Country diary: rain transforms the marsh into a haven for birds


Just a little downstream, people had been piling up their furniture in anticipation of flood. But here the exceptional rains came bearing gifts. For a week at year’s end, the marsh was a lake, and where there might normally be a few dozen birds, on one evening I estimated 12,000 gulls, wildfowl and waders in one roiling flock.

By day the mood was turbulent, as harriers and peregrines patrolled the valley. Wherever they went they aroused alarm-filled volleys of calls from the geese and wigeon, but that fear could intensify until the birds peeled off the ground in waves of panic when the climbing woodwind music of all those escaping wings was stirred into the chorus of their agitation.

It was easier to enjoy the scene once the sun had set and I switched to visiting at last light, partly because I suspect there is more activity from these birds after dark than before, especially during a waxing phase of the moon.

The world might be drained of visual detail, the landscape reduced to a blackened matrix, but foreshortening amalgamates the separate sheets of water into a single, shining plane that is turned mother-of-pearl by starlight. And in the full-night glow, every reed stem, every tree silhouette acquires a fresh nocturnal clarity.

By day, the lapwings, whose numbers I estimated at 10,000 and the largest total I’ve seen here in 20 years, were thickly layered in black and white folds across the far fields.

Some, too, were brushed skywards by passing raptors, when they were scattered as a fine-meshed net over the entire winter blue of the valley.

After dark, however, some of these thousands came in singly to feed. By day, lapwing flight looks unhurried and loose-flapping, but after dusk it often acquires new urgency.

These solitary individuals dashed across the marsh with an almost bat-like erratic line that was hard and twisted. Then the bird would surge down and, under cold stars, with the blurred darkness of its wings folded over the lesser dark of night, the lapwing would nestle on to the pearly sheen of Claxton marsh.


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