Thursday, 31 March 2016

Fifty Shades of Hedge...

I wouldn’t call it intuition, it was just experience.

I know the Patch and what it does to and for me. I can recognise the signs in me and it. Maybe a subtle shift in the weather, a change of wind direction perhaps or the sun coming out from behind thick rain laden clouds, there are many triggers. Those first fuzzy, transcendent feelings bubble up from my sub-conscious, at that point I know I need to get outdoors.

When I saw the distant gaps in the clouds I knew it was a good time to head out. The weather had been hit and miss all morning, heavy squally showers zipping over the Patch interspersed by some bright sunny spells, followed by some grey rubbish for most of the afternoon. But those gaps in the cloud, currently far out over Liverpool Bay, would be on us in no time.

It is the very beginning of March and there are the first suggestions that spring might be around the corner. Temperatures are still agreeably low – I like the cold. Hovering just above freezing meaning a thick coat and a woolly hat are required if you are venturing out.

From the cupboard under the stairs I reach for the parka, my biggest coat, with the deepest pockets. Pockets I can gleefully fill with my birdwatching paraphernalia. In goes the notebook, my favourite pen and tally counter. I glance at it as I drop it into my right chest pocket. It shows 56. This will be 560 as I count in tens and more than likely is a record of the number of Knot I counted last time out on Patch.

Next is the mobile phone. I’ve switched it to silent rather than off all together. Sometimes I like to go “off grid” completely but I must admit that I like to know what is going on elsewhere on the Patch.

Finally a dubious looking Bakewell tart is selected for Patch munchies and is placed in the last remaining empty pocket.

And I’m off.

I’m heading along the hedgerows of the Wirral Way towards the Dungeon footpath and the farmland that surrounds it. I have a couple of hours to myself, just me on the Patch.

Time. Right now time is an oxymoron. It will feel fast and slow at the same time. These two hours will slip by in what feels like the blink of an eye. During them though it will appear that time is passing slowly – like nothing is happening. Nothing here is in a rush, life has been paused by the winter. To stop and stare you might think that nothing is happening. But if you immerse yourself in this strange wonderful nothingness then time slips by quickly and you eventually see that there is a lot going on. I never get bored by this perceived lack of action, I like the quiet, this apparent nothingness, because after a while you see that it is not nothing, you are seeing all the small run-of-the-mill normal things that happen, the inner workings of the Patch.

The colours of the hedgerows and fields are restrained by winter. Leaves flared into bight colour, faded and then were shed leaving the brown/grey of the bare branches. Where the hedge consists of mainly blackthorn it appears almost purple – a hint at the colour of the fruit they will bear next autumn. Some have off-white blossom buds preparing to burst.

The straw stubble left from the harvest has faded to beige in a field left fallow. A couple of Wood Pigeons nonchalantly cross this field I call Humboldt, a Moorhen stalks the muddy margin of the pond in its centre. (I used to call it the Shelter Field until I read a book about the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt – the field names are explained in a blog post from a while back, search the archive if you want to know more).

There will be nothing rare here today, I don’t expect to find the unusual or the exotic. No NFY’s (New For Year) will be scribbled next to species names in the notebook but it isn’t about that. Today will be a collection of moments. None of them spectacular, most brief and many seemingly dull. But add them together and they equal much more than the sum of their parts.

I push through the branches of the hawthorn hedge, the unbroken buds a deep maroon colour. I look across the Exhibition Field to the pasture beyond.

At the top of Manhattan a fox is trotting along the field margin, below the thicket of leggy gorse. Without the binoculars I can see it is carrying something but can’t tell what. Pressing the optics to my eyes and rolling my gloved index finger along the focus wheel I determine what it is. A dead rabbit, limp ears flapping with the motion of the fox’s gait. The Fox disappears from view into a well-worn path amongst the undergrowth.

Cold hands are thrust deep into lined pockets and in the left pocket my frigid fingers find a small piece of paper. I drag it out, a few crumbs from a previous cake come out too. It’s a receipt from a toy shop. I think for a moment – yes my niece’s 7th birthday present and with it the uncollected return train ticket from the journey to town to buy it.

