31/12/20 It’s not so easy as you might think to identify a buzzard-sized raven in flight simply by size, unless there happens to be a crow mobbing it. And then you have to be certain that is a crow rather than a jackdaw or rook.
It has taken me a few years of experience and research to become confident in my identification of ravens. The first time I saw them must have been on a primary school trip to the Tower of London. As far as I know, I never saw or heard one again until I started walking the Southwest Coast Path. Making slow progress over the steep Cornish cliffs, I was alerted to the presence of an unfamiliar bird by a cronk: a deeper, gentler, altogether more beautiful and friendly sound than the caw of a crow.
Its voice is distinctive, but its pitch can vary, and this confused me at first. Sometimes the cronk is unmistakably low and sonorous; sometimes it is higher and sounds more like a gentle version of a crow. This is still the most reliable method of identification, however, along with its tail – if you manage to get a look – which is diamond-shaped (usually described as wedge-shaped), in contrast to the crow’s fanned tail. It has taken me many sightings and hearings, both at home and in the surrounding countryside, to be sure – absolutely sure – that the visitors to my garden the day after the winter solstice were a pair of ravens.
26/7/20 The other day I found myself standing ankle-deep in the River Wylye.
When it was time to go, I said to my friend Peter, ‘Can you leave me here and come back for me tomorrow?’
I was joking, of course. But not entirely. Between the long moments of blankness – the simple staring at the crystal-clear surface, at the colourful gravel bed, listening to the flowing water – thoughts came and went.
‘I could stay here for hours.’
‘I love chalk streams.’
‘Is this what meditation is?’
‘A chalk stream is actually all I need to feel better. It could cure me of anything.’
30/5/20 Yesterday I went on a walk with a friend, her first outing alone since lockdown. She asked me if I thought it was true there was more wildlife and more birdsong since lockdown, or whether we were simply noticing them more. I have heard many people say it, and seen many videos of wild animals wandering care-free down empty high streets, but the question of there being more wildlife, objectively speaking, needed logical consideration. It was probably a subject for the radio programme More or Less.
When she began describing the things she’d noticed, it was clear to me that most of it was just a matter of hearing birds where traffic noise would normally drown them out or encourage them to move elsewhere; or birds and other animals being happy in places they’d usually avoid. Fewer people, less traffic and less noise all mean that animals may be considering raising a family or looking for food where they never would have before. People have also slowed down, are spending more time at home and probably more time walking and cycling in their neighbourhood; therefore they are most likely seeing and hearing things that usually pass them by. But I don’t really see how there can be more wildlife already. Perhaps there will be at the end of the season, if nesting is more successful or more widespread this year. Perhaps some plants and animals that are sensitive to air quality will also benefit, though I can’t imagine the effects would be noticeable just yet.
2/7/2018 Since the appearance of the first shiny, translucent lime leaves in April, which I considered including in my spring highlights, I have had no thought of writing about lime trees. But when I walked along a country lane during a short break in the Norfolk Broads last week and passed under a lime tree in flower, it stopped me in my tracks.
I heard it first, and then smelled it. Only then did I look up to see what was above my head. They are not the most eye-catching of flowers – except when lit up by the evening sun – and I find it hard to use the word ‘blossom’ to describe them, though strictly speaking it is the correct term. I associate this word with colourful clusters of small flowers covering a tree, such as fruit tree blossom, which differs greatly from lime flowers. But the bees love them, and the smell is heavenly.
16/4/2018 Richard Jeffries suggested the skylark should be considered a representative of winter: instead of cold and darkness, he thought, why not ‘a sign of hope, a certainty of summer?’ It was his essay that helped me to think of winter in a different way.
I half expected to include the skylark in my winter treasures; after all, I have heard skylarks sing over the fields around the Hobbets on many a clear, mild day in February. It just happens that I didn’t hear one until April this year. It is likely I simply wasn’t in the right place at the right time; but the longer wait and the circumstances of my first skylark song were part of what made it so special.
Today marked a significant change in my church-visiting journeys around Suffolk; a change which had been taking place almost imperceptibly over recent months, and had finally reached a turning point. I found myself able to listen to music again, for the first time in years.
18/3/2018 It is the penultimate day of winter. This year the equinox falls on 20th March instead of 21st. You wouldn’t know it though: the arctic conditions have returned. The temperature dropped from 16˚C to -2˚C in 24 hours and the ground is covered in snow and ice.
But my winter therapy seems to have worked: I don’t mind if the cold weather lasts a little longer, and my list of winter treasures has grown so long that I will have to resume the project next year. In fact, I have enjoyed the challenge so much that I am thinking of continuing it for the remaining seasons of the year; and, contrary to my initial assumption, I think I might find it more difficult to choose 13 spring treasures than I did winter ones. After all, how do you identify the most important elements in a bombardment of euphoria?
30/12/2017 The replacement of the blackbird’s song with the robin’s is the first sign for me that summer is coming to an end and autumn is approaching. The blackbird’s song seems made of water; the robin’s, of ice. There is usually a pause between the two songs: the blackbird stops singing in July, and the robin begins towards the end of August. In fact, I have recently learned, robins sing all year round except for a few weeks in summer, during moulting.
My little friend hasn’t yet returned to claim his (or possibly her) winter territory in the courtyard. Sadly, it is quite possible he is no longer alive, as apparently robins rarely live for more than a year or two. Last year he kept me company most of the winter, appearing whenever I scattered seed for the chickens, and hopping to within a foot of me, so that I thought he might eat out of my hand. When I went to sweep out the goat shed, he would sit on a beam above my head, singing quietly.
It was the weekend of the Stoke by Nayland Arts and Literary Festival, and I had booked tickets for two talks. To my disappointment, both of them were cancelled. My friend Mark persuaded me to go to a different one, about a book on prehistoric Britain – more his line of interest than mine, but nevertheless I was easily persuaded, having heard and enjoyed the same person speak about oak trees a couple of months earlier in Norwich.
Both Layham and Shelley churches were on the way to Stoke by Nayland, via a slightly less direct route than driving through Polstead, but just as scenic, and, on balance, my preferred one.
I ended up at Hoo church in a rather roundabout way: via Kettleburgh, Brandeston and Cretingham. I went in search of lunch, and very nearly didn’t get any. At Cretingham, the only one of the three pubs to be open and serving food, I found the kitchen had officially closed two minutes before my arrival. But the lady at the bar took pity on me – she went to ask if they could make me a sandwich and came back with a much better answer: they hadn’t cleared up yet, and had kindly agreed to take my order.
After a somewhat chilly lunch (I was determined to stay outside although the wind had got up and drizzle was threatening), I continued down the road to Cretingham church. My excitement at approaching the light and friendly-looking church was short lived, as there were large pieces of wood lying on the grass outside the porch, by which I deduced that building work was in progress. Inside, the builders were having lunch, and I could see the tower was the subject of their attentions. Someone from the village – a churchwarden perhaps – was with the builders, and in answer to my query he informed me the work was bell-related. He started to direct me animatedly towards features of interest in the church, so I went in for a guided tour.