A Good Walk

I walked my patch last Friday. Small birds abounded in the hedgerows, which was just as well – I had to give up on finding that mega rarity in the fields (or perhaps the golden plover of a couple of weeks before, which in my dreams has metamorphosed into something distinctly more American, with a buff-coloured breast) as a wall of condensed water droplets – that’s fog to you, had descended over the countryside. There’s nothing like not being able to see far to sharpen the senses: mist brings things closer, gives the land an air of mystery, intimacy almost. I absolutely love it, but then, I quite like a clear, ecstatically sunny morning, or the darkening threat of a heavy downpour sending you dashing for cover. It’s another reason I go outside I suppose; I’m still a weather geek, even after years in the meteorological wilderness.

The beating of a great tit’s wings rattled my eardrum first as a tit flock scattered in front of me, defiantly louder than a distant tractor’s rumblings, or the village cockerel calling a few late risers out of bed. Chiffchaffs have been everywhere recently, and several were flicking restlessly through the hawthorns, calling me down the path with every gentle ‘hueet’.
Not far down the byway I found a marsh tit, seeking breakfast some 2km from the nearest decent patch of woodland and potential colony site – they’re not known for great feats of dispersal, but this little chap, and two more further down the path sneezing away to each other, had clearly availed themselves of the opportunities on offer along the Harrow Way hedgerows and tree lines: habitat connectivity in action perhaps.

I watched one feeding on a head of small thistles, coming down and taking not a single seed, but instead prising a whole head loose to take back to a bush and consume each seed at leisure. A crafty feeding habit. It turns out, and I’m not sure I knew this, that thistle seeds are a regular food for them in the autumn, and that, unlike most other tits, marsh tits cache food like a nuthatch or jay. Maybe it was saving a few of the seeds for later then. Another thing you may not know is that birds which cache food have, on average, a larger hippocampus (a part of the brain, not where large water-dwelling mammals are educated) – important for long-term memory and navigation. A great tit might be bigger bodied and bigger brained than a marsh tit overall, but the marsh tit is the memory king – definitely the one to ask where you parked your car. Although I wouldn’t necessarily entrust your vehicle to a 12-gram bird.

Watching autumn food storage, with the bushes wreathed in mist and decay visible all around me, I could almost feel the landscape start to breathe in, slowly, after the drawn-out, relaxed, warm(ish) exhalation of summer. Yesterday, the sun was back and summer was starting to sneak out for one last look. Still a slight autumn mist visible at a distance, but definitely a kinder, milder feel to the air.

Being able to see the fields again was a distinct bonus, as they were quite festooned with meadow pipits. I counted 70 in the portion of the field closest to me, and there must have been 100 at the very least altogether, accounting for birds over the contours. Small groups of skylarks chased about – coloured like the straw beneath them such that they disappeared when they dropped, apart from the odd crested silhouette hopping on the horizon – and occasionally flung themselves skywards, launching into full song as if we’d skipped right over autumn and winter and were back to spring. Chiffchaffs were still joining in, young birds lubricating their vocal chords and making sure they’ve got it right ready for the breeding season next year – though I’m not sure what is so difficult about ‘chiff’ followed by ‘chaff’ followed by ‘chiff’. Ought to be able to sight read that.

And that was my day really: communing with the patch residents, and then home for apple processing, shopping, chutney making, and a nice pot of Earl Grey. Trying to get into the seasonal rhythms of picking and storing, baking, preserving and dreaming of meals to come, whilst observing the birds, like the marsh tit and his thistle, cycling through their lives without having to think nearly so hard about it. It’s enjoyable: maybe I feel a calling to the domestic life, and whilst homemade preserves are unlikely to pay the bills any time soon, I sincerely hope that being a bird nut might just. One day – I’ll cache that dream and hope I remember where to find it, once the winter sets in.

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