A mixed day, dull tupperware skies that break open and drag patches of sunlight across the fen before closing again. By the lode, the water pools gently before the mill, and the sun, when it appears, reflects glaringly off the white slats and doors.
I’ve come to see Spotted Flycatchers, because I know a pair returns here and nests in the house by the water, but I’m over eager and consequently way too early. Later, my friend who goes ringing on the fen and who knows all about these things, patiently explains that I’ll need to give them another two or three weeks at least. Like Swifts, they’re worth the wait: I check the date stamps on my pictures and he’s right, of course. Last year I spent an early Summer evening here, watching them launch into the cool dark under the trees and pluck midges from the bosky air, but that was June and their nest was full of noisy chicks.
The water sparkles and shivers. Everything waits. There are very few if any midges yet. I may have my timing awry, but the Spofls won’t; they need things in place, there’s no point turning up otherwise.
It’s a lovely spot, and lingering has its reward. A Grey Wagtail, his chest a flying wedge of purest lemon meringue, a celebration of the brightest yellow, bounces from fence post to fence post. He’s what the bird books call confiding, just yards ahead at all times, a simple “tzii tzii” call cheerily tagging what he sees as his stretch of water. Not that he cares for anything other than filling his belly or propagating his own kind, but it is such a glum name for this brightest orb of yolk yellow light.
Along the lane and the drove and the woods thin out and eventually vanish and all is wind-ripped low hedges and open field. The sun isn’t warming anything here, and surrounded by drainage ditches and a grey bumpy river the fen seems colder by several degrees. Canada Geese idle by the standing water and a hare lollops away into the centre of the field. Jackdaws skim across the grass and hit the ground with their immediate busybody gait. Skylarks glimmer and tinkle in the background. They fill the gaps between the clamour of the geese and the distant keening of the gulls.
Highland cattle and Polish Konik ponies move slowly from field to field. Around their legs small deer peer and peck. Together, they act as a prohibitive measure, preventing trees and shrubs from growing here, for that would interfere with the fen’s carefully maintained status quo. The cattle lumber steadily along, swinging their heavy heads with a kind of leaden, sturdy grace.
I am used, almost, to Marsh Harriers, but not so much that I’d consider them commonplace. Certainly, they always lift my spirits and I will find myself walking off track and through brambles, or nearly driving off the road, to keep up with them. And they are here, of course, a place I know a little, somewhere I’ve seen them before, and so I almost offhandedly pick one out.
But wonderfully, and it feels strange to say that, it is not a Marsh Harrier. Although I’m drawn to it as such – the path it cuts, the low flight, the V of the wings as it glides – but the colours fail to match. It is the wrong size. Impudently, strikingly, it is a male Hen Harrier. Cadet grey, almost white beneath, his too big surely unfoldable wings, dipped in printers ink at the tip: he speeds away but then back, and then away and back and away again, hunting just a few feet above the turf. Head low, scouring the ground.
He’s everywhere in the wind. So fast, so elegant. A perfect mess of wings and dazzling manoeuvring.
And he won’t be stopping; he’s passing by, resting here over on his way to the moorlands and heaths of Yorkshire or Northumberland, maybe to Scotland and the Isles.
He disappears behind a cluster of hawthorn and blackthorn, and fails to reappear. I look at the gap he’s left and gradually unfocus and lose the spot at which he vanished.
The wind through which he flew hits me some seconds later.