I should have known that this being 2020 that things would not go to plan; that my seemingly simple search for a robin would not be straightforward.
What I had in mind was a seasonal article about our beloved redbreast who adorns a thousand Christmas cards. I wanted to reflect on the glaring anomaly that its coloured chest is in fact orange and that this bird was named back in the Middle Ages before we even had a word for orange in the English language.
I had intended to write about its unmistakeable, piercing song that resonates through the still mid-winter air and cheers the bleakest of days; and that this seemingly friendly, feathered cutey – voted Britain’s favourite bird – is fiercely territorial, males sometimes fighting rivals to the death.
But woe to the man who thinks wildlife can be taken for granted. Keeping my eyes trained on the hedgerows along the Common Lands and Valley Trail, I felt sure I would see a robin, I always did. But, incredibly, this time out, one did not show. Nature was being reassuringly unpredictable.
But I did see so much more.
Walking along the back of Fullingpit Meadow I disturb a jay as I round the fence line. It hops several strides before winging it across the river to hide behind a willow. Jays are notoriously shy, but I see enough to admire its pinkish-grey body feathers and flash of azure blue on the wing. Jays are part of the crow family but stunning by comparison – pre-eminent Victorian naturalist WH Hudson famously called them ‘the British Bird of Paradise’.
There is something about the colour blue on our native wildlife that stops you in your tracks – think kingfisher, damselfly, and common blue butterfly – each species is breathtakingly stunning and precious.
Later, on the river, I spot a little grebe – the master diver bird – that as soon as it sees me points itself under the water. I hear it emerge in rushes across the way.
I wander into the small wood at Kone Vale and immediately see the stark red, black and white of a great spotted woodpecker on the side of a willow tree. It sees me and shuffles around, so it is hidden by the trunk. In turn, I shuffle and crane my neck to look where it has gone, only to see the woodpecker move out of sight again – a brief but memorable pas de deux.
Then my attention is grabbed by a dark shape in the trees beyond. As I fumble with my binoculars, it opens its huge wings and makes off – by its size and movement I can only think it was a buzzard lying low in the woods.
I am tuned in now and in my peripheral vision I see a movement, it is a grey squirrel on a broken branch five yards away at my shoulder height. It freezes, I freeze, we eye each other before it decides it can out-race my lumbering form and bounds off. A few yards on and I see a flurry of small birds arrive overhead in ones and twos and settle in a nearby elder. I listen to the manic, excited trilling and see it is a bosom of blue-tits (more blue) with a few long-tailed tits for good measure. Elsewhere, two magpies – oh joy – drop from a nearby tree; a female blackbird makes a meal of a hawthorn berry.
All this in a few acres of town side wood, scrub, and bramble. These are the pockets of habitat we must preserve, where there is a rich variety of trees and vegetation for a menagerie to survive in. These are the vital natural buffers that stand between the urban on the one side and lifeless intensively farmed land on the other. But it is these same places that are dwindling in number, under threat as we build onto the side of towns. It is an important consideration as we contemplate the impact of the Chilton Woods development in the coming years.
I turn to head homewards and catch sight of a small bird in a hawthorn bush. I see reddishness on the breast, but it is difficult to make the bird out as I am staring into the low-lying sun shining through the branches. Could it be a robin? It is difficult to tell in this light. The bird seems too slight, too flighty and, as it makes to go, the shape of the beak looks too thick. Maybe it was a female bullfinch? A chaffinch? A brambling? I will never know.
Things have not turned out as I had initially hoped but in nature the unexpected is always more memorable.