Walking with Childhood Ghosts
I am taking a winter prowl through reedbeds, their dried pennants of leaves rasping in a slow wind and I glance furtively behind to see who is stalking me. It is a soft morning. The frost has slipped away and the peat is sagging beneath my feet. I tread carefully, quietly, only too aware of my intrusion into this land of wide skies, low meres, stagnant pools and stretches of woolly headed reeds.
A snipe flashes out in front of me and zigzags away in alarm. I make for a small scrub of hawthorn and settle in its shadow, watching and listening. The reedbed is alive with unseen action. Widgeon and mallard are probing its shallow waters, muffled whistles betraying their presence. Two crows emerge squabbling.
I am in the Waveney valley, a thin thread of a river that winds from its source at Redgrave Fen down through marsh, meadow and woodland via Carlton Marshes and Breydon Water and out to the North Sea. In winter, the trees are thin, withdrawn, shaking out the moss-lined cups and twiggy platforms of last summer’s nests. Spent seed heads of valerian and meadowsweet hang over the river wall; only the reeds remain standing.
Now, looking out across this January fen, I see a marsh harrier, quartering the embankment, turning and skimming low. A female, her cream head marking her out, alert, hunting. I watch her lift higher and return along the river. I remember harriers from my childhood. They returned year after year to the coastal marsh, using some salt weary trees as lookouts. Their population has since increased and they breed in river valleys and on the coast in eastern England. She has found her prey and drops out of sight.
The wind ruffles through the reeds again, plays with a scatter of leaves, like a ghost passing through. And like ghosts, my memories of those childhood marshes, recall other birds.
Where now is the bittern – the reedbed dweller, that barred and streaked secretive bird that is more often heard than seen. Its call, described as booming, penetrates through the reed stalks like a novice learning to play a difficult bassoon. I thought it more like the noise we made blowing across the top of milk bottles. They are difficult to spot as they sneak in and out of marsh pools hunting fish and eels, their plumage a tapestry of broken, reed stems and dark shadows. Sadly bitterns have disappeared from so many places where they used to breed. They are ghosts from my childhood.
I set off again, skirting the reedbeds, making for the alder wood that fringes the valley. Bouncing away from me, with excitable noisy pinging calls, is a small group of bearded tits. They settle, foraging for a few remaining reed seeds, their long tails acting as a counter balance. The males are the dandies of the reedbeds, cinnamon brown with grey heads and striking black moustache stripes. The females are less dramatic, buff and brown.
The alders stand wet-footed, in a loop of the river. Some have been coppiced showing their characteristic blood red wood – a sign of evil spirits in some myths but a tree revered by others. An owl box is positioned high up at the edge of the wood. It was successfully used this year and three barn owl chicks were raised. Most people know the barn owl. Maybe its habit of living close to farmsteads made it a familiar bird. Its heart shaped face appears in photos and cards and local communities have joined volunteer schemes to help provide suitable nesting boxes and nearby habitat. It is a different ghost – a ghostly hunter, silently gliding, white faced, along hedge and verge, or perched in late winter evenings catching a red tint of the dying sun. Three barn owls were seen hunting here yesterday but I am too early to catch sight of them today.
That is part of the pleasure of being out in the valley. Every day, every season, brings something different. Winter is a starkly beautiful time here; the fen can be shrouded in fog, swept bare by wind or captured in a net of frost. Colours are muted, water levels high and the air is sharp and smells of peat. A cold spell will bring in flocks of fieldfare and finches, nervously scattering into tree tops when disturbed.
There is a sense of waiting; each day adds a minute of daylight, turning slowly towards the equinox. Then one day when the wind has switched to the south, the valley will sing again. The cuckoo will arrive with summer on its heels and with the cuckoo, that songbird and haunter of the dark, the Nightingale.
But that is still to come and today, winter is folding once again round the fen, riming the edges of the path and stealing its bony fingers out from the dark places where it has been waiting out the short day.
Written for the Famous Five Birds Project – Waveney and Blyth Arts Forum 2013