Winter windfalls

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British Wildlife

Adrift in the North Downs, the small village of Eastling sleeps in the early morning sun. The great yews bury much of the churchyard in deep-frozen shade. A goldcrest briefly emerges from the dense needles in its hunt for tiny prey. Goldfinches sing their light, liquid trickle from high, hidden places. A chaffinch bursts into its plain, spring song but only manages half the familiar phrase. A song thrush tosses dead leaves in a sunny gap between the headstones and flies off scolding when interrupted. The sunlit, stone wall on the southern boundary has a worsening rash of spring bulbs bursting the short turf at its base.

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Eastling church shrouded in yews; the oldest some 2,000 years old.

Male house sparrows prospect for nest sites under the eaves of the small primary school; the bricks and tiles appear too well constructed to offer the required crevices. Blue tits hide in plain sight as they work the roadside trees. The nearby wooded slope of beech and yew is north-facing, dark, frozen and devoid of birds, including its rare hawfinches. In the pristinely sown fields of winter wheat, chaffinches and yellowhammers feed close to the edge and fly up into the sanctuary of the shelterbelt at the slightest provocation.

The churchyard near the coast at Teynham holds fresh snowdrops and a well-fed cat that idles near the lychgate where bowls of food are presumably provisioned by parishioners. This clever predator’s only thanks will be to kill a generous proportion of the small birds and mammals, including a huge warren offering up endless young rabbits, that forage in the soft turf thereabouts. The church commands the hill top above the grazing marshes and estuary beyond. On the downslope, apple orchards fill the fields. Most are neatly pruned but one is a tangle of clipped and sawn branches dressed with bright yellow and orange windfalls and alive with winter thrushes and starlings. Loud, whistling and chattering flocks chequer the blue sky, carried on the chill, sharp wind.

A rump parliament of rooks lands in the tips of a line of Lombardy poplars; long white beaks, jet black coats and haughty attitude recall a self-important sub-committee. The members lean forward with fanned tails and arched wings, shouting their warm, rasping calls; a rich, sonorous bass to the shrill, winter cacophony. Spring is but an encore away.

The mudflats on the Swale coast down the road at Conyer are exposed; long lines of wigeon drift in the distant channel and more hug the banks of Fowley island, whistling over the bristling wind. Brent geese are present too but in small parties. Grey plovers and redshanks are well-spaced on the sinking, wet mud where they walk head down in a ceaseless search for invertebrate food; little grebes drift and dive in the winding water that runs up to the boatyards. The wide grazing marshes are full of fat sheep, the reed-filled ditches glow gold in the low sun. Blackbirds and fieldfares haunt the thorn bushes and green woodpeckers the long abandoned grasslands, all quick to fly with a squawk, cackle or yaffle. A kestrel hunts hard before the light fades and the temperature dives once again.

At Cliffe marshes, on an afternoon of rare calm, harriers flap briefly over the marshes and a kestrel sits on a high thorn bush. Large flocks of tufted and pochard ducks fill the flat water. Shoveler ducks form a single, large flock and swim in tight circles like whirligig beetles, running their bills through the water, stirring and sifting the silt.

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Cliffe marshes

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