The Countryside in January
Sarah Ryan comes across a familiar bird, resplendent in red, on a winter walk across the boundless fields in the Fens
Afternoon sunlight wavers through a sheaf of golden reeds, their feathery heads nodding in a chill breeze. I fasten the buttons on my cuffs more tightly as I stomp across a damp boardwalk in the Fens north of Cambridge. It might make more sense to visit in summer, when wildlife abounds and the seemingly endless grassland is pricked with flowers, and yet I am always drawn here in winter. The sky, rolling with pale clouds, runs away in every direction, and the boardwalk cuts through acres of fragile grassland, pale light filtering between bare, twiggy branches. Without the screen of leaves, even more is visible of this already limitless landscape. I pass walkers flushed with cold and a birdwatcher, binoculars bouncing against his chest. Those naked trees make it much easier to spot birds, some of which overwinter by the clear-running lodes. The first I see though is not a visitor, and is very familiar indeed. I hear it just outside a copse of hedgerow surrounding a small hide, its plaintive song fluting from the interwoven, thorny branches. It is a robin, persistently defending its small patch. I pause and search the woody tangle until I spot it, perched twitchily within the hedgerow. It watches me right back, with black shining eyes. This small bird, one of the UK’s favourites, has become so iconic that I struggle to separate my idea of the robin from the creature itself. Why is this little thing so beloved? Is it for its fearless attitude? Its year-long singing? Its characteristic russet chest?
“This is a song a robin sang This morning on a broken tree, It was about the little fields That call across the world to me” francis ledwidge, ‘Home’
A coat well-earned
There are many legends telling of how the robin got its ruddy breast. One says that, one winter, a small brown bird flew towards the sun to retrieve its fire and warm the world. Coming too close, the twig it was carrying caught alight, and the bird fell to the ground. When it awoke, feathers scorched red, it was delighted with its success. Another says that while fanning the flame of a faltering fire with its wings, to warm the baby Jesus, a rogue flame leaped out and scorched the poor robin. The mark remained as a relic of its deed. The biological
reason reveals a far less generous character. Red is the colour of danger, here meant to ward off individuals competing for territory. Its winter song is used to the same purpose, and the bird will puff up its chest while in full voice, in order to better display the warning. After a few moments, this one flits off to a frozen fence post before diving back into the mire of the woodland. The boardwalk soon leads to a carefully mown track through grass and rushes, following the narrow cut of an irrigation channel. I pad slowly and quietly along; a tiny movement in the hedgerow might indicate the presence of a fieldfare or redwing, both of whom overwinter here.
Spoilt for choice
At dusk, hen harriers carouse the sedge, looking for a good place to roost. It is too early really for a sighting, but I keep an eye out nonetheless. At the woodland’s edge, the track meets the precise cut of a dyke, and I turn to follow the slowly drifting water. On the opposite bank, a herd of dusky Konik ponies graze idly, tails flicking. This is one of my favourite places and not just my own. Starling murmurations gather here, swooping over the landscape. On another fen, Short-eared owls turn their satellite faces to the ground, searching for the tiny motion of an unlucky vole. There is almost too much to see, and I must choose carefully where I want to witness the dusk. Perhaps, just where I am, beneath a slowly blushing sky, is the best place. It may be a dormant season, but that does not mean the countryside is entirely asleep.
“And from Humming-Bird to Eagle, the daily existence of every bird is a remote and bewitching mystery” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Life of Birds, Out-door Papers, 1868
Left to right: A boardwalk crossing the Fens; the speckled plumage of a fieldfare, Turdus pilaris, perched on a bare branch; peeping from his hiding place is a field vole,Microtus agrestis.
A robin, Erithacus rubecula, stands sentinel as he surveys the frozen fens.
Left to right: Bare trees form a stark windbreak; hunting for prey, the Short-eared owl, Asio flammeus; a European rabbit,Oryctolagus cuniculus, crouches in the winter undergrowth.
Sarah Ryan grew up in the Scottish Borders, climbing trees and poring over wildlife books. Those habits have little changed and she still makes time daily to get out into the woods nearby, or at weekends to venture further afield. Inspiration comes from Roger Deakin, Nan Shepherd, Kathleen Raine, Chris Watson and outside the window.