THE UNDAUNTED LAPWINGS

Simon Coleman

lapwing rspb

Source: http://www.rspb.org.uk

 

Rain, cold and deadening gloom: winter days we are all familiar with. There is no colour, no sound of birds – one might feel that life has left the earth altogether. Richard Jefferies, though a worshipper of the sun and the long days of light, always persisted with his winter walks. In this first part of a beautiful essay, ‘Haunts of the Lapwing’, he stumbles across some lapwings braving the dreadful weather and the sight of them instantly lifts his spirits. In that moment he finds them to be ‘the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness’.

 

“HAUNTS OF THE LAPWING, part 1: Winter”

 

“Coming like a white wall the rain reaches me, and in an instant everything is gone from sight that is more than ten yards distant. The narrow upland road is beaten to a darker hue, and two runnels of water rush along at the sides, where, when the chalk-laden streamlets dry, blue splinters of flint will be exposed in the channels. For a moment the air seems driven away by the sudden pressure, and I catch my breath and stand still with one shoulder forward to receive the blow. Hiss, the land shudders under the cold onslaught; hiss, and on the blast goes, and the sound with it, for the very fury of the rain, after the first second, drowns its own noise. There is not a single creature visible, the low and stunted hedgerows, bare of leaf, could conceal nothing; the rain passes straight through to the ground. Crooked and gnarled, the bushes are locked together as if in no other way could they hold themselves against the gales. Such little grass as there is on the mounds is thin and short, and could not hide a mouse. There is no finch, sparrow, thrush, blackbird. As the wave of rain passes over and leaves a hollow between the waters, that which has gone and that to come, the ploughed lands on either side are seen to be equally bare. In furrows full of water, a hare would not sit, nor partridge run; the larks, the patient larks which endure almost everything, even they have gone. Furrow on furrow with flints dotted on their slopes, and chalk lumps, that is all. The cold earth gives no sweet petal of flower, nor can any bud of thought or bloom of imagination start forth in the mind. But step by step, forcing a way through the rain and over the ridge, I find a small and stunted copse down in the next hollow. It is rather a wide hedge than a copse, and stands by the road in the corner of a field. The boughs are bare; still they break the storm, and it is a relief to wait a while there and rest. After a minute or so the eye gets accustomed to the branches and finds a line of sight through the narrow end of the copse. Within twenty yards—just outside the copse—there are a number of lapwings, dispersed about the furrows. One runs a few feet forward and picks something from the ground; another runs in the same manner to one side; a third rushes in still a third direction. Their crests, their green-tinted wings, and white breasts are not disarranged by the torrent. Something in the style of the birds recalls the wagtail, though they are so much larger. Beyond these are half a dozen more, and in a straggling line others extend out into the field. They have found some slight shelter here from the sweeping of the rain and wind, and are not obliged to face it as in the open. Minutely searching every clod they gather their food in imperceptible items from the surface.

 

Sodden leaves lie in the furrows along the side of the copse; broken and decaying burdocks still uphold their jagged stems, but will be soaked away by degrees; dank grasses droop outwards! the red seed of a dock is all that remains of the berries and fruit, the seeds and grain of autumn. Like the hedge, the copse is vacant. Nothing moves within, watch as carefully as I may. The boughs are blackened by wet and would touch cold. From the grasses to the branches there is nothing any one would like to handle, and I stand apart even from the bush that keeps away the rain. The green plovers are the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness. Heavily as the rain may fall, cold as the saturated wind may blow, the plovers remind us of the beauty of shape, colour, and animation. They seem too slender to withstand the blast—they should have gone with the swallows—too delicate for these rude hours; yet they alone face them.

 

Once more the wave of rain has passed, and yonder the hills appear; these are but uplands. The nearest and highest has a green rampart, visible for a moment against the dark sky, and then again wrapped in a toga of misty cloud. So the chilled Roman drew his toga around him in ancient days as from that spot he looked wistfully southwards and thought of Italy. Wee-ah-wee! Some chance movement has been noticed by the nearest bird, and away they go at once as if with the same wings, sweeping overhead, then to the right, then to the left, and then back again, till at last lost in the coming shower. After they have thus vibrated to and fro long enough, like a pendulum coming to rest, they will alight in the open field on the ridge behind. There in drilled ranks, well closed together, all facing the same way, they will stand for hours. Let us go also and let the shower conceal them. Another time my path leads over the hills.