Over the village, geese are flying, breaking my daydream about shopping. They come whiffling into the Exhibition Field in front of me. From another pocket I fish out the tally counter. I click the dial around to zero and start to count them in tens. When I’m done the counter says 12 so 120 plus an odd six. 126 is a good number of Pink-feet for the Patch.

A Carrion Crow mooching in the middle of the field finds, rather appropriately, some carrion. Another rabbit. A dose of myxomatosis has galloped through the local population making the dead and dying rabbits easy pickings for the scavengers on the Patch. It pecks and nibbles at the carcass while a Magpie sits on a dead branch by the pond, waiting its turn. The Pinks wander lazily along the field, nibbling at the autumn sown crops. The odd one sits down.

I spot some Long-tailed Tits approaching in a large family group. They make frequent soft buzzing calls between them. The colour of their plumage, soft pinks and delicate lilacs compliment the purple hue of the hedgerow, making the better camouflaged than you’d think.

I watch them, standing motionless in the hedge until they pass. Still in a counting mood I total them up too. 12 of them. There is a thirteenth bird accompanying them, a Goldcrest.

They are picking at the lichen that coats the crinkly branches of the hawthorn, looking for any scrap of food on this cold winter’s-end night. Once they’ve passed and their buzzing fades into the distance I dwell on the pastel colours of the lichen – soft grey-green tones, almost powdery. Some are a yellow colour like that of dried egg yolk. How old is that lichen? I know they are really long lived, how long has that lichen been on that branch? Is it older than me?

Behind me a squall is bearing down the Patch, driven across the estuary by a gusty wind. Hood goes up; hands are thrust even deeper into pockets once I’ve pulled my scarf to my nose. I’m going to sit this one out.

It passes quickly. Then it happens. The sun appears, low and quickly lowering towards the Welsh hills, its light won’t last long. Drops of water caught on the fur trim of my hood start to sparkle.

The tree trunks turn from grey to gold. The fox reappears from its den in the gorse thicket, its ginger coat almost iridescent in the evening glow.

This is all to do with physics. As the sun drops its light has to pass through more of the earth’s atmosphere to reach the Patch. As it does this the light from the blue end of the light spectrum is preferentially filtered out leaving more red and yellow light causing the warm glow of the sunset. Untangling and understanding the science behind this sunset scene, talk of filtration, angles, spectra etc doesn’t unravel the magic and the mystery of what I’m seeing – if anything it looks further illuminated to me. I can detach myself from the physics and just appreciate the beauty for a while.

There is a colour palette for winter, softer than summer. More than fifty shades, shades of hedgerow purple, fallow field beige, winter sown crop brown, blackthorn blossom white and dusty lichen grey. All of them subtly beautiful but all too easily overlooked.

A Curlew undulates across the furrows of the Yarnsie, picking worms with graceful efficiency.

The moments are fleeting but sharply beautiful. Now we are losing the light. I’d better head home, my boots have finally let in, their gore-tex defences breached. Just standing still watching the Patch tick along not even the big coat can’t keep me warm indefinitely. A little activity will warm me up. I swing a leaden leg over my bike and pedal for home, binoculars swinging pendulum like around my neck. Another squall approaches, the anticipation of an ice cold soaking is tempered by the thought of a hot shower on my arrival home.

As I head north along the path I encounter the 12 Long-tailed Tits again, still working the hedge for food, still buzzing to each other. They’ve swapped the Goldcrest for a Blue Tit and picked up a female Chaffinch since they passed me in the hedge earlier.

I pedal on, the hedges of the Wirral Way running to a vanishing point that is getting steadily foreshortened by fading light. Further along, close to home, I hear a Tawny Owl hoot from the hedge, the deep bottle-green winter flowering ivy covered part of the hedge.

I turn the corner into our road, it is nearly dark now – the street lamps casting an orange glow over everything. Another colourful adventure on the Patch is coming to a close. The light is on in our living room, a welcome sight.
I lock my bike in the shed and go indoors.