Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Willow warbler’

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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by Martin Damien

Photograph by Martin Brewer

— Nunhead Cemetery, London, April 2012

In the cemetery won by sycamore and rendered woodland, two male song thrush are duelling with one another, throwing out tunes, rewriting and rollicking the black cloud with their language.  This mysterious, handsome thrush is to me like a singing pudding endowed with flight. I leave them to it. My ears are working overtime, the scene dripping, the algae glows on the trunks of dark trees, the moss is vibrant on the gravestones appearing as shipwrecks at the bottom of an ocean. The denseness of the trees squeezes the sound: blue tit trill, the calling great tit and guttural canon of the crow marking the enclosure of forthcoming leaves and canopy. A family, their dog muddied, happy, intoxicated by the aroma of wet woodland, people relaxed, even pleased – woodland puts us back into our bodies. The sun inches out and makes crystals from the droplets of fallen rain, there is the feeling that the soil is sighing from the torrents. Deep refreshment has touched the natural world. My waterproof holds drops of water that leave strange dents in the material, my jeans are darker now. Wait – a song ending, a sweet, fluty refrain. Silence. Woodland dripping, I retrace my steps back down the path. The song comes from a leafless ash canopy – descending, descending, falling apart. Willow warbler. I see it, its long tail and constant hopping between branches. How far has it come? It sings again and moves on. The matt black storm clouds progress, the inkling of lightning, the thunderous thump.

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