Country diary: A bird's-eye view of wagtails and martins | bird - petsitterbank

Country diary: A bird’s-eye view of wagtails and martins | bird

fresh perspectives on the familiar are always rewarding. Out botanising in the late afternoon, we found ourselves scrambling up the steep south side of this deep-cut dale until we were almost at its crest, and I realized that I had never seen the valley from this angle before.

We found flowers in abundance: creeping thyme and heath bedstraw, moonwort, rockroses, orange-flecked inside their yellow cups, and kidney vetch gone to seed. Likewise the cowslips, those “keys of heaven” that at Easter were nodding in the breeze but now stood upright at attention, their gentle yellow flowers turned brown and hard. We also found what we were looking for: sandwort, though not much of it, fringing the Stygian gloom of old lead-mine shafts.

Sitting for a moment above the slope, I scanned the depths below. Normally I would be walking down there, hemmed in by trees, the walls of the dale pressing in. Now it was spread out beneath me, like a living map.

It’s a great temptation to get as close to nature as we possibly can, to see the intricate details, like the crisp seedpods of the cowslips nearby. But there’s a lot to be said for widening the view. Below me was a gang of house martins working the air above the stream, speeding up and down in a tight oval, white rumps catching the sun. This, for now, was the span of their world, and I could see it all at a glance.

Darting out beneath them was a gray wagtail, its compass much tighter, flying briefly from the bank to midstream and then returning. Gray wagtails breed from early April, a little ahead of their cousins ​​the pied wagtail and yellow wagtail, but they will have two or even three broods, and this one was probably still feeding young.

A wagtail’s tail is hugely expressive. Each flick and slant means something: lust, acknowledgment or fear. But from my perch I could watch how, as the bird focused on its prey, the tail spread and angled, like a commentary on the water’s ceaseless alteration.

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