Tuesday, 26 February 2013

On the edge of the Fens

It is a dull afternoon in late February and the weak winter light leaves the landscape starved of colour. Grey skies hang sullen over featureless fields bordered by bleached stands of scruffy vegetation, long since dead. There is no hint of life, no suggestion of the vigorous growth that will surge forth in just a few short weeks with the arrival of spring. It is a landscape that can leave you feeling drained; such is its scale and the sense of emptiness. It is almost as if the vastness of the heavy grey sky has pushed down on the land to squeeze the colour from it.

A flight of swans swings over from the west, their passing announced by the pulse of wing beats and, looking up, I see how their whiteness is intensified by the backdrop of brooding snow-filled clouds that are now pushing in. These swans are long-distance travellers, wintering here but breeding many thousands of miles away to the north and over the ocean. There is no hint of their exotic origins and they remain the essence of the winter fens.

As the afternoon light begins to fade I can pick out other white objects within the landscape, this time a flurry of black-headed gulls gathered on the deeper brown of a recently ploughed field. I suspect that they have been feeding on earthworms disturbed by the plough, a favoured food and one for which they will ‘paddle’ on occasion. This ‘paddling’ takes place on damp ground and not, as the name might suggest, in water. Stepping up and down in a comical fashion, the gull is effectively tapping on the soil’s surface, something that is thought to draw earthworms to the surface by mimicking the sound of falling rain.

Less obvious in the failing light is the mixed flock of crows, jackdaws and rooks that has gathered prior to going into roost. Such gatherings are another feature of the winter landscape, the communal roosts providing birds with the opportunity to discover who has had a successful day feeding in the fields and who might be worth following in the morning to discover an easy meal.

It is time to turn for home, to seek comfort and warmth in the cottage and to leave the emptiness of the winter landscape at the door.  A couple of warmer days earlier in the month have hinted at the approaching spring and my focus has shifted away towards what lies ahead. Winter is done; warmth, growth and colour are to come and this evening I will browse through books and maps, planning trips and visits for the coming months and the season of plenty that they will deliver.

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