It always astounds me just how exciting a soggy clump of dying grass can be. I saw it after a couple of minutes looking in a swathe of reed-canary grass, perusing through dripping fronds of the stuff as casually as you can make crouching down and searching foliage look. It’s a harvest mouse nest – more specifically, a former breeding nest that has been abandoned with the coming of winter.
The first one I’ve found here this year, in fact. I’m intrigued as to whether it will be a bit more difficult to find them this season. While I’ve no doubt the warm summer boosted food productivity, the breeding nests are woven from still-living stems of grasses or reeds, which in the formers case would have been desiccated and lacking in stability over the hottest days. Whatever the case, the harvest mice will have it tougher now as they descend to the ground layer over winter, and the young born in the dark comfort of these nests now face the greatest test of their lives.
Knowing that trying to see harvest mice in the wild is about as easy as getting a Glastonbury ticket (we tried and failed on both releases this October – we cling to the vain hope of March re-sales in the face of all odds), finding the old nest leaves me satisfied enough on this whistle-stop visit to Fishlake at the afternoon’s end. Close to sunset on a December evening is not exactly widely held as a prime time for nature watching, and I’ve already completed the end of the walk circuit. Above my head, more and more cormorants appear flying into roost, and even in the middle of a reedbed spanning almost the entire floodplain valley, the “chack-chack” of restless blackbirds echoing the end of the day can still be heard from the scrub around its edges.
It’s the end-point of a path I’ve known well for the last seven years or so. On my right is a stone slab that once acted as a bridge to connect a farm track across a drainage ditch – one of the few leftovers here that hint of a human-managed past, for the ditch is now frothing with reeds and weeds. To my left, a fallen, long-dead tree is a far better representation on what Fishlake Meadows has now become. Its bark looks more bone-like now then anything floral, and so consumed is it by vegetation the trunk is barely visible. Its summation of nature’s reclamation might make some uncomfortable, but to Fishlake regulars, the dead tree is a welcoming old friend, a character in its own right. Many a lunchbox and flask has been opened on its skin, many a rare bird spotted from its boughs.
From the cracked stone echoes of the agricultural past, to the vast floral splurge of the wild’s return, another era is heralded by the boardwalk and ‘sightings board’ that are barely months old. The timber has an un-weathered sheen that suggests it could have been dropped off from Ikea the day before. But the viewing screen it leads me to has concealed my presence to allow for a glimpse of a water rail immediately on its other side. In a half-bemused skulk, it’s tabby-speckled back and cherry-red bill can be seen clambering clumsily into the bulrushes, wheezing like an old navy captain who swallowed a little too much whiskey in one go. The piglet-squeals of dozens of these birds echo across the meadows with increased regularity in these winter months, but you’re lucky to ever actually see one.
The day’s been cold, the dark is drawing near, and in my head there’s supposedly a dozen things I have yet to do today, and this was always going to be a ‘quick look’. I’ve got a harvest mouse nest and an actual water rail sighting; surely that’s enough of a high to end on? The trouble is Fishlake doesn’t do ‘quick trips’. As I do a scan of the lagoons, the true spectacle’s only just starting.
Seen as a distant, dark and pulsating blemish in the increasingly scarlet-tinged sky, each individual starling flock is the diametric opposite of the slow and still vista of flooded fen beneath, the water reflecting ivory skeletons of long dead poplars that still stand on inundated roots in a line far to ordered for nature’s beautiful fickleness; yet another echo of a managed, hedgerow-ed past. One flock appears from the east, another west, and a north-descending group of a few hundred registers with a gush of air right over my head. Gradually, they meld into the animate mass that is a murmuration. Small fry compared to what was here last year, perhaps four or five thousand individuals, but distinct enough to seem more like a hive-mind individual animal – no, a sheer mass of life – than any ordinary group of birds, as it twists and like some errant digital creation that has escaped the confines of a 1970s sci-fi drama.
No one knows the exact reason for these pre-roosting displays of synchronised exuberance that would make the dancers of a vintage variety show blush with envy, but one possible catalyst has entered stage left. A shadow atop one of the dead poplars launches off, beating skyward on scythe-wings towards the starlings – a peregrine falcon. The flock ricochets in the opposite direction, the black mass of birds flashing brown in a unified U-turn. The falcon continues it’s skyward path, appearing to the uninitiated to be prematurely abandoning its pursuit. But hovering just a little at the maxim of its ascent, the peregrine drops like a stone headlong into the murmuration.
Semi-prepared for the stoop of their predator, the starlings swerve out of its reach, but it’s by regrouping that the birds really maintain the upper-hand by given the falcon too much choice. It’s simply unable to pinpoint a single target in the pulsating colony that changes in a second.
It’s a battle of life and death, adrenaline and fear and maybe just a tiny bit of thrill coursing through the veins of the participants on either side of the chase. And here I am watching it as a casual observer, awed to be witnessing this trial from another world occurring right before my eyes. One which would continue regardless of whether I was there, or there were people on the footpath just beyond, or even if there were people full stop. The harvest mice that made their nests behind me in the reed-canary remain part of the same system as the peregrine and the starling, yet their affairs remain as separate from them as mine do, as does the marsh harrier that now drifts past the poplars, or the flock of teal that reverberate their tin-whistle call over the water. That’s nature, connected but unique, thousands of different universes within one, occasionally crossing over.
The peregrine has been unsuccessful, and the starlings have gone to roost. My giddiness from the privilege of witnessing this, and the subsequent existential inner ramblings I’ve got into an irritating habit of doing a lot recently, begin to subsist as the darkening sky beckons me back towards my car. It’s the years end, and with each passing one, my visits to this place become less and less frequent as the start of working life means visits to my home turf grow fewer. But it’ll always be here.
* * *
As we come to a close on 2018 and prepare for the final year of the decade, I’d like to thank all my readers and followers for their support. I understand the blog and podcast has not been as regularly updated as I would have liked, and this is largely a result of balancing my new job with the website, while also being in the right headspace to ensure a (hopefully!) intriguing new read each time you check in.
The fairly sporadic updates are likely to continue, though as I want to ensure quality over quantity you can be sure that I will be putting the best I can muster forward for you. Think of it as one of those signs in the take-away that promises you the world if you can just wait for a few minutes, only a few more weeks in my case. After a quick start in 2018, you’ll have noticed the podcast went radio silent over the rest of the year. This is partly down to starting work effectively within the sector I’m talking about, and wanting to settle in before continuing, and reviewing the structure of the podcast going forward. I have some intriguing plans on this front; so will keep you posted as they develop.
But for now, I’d like to wish you all a very happy new year, and see you again in 2019.