Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Brighter Later

It was a brighter morning than the last two, less wintry as well. The mud underfoot was soft and the puddles not iced over. An ice blue sky stretched over London, the backdrop to an insipid sunrise and dappled grey clouds. Still winter then. Breath clouded in front of me and everything seemed pale and calm. The cold keeps the dog walkers away, but makes the morning struggle with the dead weight of the duvet one I more often lose than win.

Walking out across the pitches I notice the gulls that roost here are already mostly gone. Only a few remain to be mobbed by the restless crows for any worms their pattering feet bring to the surface. I track one idly in flight. A first winter, it is already agile enough to keep the crows at bay, but maybe they’re not seriously pursuing it. Dull brown feathers are scattered across the wings and body like little autumn leaves. I continue to follow it as it comes back across and morphs from the expected Black-headed Gull into a Common Gull. I’d misjudged the size; and the everyday turns into something different. Not exciting – by coincidence the common in the name also suggests something of its regularity – and not something unexpected either, but something new. I’d never seen one here before. I look around and find an adult perched on the grass too. Crisp white and grey, as if it had been made of snow and shadows.

Maybe transformation was the theme of the walk.

Halfway across the park and looking back over my shoulder. A crow sailed across the sky. As crows have done and will do, it looked dark and angular and uncannily like a bird of prey. It came in across the park, holding my attention when it banked, revealing a pale barred underbody. In an instant I correct myself. Not crow but Peregrine Falcon. It flies into the sunrise but the light is weak and I can still make out the plumage; the black hood and white cheeks and the sheer muscular bulk of its body. It circles around and heads off towards the tall towers of the city.

Transformations. Formerly one of Britain’s rarest birds and inhabitant of the tallest cliffs in the remotest parts; a recently resurgent population has taken them into our cities. The towers make perfect cliffs, with a seemingly endless supply of pigeons. It could be one of London’s, or one from further afield. Peregrine, from peregrinate, was first defined to me as ‘winter wandering’: my dictionary only states ‘wandering’, but the winter part stuck. The idea of winter’s nomadic Peregrine Falcons can’t be moved from my mind.

As it flies off into the sunrise I involuntarily dredge up all the extraordinary facts about this species. But nothing quite compares to the experience of actually seeing it. It transforms the morning from pleasant to something electric. Not so much the spring, but the spark in my step.

A mixed flock of roughly forty Redwings and Fieldfares flew over the tall trees to the north. I wonder what awaits them in Willesden, maybe Wembley or perhaps even Watford? I wonder where they go, and where they roost. I figure I’ll never know and not everything needs extraordinary facts. I stamp off down the pavement to bring life to my numb cold toes. I walk past the tube station against the tide of suits. Nobody makes eye contact with the man with the binoculars, muddy-green coat and cheap wellies.

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