Endurance & Rest


Out walking this month and I have been pondering how the land feels spent, as if it has given all it can and is now resting. The grassland where, only a few months ago butterflies danced, now lies fallow, devoid of movement and down-trodden by both walkers and rain. The Skylarks have left their nests for the ploughed fields and the ground where they raised their young is water-logged with the recent downpours. Similarly too for the Moorhens whose nests are now submerged a foot or so under rising, muddy river waters. They must now clamber worriedly through the more exposed levels higher up the bank.

It is as if all is exposed and laid bare. The ploughed fields, the wind-stripped trees, the torrent washed riverbanks and the shrunken undergrowth. With this laying bare there comes a sense of nature having resigned itself, not unwillingly but inevitably, to the onset of winter. There is nothing more the land can give and there is nothing more to be done by its inhabitants other than seek food and shelter and hope that the fat reserves of the good times will see them through. Even the remaining leaves must know their imminent downfall as they feel the sap rise no more.

Wind and rain, and harsh cold days will come, maybe even snow. In this knowledge the land rests and waits for come what may. It will endure but it will suffer loss and change. Already the footpaths are worn wider and instead of having to push gingerly through nettle and bramble overhangs I walk through, free from scratches and stings. My feet add to the churned up mire of hoof and walking boot, of bike track and dog paw.

Jackdaws are swept across the steel grey skies only wheeling away briefly to harry a lone Sparrowhawk. The predator’s cold stare searches for the unwary in the retreating foliage and adds harsh intent to the changing season. Woodpigeons sit huddled in the trees and herons hunch around the edge of the bleak gravel pit waters. It is a time for endurance and rest. Growth and new life will come, as will busy-ness and song, but for now only the Robin trills his melancholy commentary, an ode to the summer past.

*          *          *

I wonder at our part in this scene and can’t help feeling somewhat out of sync with this season. Instead of resting having given, we work and spend to give more! Our season seems instead to be an ever-accelerating tunnel of frenzied shopping and work. Hopefully rest will come at the end but I fear the New Year will be upon us before then

Maybe it is our detachment (for the most part) from the land and our successful self-isolation from the seasonal elements that permits us to manufacture a second spring, albeit with evergreens and glowing bulbs. ‘Harvest Thanksgiving’ pops up on my phone calendar but for most I would imagine this is a cultural memory, harking back to a time when we were properly spent, like the land, and could rest with the land and the livestock until the coming of spring. It is not necessarily an idyllic scene but maybe it was a healthier one and less at odds with nature around us!


Rough-legged Buzzards and the Need for Certainty

Now I’m not referring to some old, cantankerous curmudgeon with unstable legs, but a bird of prey that visits our shores at this time of year in few enough numbers to make it bit of rarity for most birdwatchers, including me.

Last week, on a brief family holiday in Norfolk, we came upon a small crowd of birdwatchers who had all pulled up at the roadside bins (binoculars) in hand and scopes (telescopes on tripods) at the ready. I’m not sure what the collective noun is for such a group but, given the hasty pull-up manoeuvre I immediately executed on spotting the group, it might be ‘a screech of birdwatchers’. I quickly established that the bird being sought was a Rough-legged Buzzard that had been frequenting this particular marshland area over the last few days.

Scanning around it soon became clear that there was no shortage of birds of prey. Two Red Kites drifted over the sand dunes while about three Common Buzzards either sat on posts or soared in circles over the marsh. To be honest, to the untrained eye, a Rough-legged Buzzard is very similar to a Common Buzzard so the task before me was not that easy. Added to this was the dwindling patience of my family sitting in the car behind me, at first graciously but, as time wore on, increasingly petulantly. I eventually spotted a likely bird in the far-off distant but as the bird was drifting away I couldn’t be sure. At the same time another birder shouted, ‘I’ve got it’ and proceeded to give directions over to where I had been looking.

After further scanning, the bird, now a small dot, dropped down into some cover and out of sight. There was a generally unenthusiastic murmur from the assemble ‘screech’ of birders but the original claimant gallantly piped up with ‘I know what I saw, and that was it’, but I did detect perhaps the slightest doubt in his voice. Sadly, I had to move on and relegate the sighting to a ‘maybe’ status but certainly not an official record other than perhaps of my disappointment.

On returning home, I checked the days bird sightings for Norfolk and indeed three Rough-legged Buzzards had been in the vicinity that day! What bothered me more though and perhaps added a little salt to my wounds was the report of a possible (and extremely rare) Eleonora’s Falcon in the same area. I had indeed seen a puzzling falcon earlier in the day, at first thinking it a Peregrine and then putting it down as a Hobby before jogging on to catch up with the non-birding family. Now, with the report in the sightings bulletin I wasn’t so sure…maybe I had not only missed out on Rough-legged Buzzards but perhaps also an Eleonora’s Falcon! I resolved to remain philosophical about the matter…there would be more Rough-legged Buzzards and the Eleonora’s Falcon, well, it was probably just a regular Hobby.

You can imagine my delight however as this week a Rough-legged Buzzard has been sighted in Hertfordshire and only half an hour away from where I live. The first for the county since 2008 and so today I headed out in the rain to find the bird. What a contrasting experience it was to that in Norfolk last week! On turning down the small lane that runs through the farmland in question I immediately came across a handful of birders parked up next to the road, bins and scopes at the ready: certainly not a ‘screech’ but maybe more of a ‘squeak’ of birders.

I was greeted with the words, ‘I’ve got it in my scope if you want’ and without further ado I looked through the obliging scope and there it was: a Rough-legged Buzzard just across the other side of the field! As if to confirm this triumph the sun broke through and a double rainbow drifted over the hills with the promise of fairer weather.

Being a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard and a very pale plumaged individual identification proved no problem. The white rump, the clearly marked wings and the dark belly patch were all in evidence and even a quick glance would mark this bird out as at least an unusual Buzzard. And what about those rough legs? Well, the feathery legs that give the bird its name weren’t that visible but identification is rarely about one single trait, rather a combination of key diagnostics that together confirm a species’ identity.

With no family in the car behind me (I love them really) I was at leisure to enjoy the bird as it perched atop a hedge and drooped its wings to dry in the sun before circling a bit to avoid a walker and her dogs.

A certain sighting at last that amply dispelled the disappointment of the week before along with any fantasies of Eleonora’s Falcons or the suchlike!

Rough-legged Buzzard by local birder Jay Ward