December
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{ 113 } 69.  A MARSH MURMURATION Welcome to the whisperers. Inside the Suffolk coast, soothing reeds flank stream and creeks pool at brackish broads. The inner Blyth banks broke in fifty-three, much later meadows flooded and Wolsey Creek diverted through the shivering shires of Hen Reedbeds. Here trot tan Tarpan horse to open up the reed, and in spring will be clover and trefoil rich with bees. In summer, at perch posts in the water will squabble ticking terns, recovered otter and water vole back all year. The lucky now hear the boom of bittern, once a fenman’s favored Sunday roast, everywhere now icon for the rare. It was murky winter at the reed beds, half light before dusk. Small flocks of starlings from far had started flighting low, fast and knowing. In the crisp teeth of a northerly, they were meeting for a murmuration. It has become normal for common birds to be less valued than the rare. Yet here was a starry spectacle. These great mimics, Wheezers, Medieval pets, were soundless As thirty thousand pairs of wings beat on atomic air. They flowed across the sky, The flock swelling as arrivals seamed with shape-shifting smoke. They turned together, Disappearing in the western eye. With a flick the cloak was dark and pressed. Some rushed rank and pulled elastic, Failing and rippling back to join the liquid mass. Hawks might work havoc, But the flock flashed unworried, Back above the muds. DECEMBER { 114 }     The East Country A winter wildfowler from north Essex, Peter Avery, looked at coastal marsh and wrote: “The mud is grey, the sky grey, the saltmarsh brown. The place is wild, at its best. Packs of wigeon come in high, teal asleep at the water’s edge, waders feeding ahead of the flooding tide. The thrill of being out with wild birds never lessens.” Here cloud to the sea and lighthouse on the town tops turned pink, to the west the sun had sunk but the sky was alight beyond dark cumulus. The murmuration swept far inland, then up high, a ferment across the road to the town, to reeds by the salty lido. As dark fell, the birds voted. The pilgrims formed A tall tornado. Within seconds, They were sucked into the reeds, Yet bubbled up, Leapfrogging inwards. All were inside. At thirty grams a bird, densities of five hundred in each cubic meter, those reeds will be flattened. The cold sky yawned. Night was complete. We walked back to welcome warmth. 5 70.  POOR MAN’S HEAVEN The solstice approached. Soon days would lengthen, though only by a minute daily until the new year. Clear nights brought hard frost, dimmed daylight hours of rushing fronts, drizzle one day, wet snow another. The crescent moon waned, rising at one in the morning and setting at noon. The sun would be down at a quarter to four. The long night of winter draws tribes together. In the garden, dawn washed trees and brickwork. Samuel Bensusan wrote, “You can learn a lot in the country by sitting doing nothing.” Birds came: blackbird rich and mellow, squabbling robin, fighting on a feeder. No groups for them. Overhead rook and jackdaw had congregated into great flocks, later striding across the back pasture, probing the cold soil. Then came gregarious gulls, cleaving distance with a twitch of angled wings. There was much to learn on gull variability: winter or summer plumage, juvenile or adult, black-tipped wings, dark ear patches, colored legs. Outside pigeon packs raced in stable formation over poplar. Later spangled starling destroyed fat balls at the feeders. They fought one another, squeaking and leaping, ignoring tiny goldfinch and tit, dashing from junior angles. { 115 }     December Frost was hard and burned lungs. Puddles were solid with ice, crushed where cars had passed. On tight corners, the bike twitched on the rimed road. Other tribes were abroad. Dogs and their walkers, some striding out with Labradors, black and sleek; others elderly and slow with grayed whiskers. In the village at the far valley end, church bells called those in furs. It was a bracing morning. Up at Workhouse Green, a couple stopped, holding close their dog with hind legs strapped to wheels. The Clickett Hill oaks were still golden green; all other woodlands skeletal. By the river, brown bundles of Ronaldsay sheep bleated from an iced meadow. “Bit nippy,” declared a bowed woman with red head scarf, walking her whiskered greyhounds.Wesmiled.Itseemedtobedarkfrommidday.Therewasnothingto fear. For this...


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