Kraków, Poland, October 2011

By the Wisła the sun shone into my eyes, the great white bulb had me remove my winter coat. Wawel castle rested on the hill, overlooking the swoop of the river. I had been here in the thirty-degree heat of a Polish summer, Krakówians hiding in the shade of a tree on the riverbank. Now no one sat on the bank and my companion grimaced at the suggestion. The sound of footfall ricocheted from the medieval wall surrounding the castle as people walked briskly in the chill afternoon. The river gleamed beyond the slope of grass and winding paths filed by intermittent cyclists, their chains clicking.

From over the bank the silhouette of a large butterfly appeared in the ball of the sun, beating its wings against the cold. The insect flew over my head, its red and white bars flashing translucent from the glare. A red admiral. Mired in a deep, uncomfortable silence, the butterfly brought me back to life. Vanessa atalanta is common, and I’m glad to experience its dynamic coverage, to meet it there and then, when the thought of wildlife was far from my mind. This is a butterfly that tends to cross the channel to reach Britain from the Mediterranean and over vast tracts of land to appear in Poland. It hibernates in the south of England sometimes, with surviving individuals reappearing in March or April. Some red admirals linger until as late as December in milder winters.

A few hours later I stood on Karmelicka waiting for a taxi, the sun already set behind the buildings crouching around Kraków’s market square, the largest in the world. The red brakelight of a tram blurred in the new darkness. Krakówians were moving across the roads and broadly paved streets. The loop of ash, oak and lime which buffers the city’s heart had grown deeper and dark. Above the movement of electric lights the gloaming was purplish, accentuated by a channel of calling corvids. The jak-jaking of jackdaws cracked the noise of engines and voices. The birds were flocking in vast numbers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, en route to their nightly roost in a nearby park. A few pairs splintered from the gushing movement and disappeared onto the rooftops. The number of birds was so large and so constant, it was as if they were being drawn into a vortex from which they would not be returning from tomorrow.

Earlier I had watched with surprise at how these birds pulled worms from the sloping banks near the busy underpass leading to the train station, Kraków Główny. A pair had remained perfectly content with the humans but five-feet from them without a hint of anxiety. I thought back to the same birds I had lived alongside in Dorset. They would drag themselves to the wing with little encouragement, a glance from a watery blue eye. In Kraków, as we prepared to leave the grand old city, I felt the heavy blow of the flocking birds.

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