Three days of mist had been left behind by the spinning planet travelling from day to night and the new morning’s terminator ushered in a fourth. I stood breathing in the wet cloud which surrounding me like damp blotting paper. The rapier thrusts of wind which had dogged me since the beginning of the week had been thrown into exile and there was a small modicum of mildness, if not warmth.
I was stepping out to survey the gloom for the creatures which arrive unheralded and signal the approach of summer and the great awakening after the dark days and long nights of winter. The vast numbers of wildfowl, in particular, who swept in last autumn to find solace from the frigid northern wastes, sustenance and brightened the barren land with their wilding cries, had become invisible. They had slipped away to their thawing homelands with nary a sign of their departure. I remembered another misty morning a few weeks ago and standing on a cliff watching the sea. A skein of Pink-Footed Geese had flown low and fast, calling to each other in encouragement, rallying themselves for the long and dangerous crossing ahead, without regret or backward glance.
Now it was the turn of those birds, large and small, that globe trot each spring on a return ticket from warmer climes, where they had overwintered, singing their songs of derring-do to charm and impress the girls. I was looking for the small ones, the ones that often go unnoticed as they pass through Norfolk and Suffolk, on their way to more northern parts and the ones that stay awhile. The ones that make their presence known by striking knightly poses at the top of a bush and open their hearts, as the arias to the operas of their great journeys pour forth, spilling like sonic smoke across the landscape of the burgeoning season, coaxing leaves from buds.
Already white starlight shines from Blackthorn and Hawthorn. All too soon those blinding petals will soil the ground like discarded confetti from a forgotten wedding, their brief purpose fulfilled. The brown withered hedge banks of a few weeks ago, so recently covered with snow, dazzled with the vivid green of the new growth of innumerable plants.
I strode out as the thin net curtains of mist slowly began to disperse. On a telephone wire, resplendent in his evening dress, a steely blue suit with crisp, sharp tails and fresh white starched shirt, set off with a cravat the dark colour of drying blood, a Swallow, newly arrived, balanced like a tight rope walker. He was singing a quiet song of triumph, celebrating his vanquishing of the vast drought blighted sands of the great North African deserts which blocked his return from Botswana, and avoiding being thrown down from skies over the Mediterranean countries by those hard-hearted men with rifles, men whose hearts do not beat that bit faster at the sight of such an exquisite bird.
To see my first Swallow is one of the great landmarks of the year and I had a spring in my step as I climbed onto the river bank and began to flow with it to the coast. The water was calm and seemingly unmoving. It lay dulled by the grey clouds. The river was blind and unseeing. It exuded no sparkle or catch light. Small rafts of dead reed, torn away from the edge by the rise in levels induced by now forgotten heavy rainfall, drifted past like Millais’ Ophelia.
I passed the Roman fort standing sentinel on its ancient cliff, looking imperiously over the vastness of the reed bed lining the base of the scarp. A commotion of brown and grey rose up from the reeds and like a ship, the sails of its wings carried it effortlessly forward on the breeze. The male marsh Harrier, all shock and awe, was clutching dead plant matter in its talons, as if it had converted to vegetarianism. Its purpose was simple and hormone driven – the urge to build a nest and send its genes soaring into the future.
Further back in the rond, like a whale breaking the ocean’s surface, the female rose up. She was bigger and chocolate brown with a head reminiscent of a giant bee powdered with bright yellow pollen. She flew toward her mate, passing over him with golden eyes flashing and yellow legs outstretched. In an instant, they were both gone as they sank down to the unseen nursery site.
As I began the long walk along the south side of Breydon Water the mist eased its grip on the grey hulled sky, allowing a flicker of brightness to dry the saturated air. Detail emerged as the curtain lifted and I saw the white and gold of a Barn Owl in the middle distance. It glided low and languidly along reed fringed dykes as it made stately progress, quartering the grazing marsh, senses on high alert for the merest movement and the slightest rustle in the undergrowth.
A troublesome Carrion Crow slipped through the air sideways to torment the owl. The owl jinked this way and that but stuck to its flyway along the dyke margins. With two or three strong wingbeats which caused the owl’s body to lift and drop, like a small boat on a strong well, it dismissed the crow from its presence and continued unhindered.
Out over the wide expanse of Breydon on my left, as if they were rushing to a celebration out of sight somewhere over the horizon, wave after wave of Dunlin tore upstream, low over the water. Scythe like wings shattered the air as their bodies almost kissed their reflections on the water. A few Redshank were in their midst as they vanished into the haze that signalled the extent of my vision.
A short distance ahead of me a black bird rose up from the piling and began to cross the estuary. It looked like a total eclipse of a Jay, so black was it. Its primaries curled up in the manner of that most colourful of corvid’s flight but unlike the garrulous crow it was silent. My field glasses revealed it wore a gleaming white torc around its throat: a male Ring Ouzel, a Thrush and a passage migrant on the long journey from its winter quarters in the distant mountains of Morocco and Tunisia to its breeding grounds on the high moors and hills of the North of England.
The end of my journey approached as the town ahead loomed ever clearer through the diminishing haze. My attention was caught by a flash of white rump as a bird passed me, swift and low. It perched, upright and alert, on the piling. It was a male Wheatear. He was crowned with slate grey and wore a cloak of grey and jet black. His chest was the colour of the deserts of North Africa from whence he had come on a long journey to the same breeding grounds as the Ring Ouzel. Its bright eye regarded me from within the black mask it wore and as quickly as it had appeared it had gone.