The warm weather arrived, and with it willow warblers. Soon their song would merge into the background sounds of summer but this was the first of the year, so we stopped to listen. The warbler was delivering its liquid cadences, exultant, then dying away to a subdued ending, from a hawthorn on the embankment of the disused railway line that now forms part of the Tees Railway Path. Its perch, just a bare twig a week ago, was rapidly coming into leaf. The ground at the bottom of the slope was clothed in lush new growth of meadowsweet, nettles, thistles and ground elder foliage, a knee-high mosaic of leaf shapes.
Beyond the low branches of the hawthorn something stirred, shaking leaves as it moved through the undergrowth. A stoat,
, lithe and lethal, emerged into a patch of bare ground, sniffed the air, sat motionless for a moment, then suddenly vanished into a dense patch of wild garlic.
All we could see was its arched brown back porpoising through a sea of green, seemingly intent on following a scent trail.
Can stoats follow scent of prey in a miasma of garlic on a hot afternoon? Perhaps not; twice it surfaced, sat on its haunches and stretched bolt upright with its head above the vegetation, listening again and peering around, seemingly to establish its bearings before plunging in again. On the third occasion, much closer now, in a clearing among nettles, it seemed to sense our presence just beyond the hawthorn, and stared in our direction.
I had been holding my breath, not daring a move; it was time to exhale.
The stoat ignored us and scampered away along the base of a drystone wall, nose down, apparently intent on following a scent trail that it had picked up again. Our final sighting was of the black tip of its tail disappearing into a dense patch of ground elder leaves that shook violently, then stilled. It seemed to have found what it was looking for. The hunt had taken, perhaps, half a minute.
Overhead, the willow warbler was still repeating its song, rising then tailing away to its slightly melancholic, quiet finale.