Curlew River

On a clear and crisp Sunday morning in the churchyard at Teynham, muffled sounds of singing escape the thick, flint walls of the old church. In the treetops and overhead, fieldfares laugh their pagan cackle; redwings rustle deep within the heart of berry-laden holly trees; immigrant blackbirds pink pink and a local robin ticks from the ivy-covered boundary wall; a wintering chiffchaff zip zaps from an unkempt hedge.

Pied wagtails sit on the sun-baked, church roof and so to a grey wagtail that then hunts in amongst the graves with a steady walk and a sudden flutter. Blue tits forage on the church walls and in the bare branches of cherry trees. Rabbits bolt through the nettle beds that carpet much of the graveyard and the uneven ground beneath is a warren. A grey squirrel bounds up a buttress and dives into a gap in the flint wall under the eaves, where it has a warm, dry drey.

Chaffinches dig for seeds in the soft earth; linnets and goldfinches call from the treetops. Flies warm on the weathered wood of a memorial bench. The church cat again sits under the yew by the lychgate. In the adjacent pasture field, sturdy rams are in with the ewes and starlings flocks drop in and dig in the churned mud by the feeder.

The church sits on a low ridge and looks east into the low winter sun across a valley filled with orchards; the churchyard is a quiet place, a pocket nature reserve open to all and always worth the pilgrimage on a fine day.

Down the hill at Conyer, the tide is flooding the creek. Redshank, curlew and dunlin are chased from the creek by the weekend yachts that head down the winding channel to take a turn in the Swale. The wilderness of low tide is replaced by an azure, boating lake where the waterbirds are forced to find quiet corners, well away from the passing traffic.

The waders gather on Fowley Island, a sliver of land in the centre of the estuary; avocets gather at one end and oystercatchers at the other. Wigeon, mallard, teal and a few Brent geese sit in loose flocks on the adjacent waters. Grey plover, knot and other small waders line the banks in the centre of the island, sitting like a well-behaved crowd in a stadium. The tide continues to rise and slowly drowns the island. All at once, the waders rise and head across the Swale in long streams, twisting like a ribbon, to Elmley nature reserve, and here to roost undisturbed in the extensive, grazing marshes and floodlands. At the top of the tide, the wind dies and the estuary is suddenly empty of birds and as quiet as a churchyard.


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