A wheatear drops in

– Farthing Downs, London, May 2012

The slope is exhausting. I push against my knees in order to reach the plateau without panting. Though it’s not as steep as it sounds, a flock of jackdaws glide in and bounce across the grass adding to my sense of human weakness. Turning back to look, it’s barely a slope, just an awkward drop down into the woodland below. In the distance, a world far, far away, the nearly-complete Shard and the Gherkin look like grey wreckage. The path ahead is bordered by two strips of scrub and small trees, in the open land across the road cutting through the downs a skylark is rolling out its splatter of trills and warbling. The bramble has come to life around me, a mouse or vole too quick for my eyes crosses to the other side. I swallow the air – it’s Croydon, but it tastes like the countryside. Beyond the dip into woodland Happy Valley opens out and up again, a vista of wildflower meadows and a fringe of trees. There is a hint of the hillsides of west Dorset within the boundary of The City of London. A pair of linnet alight in a small hawthorn, dull brown with specs of mud on their breasts, the red crown yet to come into full colour. They match the day – grey, brown, muddied. The aborted song of a bunting is coming from the branches above them, the striking colour of a yellowhammer sings from the still wintry scrub. It calls and calls, turning its head to look, not minding me at all, another arrives in a hurry.

The full view of Farthing Downs is open now as I continue to wander along the eastern flank. Two swifts newly arrived in the country dart about, twisting and turning, their black wings flapping a little like penguins under water. There are people over the surmount, people walking, people on horses, people with dogs. I approach a gate where a woman and her daughter are struggling with their dogs, one bounding around as if it’s been cooped-up for months. Right in front of me a wheatear drops in, landing on the small mound of an anthill. This robin-sized chat has travelled from Africa to be here in Croydon and will soon be moving to its northern breeding ground. The bird is nervous – the sprinting dog has been released upon the downs but it doesn’t notice the migrant wheatear, instead it runs at me full-pelt, swerving to my side, cracking its skull against my forearm. The lady who owns it has stepped in her other dog’s poo in trying to clean it up and is wiping her foot across the grass, grimacing. I’m muttering to myself – this is the first wheatear I’ve ever seen in the United Kingdom. The bird bursts into flight, landing on a fence post. I marvel at its feat of migration.

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