26 June 2010


This is shirt-sleeve weather, a day to increase still more the contrast between your forearms and the band of pale skin under the watch-strap, the sort of day when the lubricant loosens in the focusing barrel of your binoculars. The blueness of the sky has been taken up by the air itself. Each detail of the scene appears almost supernaturally clear and sharply defined, given somehow an even greater clarity by the fresh breeze hissing in the leaves of the lakeside alders.

Summer is officially less than a week old, but for some among us autumn is already here. The return migration of the lapwings is nearing its height. During the next two or three months many thousands will pass through the district, slowly making for their winter quarters in the south and west.

Lapwings are birds of the plover family, quite large, seeming black and white at a distance, with wispy crests and characteristically rounded wingtips. They breed in open places, especially on farmland, and can be seen in spring performing spectacular aerobatic display-flights, twisting and tumbling, keeping up a barrage of wheezing cries: frenzied variations on the ordinary note of pee-wit from which the lapwing gets its other common name.

Our breeding birds may winter as far away as Spain, while others visit us in winter from the continent. The movements are quite complex and difficult to decipher on the ground, but computer analysis helps us to make sense of the records. The autumn migration is leisurely and large – leisurely because the urge to find a territory and mate is no longer present, and large because of the presence of the young of the year.

The period between the spring and autumn peaks is slightly less than five months. One of these months is spent reaching the breeding area, and another in returning. The intervening time is taken up in rearing the young.

More interesting are the figures for record size. The average clutch size in the lapwing is four, and mortality among the young is about fifty per cent, so that, for every two lapwings passing north in spring, roughly four can be expected to pass south in autumn. The computer shows that the autumn migration is indeed virtually twice the size of the spring one, although the picture is complicated by the presence of non-breeding birds and the early arrival of winter visitors.

Migrating lapwings bring with them a sense of adventure, of viatic excitement, and, in the autumn at least, give an overwhelming impression of lassitude. For the adults, the great labour is over for another season. For the young, the vastness of their trek is just becoming apparent. They are like an army in retreat.

In this area, the valley of the Colne is the lapwings’ chief highway. Loose-winged, shabby and moulting, they pitch in straggling flocks, breaking for food and rest in traditional places where they know they have a chance of remaining undisturbed.

There are about a dozen favoured sanctuaries along the valley. Later in the season, large numbers will congregate on the stubble by the main road, within yards of the traffic. Against the sun they are hardly visible: not one driver in a hundred knows they are there.

At this time, though, the birds prefer to keep even closer to water. On the sloping pastures near Hampermill, hidden among the gravel strands and islands at Stocker’s Lake, on the wide lawns at the Maple Cross sewage works, or here beside the glittering water of Moorhall Gravel Pit, they doze with heads on backs, preen, or pick desultorily at a spider, worm, or insect in the turf.

A hundred yards or more of water lie between you and the birds. Seated on the grassy bank of the causeway between Moorhall and the much larger Broadwater at your back, you are studying the flock and trying to count the number of adult and juvenile birds.

There is a class of bird-watchers, called “twitchers”, who seek only to add sightings of rare species to their checklists; ornithology is not a matter of train-spotting, although every bird-watcher is pleased and excited if something unusual comes his way. No: it is a matter of coming to know the birds and their places with an intimacy which allows you to share, if only slightly, in their lives. To know where these lapwings are from and what they are doing here is a pleasure a hundred times more rewarding than adding yet another name to a list.

There is a complacent satisfaction too to be had from living in the same district for a long period of time. Only in this way can you experience the subtler pleasures of bird-watching – such as a true appreciation of this June afternoon at the gravel pits when compared with all the cold, damp, or blustery days of the winter.

The lapwings are spread out along the ragwort-dotted pasture, among a grazing flock of Canada and grey lag geese. Those not feeding look numb with fatigue, torn between the urge to rest and the urge to travel on.

From here their upperparts do not seem black at all, but a bronzy brown. The edges of the wing feathers especially are paler, almost cream-coloured, where they are abraded and worn.

The birds are almost all facing north-east, into the breeze, but, since many of them are feeding and the geese are also moving about, an accurate count as yet has been impossible.

And now it is too late. Two trespassing boys have just ducked through the barbed wire fence. The flock takes wing: black and white now, in wavering formation, there are still too many to count. Perhaps a hundred and twenty.

They turn west, rising against the trees. By now they are above the main road, above the glass and metal and the roar of the traffic, and, with a few scarce, reedy cries of joy, are beyond the old Denham film studios and again on their way south.

(Introduction to these pieces; see all)

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