Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Jackdaw’

Meadow buttercups

Meadow buttercup

Farthing Downs, London, June 2013

Stepping on to the Downs, a marked change has taken place in the two weeks since I’ve been here. The grass has lost its wintry edge and there grows a profusion of meadow buttercups. On the woody margins white butterflies steer themselves through the day, the slight of a cool breeze will no doubt register with them. A man is sitting on a bench taking pronounced drags from a spliff. I imagine ushering him to the gate as does someone wanting to be in a room alone. What is that link with landscape and human solitude.

A holly blue flutters about in a restless fashion, unwilling to perch, itself ushering me away, perhaps. I take the hint. The jackdaws are still here, so faithful to this place, much more so than me. This is why wildlife is so deserving of the land, perhaps more so than we. It doesn’t have a choice. Last time I watched them in a snowy sky but now they move through the ankle high wildflowers like shadows. They call out and burst free into the air when I enter into their field of vision.

Willow warbler crop 1

Willow warbler

I walk into the scrubby chunk of woodland that the path cuts through. I am struck by the change, the green, the lividness of the living. A woody, leafless hawthorn reminds me that both states remain all year round. Chiffchaffs are calling to each other up ahead, followed by the only slightly different voice of a willow warbler, a bird almost identical to the others. I sit in the shade on the edge of the path and listen. A willow warbler appears from the bush and lands on the branch of a young hazel tree. It has some insects in its bill and it whistles incessantly, huuu-eet. I take a picture and sit still. After a short wait a green woodpecker yaffles and the willow warbler dives into the long grass and bramble. Two weeks ago this bird did the same but without food in its bill. Now it’s feeding silent young down there in the thorns and tussocks. A couple pass me where I sit.

‘Are you looking for a lesser spotted whatever-it-is?’ the lady asks.

I explain the situation, pleased they don’t think I’m up to no good. Her partner turns to me: ‘I know you.’

‘And I know you.’

We remind ourselves of when and where from. We both agree things have improved since then. They leave happily, I get up and carry on through Farthing Downs.

Farthing Downs in June 1

Farthing Downs

The year’s first brood of small heath butterflies have hatched on the Downs. A pair rest on separate patches of bare soil created by livestock, conducting the heat of the sun. They live as adults for as little as seven days and I admire their freedom, their lolling and landing, they circle me, perhaps jittery when I move but not much bothered. They are orange smudges against the green downland. I sit with them. A soldier beetle clambers up a blade of grass and wrestles with its own weight, a clumsy, dim creature, it straddles the seed head, whirs its antennae and unleashes its wings from its black backpack, struggling into the air.

Soldier beetle

Soldier beetle

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Even under snow

Featured on The New Nature

– Farthing Downs & New Hill, London, February 2013

Snow covers the Downs. From the town comes the agitated clamour of traffic and, somewhere, the eagerness of a chainsaw. The layer of snow is fresh, renewed by flakes heavier out here on London’s periphery. Beneath my feet the seeds of field scabious, knapweed, yellow rattle and marjoram wait for the thaw, warm in the soil. Just as winter’s onslaught can’t be held off, nor can spring and summer wildflowers be maligned for long. The small pockets of woodland lack the crunch of the open Downs. The snow has melted quickly there, the ivy bright in the tree-dark, a young oak drips loudly, the sound heard out in the snowscape. Winter’s renaissance will be short lived.

A flock of some forty jackdaws whip around in the white sky. They have seen Farthing Downs at its brightest, remaining here to make something of it, even under snow. Their image is otherworldly, as if the past is being ripped out and unleashed, helpless, across the sky. A car passes in the lane blaring tunes, stopping, the driver steps out – at first I think to accost me and perhaps the camera – kneeling down he photographs his car with his phone, front and behind. Two magpies are flushed into the air. He steps in and rolls away. The snow melts and flows in a stream down the chalky hollow of the woodland descending to Happy Valley, heavy droplets falling from gleaming hazel coppices and blackened hawthorn. The world is working.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2013

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Farewell to Redwood

Dorset, April 2011

The passage of the old stable quarters ran to a doorway opening out onto the back of the house. The doorway itself appeared blocked at first viewing, blocked by the trunk of a tree so large that it filled the entire frame. The pianist staying at the house had spoken to me about the tree.

‘I like to bang my head against it,’ he’d said. He had a face like a fox.

The tree goes by different names: Wellingtonia, Big Tree, Giant Redwood and Giant Sequoia. During my time as neighbour to it I called it a jumble of names, sticking with ‘American Redwood’. The tree was twice as tall as the house, a 19th century mansion, and viewing it from the stable courtyard gave a sense of the tree’s grand but gentle scale. The bark is a deep red where worn and soft as a wafer to touch. It has none of the scratchiness of our mature natives like oak or ash. It runs in one towering trunk. Perhaps the white settlers who came upon the Americas harboured a secret adoration for these towering, ancient things (the oldest tree in the world is a Giant Sequoia) felled with such relish, an adoration which survived generations, resulting in an Empire State Building. The tree I had the pleasure of experiencing in Dorset is a prime example of the beauty and power that nature exerts when allowed to grow. This tree was near to 200 years old, probably planted with the house by the adventurous Victorians who’d lived here.

