Caught by the River

Pleasures of….January

30th January 2012

by Neil Ansell.

The sun is bright and the sky is an unbroken wash of blue, but there is a hard bite in the air. It is one of those clear crisp January days, and the night had brought a deep frost that the sunshine is still working on. In the lee of the hawthorns the ground is thickly coated in white, like a negative shadow, and every leaf, every blade of grass, is etched out in ice.

I have come to Farlington Marshes, in Langstone Harbour on the coast of Hampshire. This was always my winter patch as a child, where I would come to watch the birds. I was brought up just a couple of miles away, and it was my habit on weekends and holidays, in winter at least, to head down here early, before the dog-walkers arrived, before the short-eared owls had been flushed back to their islands, when I could have the place all to myself, just me and the birds. It is almost shocking how well I remember everything, every brackish pool, every thicket, how familiar it all seems, for it is thirty years since I was last here.

So this is not quite a trip down memory lane for me – that sounds far too leafy and summery and predictable – rather, it is a visit to the mudflats of memory; just intermittently exposed by the turn of unstoppable tides, somewhat sticky and frankly a little foul-smelling. This thick estuarine mud is ripe with life; they say that tidal mudflats support more biomass per square metre than any other habitat on earth save for the tropical rainforest. The coast is the place to be in winter, at least if you are a hungry bird; elsewhere, natural life can feel attenuated, spread a little too thinly, but here it is teeming.

Wild geese pour overhead in thick streams. There must be thousands of them, flying in ropes of twenty or thirty at a time, in constant passage between estuary and marsh, between marsh and farmland, creaking like barn doors as they come in low to land. These are brent geese, burnt geese, and they do indeed look blackened, scorched, like they have been sketched out in charcoals. Perhaps it is the sheer weight of numbers that gives them their apparent sense of security, for it is possible to approach within a few yards of them without interrupting their grazing. Among the flocks on the marshland grass are parties of wigeon, lapwings and godwits, all seemingly emboldened by the confidence of the geese, and the scuts of retreating rabbits, far more wary of me than any of the birds.

The tide is out and the water’s edge is far away. I can pick out the bigger birds, the shelducks and pintails and teal, already seemingly all paired off, and the oystercatchers and curlews, but the small waders that are out there in their thousands are beyond my reach. I have no binoculars with me, and nor do I any longer have the eyes of a thirteen year-old. A curlew starts to curl and then to trill, to babble. This more than anything else is the soundtrack of my youth. It is the sound of ambivalence, of mixed feelings, for it is a call that somehow manages to sound both mournful and joyful at one and the same time.

I pause by the lagoon, with its thick fringe of reedbeds, and remember a colder day than this, long ago, when water rails emerged diffidently from deep cover and stalked across the ice, a kingfisher dashed from post to post in search of somewhere it could fish, and the ducks huddled together and swam in ever-diminishing circles as they tried to keep the last little patch of open water free from the ever encroaching ice.

A small long-tailed bird the colour of desert sand trips over the tops of the reeds. A bearded tit, a bird I would never have seen here as a youngster; the closest I ever saw one was along the coast in Dorset. And there are little egrets poised in the shallows, a much more recent arrival to our shores. It still makes me smile when I see them; after all those times I have seen them as an almost inevitable part of the scenery in the tropics, they still seem wrong to me, but in a good way. If I had seen one here as a child it would have seemed impossibly exotic and out of place, like the flamingo I once came upon in this very pool, an escapee from a wildfowl collection. It is reassuring to think that there have been gains as well as losses. Life never stands still, it ebbs and flows like the tides.
After a couple of hours I come to the end of the path around the marshes, but keep on walking along the harbour edge. The sun is winning now, the frost has all finally cleared and for the first time today my ungloved hands are no longer pinched with cold. I sit on the sea-wall in the sunshine, my feet hanging over the edge, and look out over the approaching channel of water. The tide is coming in fast now, the water rising to wash clean the filigree of tracks in the mud, from the clear trail of goose and shelduck to the faintest spider’s web of dunlin. Out in the flow is a lost fishing float, with a tangle of torn blue netting still attached, and as I watch it drifting by, two little heads pop up from behind it, peer over at me, and then disappear.

Suddenly the channel seems filled with them, a party of overwintering black-necked grebes, elegant little birds that fizz with energy, birds more at home in the water than the air. I count eight of them, with some difficulty, for they are all diving in turn, and seem to spend more time underwater than above it. I watch them for a long time, trying to second guess which will surface next, and where, and being outwitted and outmanoeuvred at every turn. And this is my January moment, sitting on the harbour wall in the winter sun, playing imaginary whack-a-mole with a flotilla of grebes.

Neil’s first book, Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills, is published in paperback this week. Copies are on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £7.99