Thursday 18 February 2010

Smoke after fire

Rising before dawn is easier in the winter, especially so as the promise of Spring becomes clearer. Around 7.15 the sun began to flare below the lowest clouds, a line of fire in the dark. Quickly it rose into a gap between the land and cloud, creating a sky full of orange flame which reflected in the water and ice on the flooded fields and showed as streams of molten red gold against the dark of grass and mud. Abstract art of the highest order created by nature with a palette of earth, air, fire and water.

But the effect was fleeting, as the sun rose higher it vanished behind the low cloud and left behind a landscape of greys and blues where the temperature hovered just above freezing and mists arose out of the marsh like the smoke after the fire of the sky. The land stood in a quiet, cold, stillness, roofed with the open space of a seemingly featureless sky sprinkled with flocks of lapwing, teal, wigeon, starling, godwit and golden plover, accompanied by the solemn call of curlews. The landscape felt timeless, much as it must have felt for Dickens as he described the same mist-laden, bleak marshland in Great Expectations. It was easy to imagine the lonely figure of Magwitch making his skulking escape from the prison hulk and his encounter with Pip in the churchyard.

Frost and ice still clung to the frozen earth dredged from the scrapes in the late summer. But the birds and animals know that Spring is on the way. Hares are 'mate guarding', the males shadowing the females tenaciously. Soon the real boxing of mad March will start as the females turn on their suitors to remind them that it is they who will choose when the time is right and not the over excitable males. A corn bunting sang his jangling song from a frosty mud perch, his soft browns and creams blending perfectly with the dry and broken reeds and their chaotic, upended roots. The winter congregations of coots are starting to break up with the posturing of the males as they chase each other over the surface of the water leaving momentary trails of splashed footprints in their wake.

On the walk to the hides a ghost appeared from the mists to take my breath away. A late hunting barn owl flew directly toward me until I was spotted and she swerved away to vanish below the level of the reeds. I was left with a memory and some perfect examples of why I'm not a photographer!

On the scrape a flat, grey sky was mirrored in the flat, grey water, the expanse only broken by the strip of soft russets, ochres and browns separating the two. The stillness of the water allowed for some delicate reflections of the near drowned islands, their crowns of dead sorrel and dock made a tracery worthy of the finest lace. Wigeon, teal and shoveller snoozed with their beaks tucked warmly away beneath their wings as the temperature dropped with the mist, but at least this week the water was largely unfrozen. Last week a pair of foxes were taking advantage of the ice to allow them access to areas which are usually denied them by the water. They chased one another around, racing over the frozen ground and slipping on the frozen water much the bemusement of the wary sheep.

On the walk back to the car the temperature seemed to drop even further and the mist softened the horizon and helped to create an air of mystery around the lonely agricultural building that sits isolated on the marsh.

Brent geese had gathered to feed, fattening up for the journey they will soon make to the North and East and their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra of Siberia. This unassuming little goose, about the size of a mallard, makes the incredible journey every year to breed further North than any other goose in the world. They travel at night in family groups, flying in the classic 'V' formation.

A group of four black-tailed godwits were feeding by the road and they kept a wary eye on the car as it passed by. The smooth, smokey grey plumage they sport now will soon be replaced by burnt oranges and russets of their breeding plumage which couldn't be any more different, but for now the more subtle colouring seems to suit the mood of the marshes.