The Redwood had an apartment block feel to its design. Walking along the passage, face to face with the trunk and into the garden, a mouse-like bird scarpered out of view. After a few encounters with the white-bellied creature I witnessed it disappear into a small bore in the soft bark. The bird was a treecreeper, named after its tendency to climb the bark of a tree from its base, poking its bill between the cracks for insects. It climbs up the trunk pinching between the cracks for insects. It climbs and then flies to the bottom of another to begin its ascent all over again. It will only do this on trees of a certain age and size. The size and permeability of the Redwood make it a highly desirable habitat. In the middle of the tree a pair of goldcrests would sing thinly, spinning coins coming to an abrupt halt. The thin nature of the canopy made it a viable way to enjoy not merely the sound of the bird but also to see it. They would be there at lunchtime without fail.

A number of chimneys were built into the stables and across to the house itself. A pair of jackdaws would spend parts of the day bringing sticks and placing them in the vacant portals. Jackdaws are thought to mate for life and a pair here would ‘jack’ to one another as they constructed their nest. In the mid-afternoon, the lull after lunch, they strolled along the lawns either side of the house in an almost synchronous fashion, digging for worms. This was a group of about twenty birds, and in the gloaming they returned to the highest reaches of the Redwood to roost for the night, their chatter lessening before night and silence fell.

From the stable courtyard an expanse of woodland opens up in the near distance. There was another Redwood on that horizon, equally tall but dead. I was walking to the walled garden one morning with the head gardener when he told me the story:

‘Someone was taking their horses out into the wood that way one day and they got to chatting with someone they knew,’ he said. ‘They turned their backs for ten minutes and by the time they looked back the horse had eaten its way round the tree. The thing just went and died. Terrible shame.’

When I said goodbye to the house and the stables I wished the Redwood a farewell. Not just to the tree but the creatures living with it, the treecreeper disappearing into the bark, the singing goldcrests and sleeping jackdaws.

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I am a countryside gawper. I like to watch the flow of valleys, hills and pasture seen from an English train window. As a student I remember travelling to and from Liverpool on the Euston line, experiencing a sense of nostalgia for the things whizzing by without the chance to grasp them. And this was before the trains had been improved to a mere two-hour journey between North and South. I recall the yellow of rapeseed and turnip flowers which bloomed in April fields, like a paintbrush passed across the glass. There were the peculiar farmhouses and barns, the horses drinking from streams which I deemed to be wild, and the black silhouettes of hawthorn and oak which had been moulded by the gusts and gales, all crooked and splayed. I remember the train slowing one evening in the gloaming, a brook taking on a glassy sheen in the near dark.

Now I stare out of the window in search of my post-London rations: skylarks, buzzards and such. These are not readily available in London, though they are in rural spots of Croydon and Bromley. This journey in particular was a trip to Birmingham for a flat-warming, promising (and delivering) a different kind of wildlife. The daytime train ride offered a snapshot of a new landscape to me, the Chilterns, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a part of the Green Belt. This is an area which has been earmarked for the High Speed Rail 2 which will see trains passing through the region every two minutes at speeds of 250-miles-an-hour. The service, some argue, will make use of the region but will offer it nothing in return. The closest stop will be Heathrow airport.

I was not thirty-minutes from leaving Marylebone when I glimpsed a trio of buzzards wafting in the grey ceiling. I saw jackdaws bothering the chimneys of small-town folk, and those magical inhabitants of plough tracks, the birds which had treated the silence between rounds at the disastrous battle of the Somme – skylarks. Their stiff, sharp wings rang the bell, as the train careered past on the raised track. The larks, three of them, descended upon a hedgerow in perfect accord.

I had recently read a book by Mark Cocker entitled Crow Country, where the author describes waking at 3am to watch rooks in Norfolk, amongst other revelatory birding experiences. The sections on Corvus corone, the carrion crow, had stayed with me. I could not help but observe these clever brutes patrolling green spaces in London. It should be pointed out that this is to the chagrin of some bird lovers who cite the cradle-snatching antics of the corvids as a reason to cull them, and to enhance supposedly falling fledge-rates of songbirds. Cocker’s writing on crows drew me to take greater notice of how they behaved. One thing I had witnessed a number of times in the autumn was crows bothered by kestrels, the big black creature barking, immensely uncomfortable in the presence of the cheeky falcon. Falcons like kestrels and hobbies sometimes go for old crow’s nests, so perhaps this was a question of ownership.

From my seat on the train I witnessed a trail of crows flying from over the roof of the carriage. The sound was killed by the glass but the conga-line of corvids pointed to something else. The line came to an abrupt end and a stretch of thin air opened up. And, some moments later, the giant wingspan of a red kite appeared in their wake. Its flight was smooth, a single beat of its wings expressing its power over the fleeing crows. The kite’s wingtips were like fingers. The forked tail was the motif that defined it, the whitish head and large white patches against the dark wings. This is not to mention the rufous shade which separates it from its continental cousin, the black kite. This is a bird which preys on crows, hence the sense of uniform panic amongst the fleeing black feathers.

Red kites were on the brink in the UK until a breeding programme in Cumbria re-established populations which have now spread eastwards into England. It is now said to be approaching students eating their lunch at Reading University, where a research programme is underway to discover how far the birds are spreading, with reports of the birds feeding in gardens. This is a monster which ate offal from the streets of London in the 1500s, when butchers threw them their scraps, but declined after centuries of persecution. For all of our dwindling species, there are some which are returning to dominate again. They’re screening in a train window near you.

— Photo by Ian Knight

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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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