 

It is afternoon, which in winter is evening. The sward of the down is dry under foot, but hard, and does not lift the instep with the springy feel of summer. The sky is gone, it is not clouded, it is swathed in gloom. Upwards the still air thickens, and there is no arch or vault of heaven. Formless and vague, it seems some vast shadow descending. The sun has disappeared, and the light there still is, is left in the atmosphere enclosed by the gloomy mist as pools are left by a receding tide. Through the sand the water slips, and through the mist the light glides away. Nearer comes the formless shadow and the visible earth grows smaller. The path has faded, and there are no means on the open downs of knowing whether the direction pursued is right or wrong, till a boulder (which is a landmark) is perceived. Thence the way is down the slope, the last and limit of the hills there. It is a rough descent, the paths worn by sheep may at any moment cause a stumble. At the foot is a waggon-track beside a low hedge, enclosing the first arable field. The hedge is a guide, but the ruts are deep, and it still needs slow and careful walking. Wee-ah-wee! Up from the dusky surface of the arable field springs a plover, and the notes are immediately repeated by another. They can just be seen as darker bodies against the shadow as they fly overhead. Wee-ah-wee! The sound grows fainter as they fetch a longer circle in the gloom.

 

There is another winter resort of plovers in the valley where a barren waste was ploughed some years ago. A few furze bushes still stand in the hedges about it, and the corners are full of rushes. Not all the grubbing of furze and bushes, the deep ploughing and draining, has succeeded in rendering the place fertile like the adjacent fields. The character of a marsh adheres to it still. So long as there is a crop, the lapwings keep away, but as soon as the ploughs turn up the ground in autumn they return. The place lies low, and level with the waters in the ponds and streamlets. A mist hangs about it in the evening, and even when there is none, there is a distinct difference in the atmosphere while passing it. From their hereditary home the lapwings cannot be entirely driven away. Out of the mist comes their plaintive cry; they are hidden, and their exact locality is not to be discovered. Where winter rules most ruthlessly, where darkness is deepest in daylight, there the slender plovers stay undaunted.”

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‘Under the Snow’ by Richard Jefferies

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman 

“The smallest boughs and the tiniest twigs are coated on the upper part with a white rib of snow; for the flakes, scarcely slanting in their fall before the light air, rest on the first thing they touch; so that even the laurel leaves, which droop with the frost, are covered, and the crinkled holly-leaves hold the snow as if their spines grasped it like a claw. In the hedge the very peggles on the hawthorn bush are tipped—red fruit beneath, white snow above—and appear enlarged to twice their real size. The fields are levelled—the furrows filled and the clods hidden: a smooth white surface everywhere. Over the broad brook the branches of the trees hang low, heavily weighted, and dip their slender points in the water, black by contrast. Dark and silent, the stream flows without a ripple or a murmur against its frozen shores. But in the afternoon, when the sun shines in a cloudless sky, there floats above the current a golden vapour lit up by the rays. The sun sinks lower, and the disc becomes ruddy as it enters the mist above the horizon. Night falls, and the frost sharpens and the snow hardens on the boughs. Then in the morning as the sun rises the eastern side of the wood becomes glorified exceedingly. Each slender snow-laden branch—all the interlaced pattern of the trees—glows with an exquisite rosy light. Another day, a third, and still the beautiful snow lies everywhere. It shrinks a little, because now the tops of the larger clods in the ploughed fields are visible. There is a group of such dark clods in one place—eight or nine close together. Suddenly one moves: then another detaches itself and creeps a yard away: it is, in fact, a covey of partridges crouching hopelessly on the snow. These birds, like others that obtain their food on the ground, endure great privation when it is not only covered with snow but frozen hard beneath. It is indeed difficult to understand how they find sufficient to support life. They enter rickyards where the snow is partially cleared by the men; they venture, too, into gardens that are not immediately under the windows of a house. Their roosting-place—on the ground—is easily dis­covered during the snow, because it is partly scratched away and melted there and appears a darker patch in the white field. At other times the covey separates, and the various members spread abroad to feed, calling each other, and rejoining at dusk; but in bitter weather they remain together. To the hawthorn bush by the roadside, where the peggles are tipped with snow, a fieldfare comes as we go by, shaking down a shower of snow as he alights, but just beyond reach of the walking-stick. Though we pause and watch his motions he does not fly, but scrambles farther into the bush, bringing down fresh showers; so tame, or rather so bold, has hunger made him. The fieldfare is usually so wild that it is not possible to approach within gunshot, unless by a stratagem. Upon the lower branches of an elm—those that project from the trunk like brushwood—sits a redwing, his feathers puffed out, and betraying no trace of alarm. Though they come from the north, redwings seem among the first to suffer; a few days’ snow like this quite debilitates them, and they have not even the energy to escape. A stone, a stick, anything will bring them down; and they are killed in numbers by cats when they venture into gardens, as they constantly do. Another sits on the bank, partly hidden by the ground-ivy that there clothes a slight projection which, like a roof, has kept the snow from a tiny terrace. In the ditch, which is deep, the water is frozen, but the sides are a little moist near the bottom still, and to these places come the garden thrushes and blackbirds. At the gateway there is a short arched culvert for the water to pass through; it is dry now, and these birds enter the mouth, rinding that in this cellar-like spot the frost is not so hard.

