This is it

Six-spot burnet moth

Farthing Downs, London, July 2014

We leave the chalky, wooded hollow and appear in an ocean of field scabious. The sun setting in the west catches the pale, lilac petals of these daisies. In the other meadows across on New Hill and in Happy Valley greater knapweed has begun to flower, that deep purple gives me the sense of summer’s final movements, splayed florets that say: this is it. The meadows, too, abound with the motorised flight of burnet moths that were not here two weeks ago. Many of them are mating, one pursued by a pair of skippers unwilling to share a flowerhead. I wonder, what harm could a butterfly do a moth? Anthropomorphism excused, their quarrel does have the feel of a playground spat. That landscape is behind us now as we return along the crown of Farthing Downs. The sky is split in half to the west, smears of rain hurrying our return to the urban landscape. The liquid song of the skylark pours from the sky and we search for its shape. After giving in and then locating it I see it some forty-feet up in the sky. My companion can’t quite believe how clearly its song comes yet from so high. We stand, our exit delayed, the two forces of incoming weather and skylark display gluing us to the soft turf of Farthing Downs.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014

The sun sets over Dartford

It’s late afternoon and the sun begins its descent toward Dartford. In the east the bridge is reflected in the shimmering Thames. Rainham Marshes is behind us, beyond the large concrete seawall and iron fencing, protecting the reserve from dogs, people and vehicles, protecting skylarks and lapwings, birds that breed on the ground. Gulls pass over from the marshes and across the Thames to the south. A deceit of lapwings exits, too, their flappy black wings belie their compact shape when grounded. They return to Rainham a few minutes later. Evidently this is not an exodus. Teal are swimming on the Thames, their colours draining as the sun retires behind them. We inspect the shoreline, its thin marshland and garbage. The ducks want to feed here, but what’s to be eaten? The tide bubbles audibly against concrete, an armchair rests at a tilt in the marsh, half against the slanting ground and half in the slurry. The chair is stained where it’s become soaked by liquids other than water over the years. If you were to sit in it, you’d fall backwards, skull first. The dry land is tropical with all kinds of plastic: caps freed from their bottles, thin tubes like the insides of biros, thousands of bits of broken plastic, and a syringe. There are pieces of driftwood lying around, one chunk has been bleached by sun, sea and salt. It breaks under the slightest pressure, the yellow shape of woodworm hibernating in a crevice created inside. I wonder how far this piece has travelled.

The sun is setting further, the river taking on the image of a lagoon, still the teal are drifting. We walk back along the path in the direction of Purfleet, a small flock of pied wagtails circling us back and forth to Rainham. They are wary and so they come and go, at last settling on a patch of rushes and straggly vegetation covered by yet more rubbish. Small islands of sand and mosses remain amidst plastic, industrial sponge, a road crossing bollard and bottles galore, the pooling water has the metallic sheen of petrol. The eye’s obsession with trash distracts from the living, in this instance the stone-washed water pipit holding onto a stalk amidst the rushes. The wagtails patrol the sand in their cheerful manner, taking pops at one another on occasion. The water pipit is still, in contrast to its cousins. A woman in red approaches and the passerines are flushed from the islands and back over the seawall, the pipit going with them. She has a green lager tin in her hand and white earphones. She sits to watch the sun from the wall, kicking her legs. The birds return to their patch. The pipit lands at the water’s edge, joined by what looks like a second pipit. The much duskier bird lacks a white eye stripe, or supercilium, and is itself a different bird, a rock pipit. Like its cousin, the rock pipit wags its tail as it looks for something to eat.

The trains back to London arrive on the hour so we sit by the water and watch the final movements of the evening. On the path a woman pushes her grandchild in a buggy, remarking to us that Thurrock once had a population of forty-four. This, of course, was centuries ago. The pipits would have been in a similar spot then, likely feeding in water free of oil and sponge, but no doubt touched by different sort of human waste. Up ahead, a man rides a mini motorbike with his daughter in his lap, his look is sincere. They disappear between a gap in a dumpy little bush. On the grass dwarf mallow leaves await flowers and a pair of mistle thrush regard us with caution as they disappear into near darkness. The sun is a ball, inflating and draining into the south, v-formations of gulls sweep to the east, down a river now black and gold. Ducks and debris float freely towards Greenhithe and Grays, a slurry of pollution passing by, highlighted in the twilight.

A fashion shoot is taking place against the railings, a young woman with cropped hair and a purple dress stretches herself against the bars in a mocking vogue. As if from the river itself, as its inhabitants flee eastward, a curlew calls over and over again.

Gawping at the Chilterns

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