I was out before dawn again on the Sunday morning. The sky was grey, overcast and uninviting. I came out of the cottage by the stable door that leads onto a walled garden area adjacent to yet another of the farm's ponds. Above me, in the insect rich air, two pipistrelle bats flittered in seemingly chaotic flight like leaves falling from a tree. I stayed to watch for a while and the tiny creatures came close by me several times in their frantic, fluttering hunt. I knew that, despite appearances, and the old wives' tale about bats that get tangled in your hair, there was no danger of them crashing into me. My wife dislikes being around bats and will instinctively duck if they fly within a couple of yards of her, so I'm tempted to think that's one 'old wife' who still believes the myth! The reality is that small bats are supremely agile creatures in the air. They know precisely where they are going and are able to adjust their flight to jink in less than a heartbeat to snatch insect prey from the air. Galumphing great old wives must appear to them as slow moving mountains when seen on their inbuilt radar. There's no way that a healthy, hunting pipistrelle would get tangled in anyone's hair, besides which, my hair is so thin these days that I suspect a whole group of bats could crawl around on my head all day and still not get tangled.
I took a back route that lead me along the edge of some woods at the side of the field with the 'little owl tree'. The owl wasn't to be seen, he was probably off somewhere terrorising the local earthworms and beetles. I headed towards the fishing pond thinking to catch up with the kingfishers and I spotted a dark shape, 20 yards or so ahead of me in the field. I stopped dead in my tracks and stood absolutely still as I recognised the shape as a muntjac deer. She looked at me with beautiful, dark, liquid eyes and cautiously moved closer. I could see she was nervous and suspicious but my outline was broken up by my camouflage clothing and the wind was blowing in my face. I remained stock still, knowing that any movement would send her instantly running for cover. We stood in a solid silence and regarded each other until she decided that I must be some kind of possible threat, even if she couldn't figure out what it was, and she moved off quickly but without panic, showing me the flash of her white tail as she disappeared. Without my noticing, whilst I had been watching the muntjac, a gorgeous, light coloured, almost blonde fox had been in view between the deer and me. Certainly an unusual pair but the fox was no real threat to the adult muntjac. The fox slipped silently into the woods and my last view was of a luxuriant brush as it vanished into the undergrowth. Once in the trees the fox obviously abandoned stealth in favour of speed and I heard him move through the wood to my right. Further down the trail I spotted a second, much darker fox scampering away out of sight.
By now I could see the paddocks beyond the fishing pond and on the fenceline at the far edge of them I caught a glimpse of the ghostly moth flight of a barn owl. I went in search of it, ignoring for now the juvenile kingfishers as they peeped at their parents and begged for food. When I relocated the barn owl and focussed it in the scope I could see that it was a fabulous, white male. I sketched him as he hunted before he moved off, following the road into the distance.
The light was poor and a light rain began as I wandered back to the fishing pond in search of the kingfishers. I checked out a branch of willow which I had earlier made a mental note of. It jutted out over the water and I thought it would make an ideal perch for the brightly coloured little fishermen. I was delighted to find that my hunch had been correct and there, on the perch,, sat side by side, in a picture perfect pose was a pair of juvenile kingfishers. My camera wouldn't do the job quickly enough and one of the birds moved off to disappear in the branches of a second willow further down the pond. I sketched the remaining bird and promised myself that I would set up and wait for the birds to use the perch at another time.
Breakfast was followed by more fishing, table-tennis and badminton until, in the afternoon, my daughter asked if we could go for a walk together. I try very hard not to refuse time spent with my family and children so we took a long walk around the farm and down to the Beck. Beth declared that it was one of the most beautiful places she'd ever seen and I found it difficult to disagree with her. The water rushes under a little bridge and the Beck meanders through the trees, its waters sparkling with the green light filtered through the leaves of the trees. As we gazed, mesmerised into the stream, a family of mallards paddled away, much to Beth's delight. We walked on, up through the woods where we saw the badger sett. I pointed out the trails of fresh vegetation where the occupants had been dragging new bedding into their home. We watched what seemed like hundreds of rabbits, enjoying the afternoon by sleeping, eating or just sitting in the sun. We found hazelnuts nibbled by mice and I lifted Beth over patches of stinging nettles that she was too wary to cross unaided. She held my hand as we wandered the edges of the fields, putting up startled pigeons. Beth did her finest cuckoo impressions (but I don't think any cuckoos were being fooled). As we neared the end of the walk we were surprised by two birds as they burst from the grass practically under our feet. I was amazed and delighted to see that the birds we had disturbed were quail, a bird that I've only ever seen once before. They are fairly rare and always difficult to spot as they rely on camouflage and sneak off into the long grass when they hear anyone approach.
Life really doesn't get much better than that...
Visiting Artist Residency: Woodson Art Museum
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