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman

There is a place in the copse where, under the shelter of the trees and behind a thicket of briar and thorn, scarcely any snow has penetrated. It is overgrown with low brambles, and is several inches thick with dead leaves. These keep the frost away from the earth in the same manner as a mat, and here eight or ten blackbirds and thrushes are busily at work pulling up the leaves and searching beneath them. They quarrel constantly about the best localities, and drive each other away, fighting for existence. It is often remarked that the thrush dies quicker than any other bird in severe weather; and a comparison has been made between it and the tiny golden-crested wren, which scarcely heeds the frost or snow, as if the former was a delicate bird. The contrast is not just. The reason why the thrush dies so soon is because he is starved. Those who have watched the thrush, at ordinary times must have observed the really immense quantities of worms, snails, and similar food he consumes. The moment the ground is frozen all this is shut off from him, and he languishes. If frost be accompanied by continued snow he perishes. But the elegant golden-crested wren is not starved: his food of insects is not buried by the snow or rendered inaccessible by frost. He may be seen entering every bramble bush, and peering under the leaves there which yet remain green. There are a thousand and one places where insects lie torpid—under leaves, in the crevices of bark, and so on—perfectly well known to this happy little creature. The birds that feed on the ground suffer most; next, those that put much reliance on seeds or grain; those that may be called tree birds do not endure so much. The blue tomtit literally looks everywhere: in the porch, under the rafters of cowsheds and outhouses, even inside the open box that protects the bell-wire at the outer gate, and may be seen clinging to the boards against which the bill-poster sticks his advertisements, and looks under the strips of torn paper.

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman

Passing further up the road, the rooks have discovered an arable field, where, just before the snow fell, manure had been carted out and left in small heaps for spreading. These are now covered with snow, but near the bottom are perhaps not quite frozen. An oak-tree, white to the smallest twig, stands solitary in the midst. A whole flock of rooks are perched on it; every two or three minutes some descend to the immediate neighbourhood of the manure heaps, and after a short interval rise with a feeble caw and rest upon a branch. There is a perpetual stream of rooks like this passing up and down. The very bough the rook roosts on at night is coated with frozen snow, though his weight as he alights shakes it off in some degree under his claws. In the ash-trees by a farmhouse some hundreds of starlings are perched; the tree is black with them, and there is a long row on the railings round the rickyard beneath; but they are silent. At another time there would have been a continuous calling—a noise rising and sinking, a confusion of tongues: now they sit still and quiet. Then they would barely have remained in one place three minutes: now they do not seem to care to move at all. Their food, too, is cut off from them. Judging by the few flocks that are to be seen about, it would appear as if numbers must have left the district. So too, with the wood-pigeons. Just before the snow there were crowds of them in all the arable fields, to the annoyance of the farmers. Not a single flock is now visible. From out of a double mound one single wood-pigeon rises, so close that every marking of his feathers is apparent. He lifts himself heavily, as if wounded, but once in the air flies easily enough, though he goes but across a single field and alights in a tree: he is weakly for want of food.

Sheep-pens, where the snow has been removed by manual labour, or trodden down and melted by the sheep themselves, are favourite places with the birds in hard weather. The common wagtail is a frequenter of sheep-pens: half a dozen or more may be noticed at once on the ground there. Tat-tat—top-top-top!—a kind of quiet tapping sounds in the higher branches of a tall elm fifty yards away. A bird is clinging to the side of a bough; his head is thrown back, and every few seconds he delivers a sharp blow with his beak, peers again, climbs further up, gives a series of quick raps, and then flies to the next tree. A slight shower of snow falls from the bough on which he alights; in a minute the tapping sounds again; and thus he visits every elm in the hedgerow. It is the nuthatch, and it is surprising how far the quiet tap-tap can be heard in the stillness. When the foliage is thick on the trees in summer, though the tap may be heard, it is not so easy to watch his motions; the fall of the leaf is like removing a screen. A rustling, scratching sound on the bank where it is overhung by a stole, and clear of snow, shows that the hedge-mice are about, despite the severe weather. Some one, perhaps a sportsman, has dropped an empty fuse-box, without a lid, in the hedge. The scratching proceeds from this box—there is a mouse in it. The tiny creature is so small that the box, which is merely supported by a few dead oak leaves, allows it to turn round easily. He scratches and sniffs at every corner—pauses, and scratches again, as if in desperate hope that there must be something eatable about it. At last he gives up the useless attempt, and disappears under the oak leaves. Some distance further there is another rustling: something here is darting to and fro with an eager motion under the ground-ivy. This time it’s a weasel, whose hunting is greatly favoured by the snow. If it were deep it would not suit him; but two inches are just sufficient to weaken the prey, and yet cause him no inconvenience in chasing it. Rabbit tracks are everywhere in the snow, and especially round and round a long narrow mound in the open field, where the farmer has stacked his roots and covered them with straw and earth as a protection against the frost.”