively wrought, played out for us to tether and mould into narratives that don’t exist in any sense.
A man taps me on the shoulder and points.
Almost a kilometre away, above a dark line of conifers, the Hobbys are funneling upward through chimneys of air with breathtaking speed. Fierce, sharp little specks of perfection, bullet points against the blue and the white. They break and zip left and right. The man counts to himself, “seven, eight, nine,” and continues. More. A dozen.
In seconds they have covered the ground between us and are now directly overhead. Scimitar sharp wings rocket them from left to right. They’re somersaulting, catching insects, and as I look up I can see one, russet legs tucked right up against his chest, talons clenched and filled – I’m guessing – with beetles or crane flies or something. One quick look to the side and he shifts direction with crazy speed. I see the blackberry eye, for a second. I see him, but does he see me? He does, of course he does, but what of it? What binary, noninflected dismissal does he make? What flat and unemotional decision? There is no poetry but what we see and attribute, no music in the falcon’s head. Food and danger, that’s what he sees. All he needs to know.
It’s the nearest they come and then in a moment they’re back where they were, one thousand metres away, “over those trees, there,” the man still pointing is saying. I don’t think he’s saying it to me, necessarily, but I can sense he looks at me. I don’t react, but I can feel the white disc of his face turned to me and then he gives that up and turns to the person on the other side and starts talking.
And no sound at all as all this unfurls, all the beautiful mess of the day shut up and pushed back to the sides while the dancers perform. No music but perfect harmony in that silent melody of speed and movement. The tension resolved.