Country diary: love is in the air for these oystercatchers

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Love is blossoming in our hairdresser’s horse paddocks by the river. Around a crescent-shaped pool – the last dregs of flooded winter – two oystercatchers are having nothing and everything to do with one another. Though they are the only diners in this fenced-off restaurant, each is studiously focused on its own doings. And yet both are peripherally aware of each other too. Apart but close, moving around the field, always keeping the same distance. Are they a pair, a couple, an item?

Both birds are feeding, wielding their beaks as precision tools, probing, listening, feeling for tremors of life. One hoicks up a catch and scampers down to the water to rinse it. It has short legs and long toes, and has the inelegant run of a diver wearing flippers. But it is quick. The other, presumably its mate, pauses and stares at the departing bird, waiting for it to come back into the zone of mutual devotion before resuming its search. Once more, the birds ignore each other. Apparently.

What brought these birds here? Was theirs an estuary date on the Wash that made them each decide that this bird was the one in a hundred thousand? And what brought them 60 miles inland together, along the Ouse, a motorway of rivers, and then down its distinctly B-route tributary of the Ivel to here, in this paddock? Oystercatchers are noted for their faithfulness and longevity, so this is perhaps the pair that has returned here to breed for the last decade or more. If so, they will parcel up their lives into discrete parts, holding this small feeding territory a mile from where they nest downstream.

The birds shuffle as one down the slightest of dips, up the gentlest of rises. Is close proximity the one true marker of fidelity of a long-established pair, or are there other subtle gestures of “pair bonding” that are simply beyond human observation? Darling, I love the way you raise your claw just so.

In just a few days or weeks, the oycs will lift off and the sky will shout. They’ll fly here, there and over our house, piping peeps and drawing us out of doors to greet the fullness of their spring.

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