I encountered something heartwarming and nostalgic as I walked the dog the other day. A large flock of birds was wheeling above the river, silhouetted dark against the sky, then suddenly all flashing white in the low sun as they turned together. Lapwings.
When I was a kid, every ploughed field in East Anglia seemed to have its resident lapwing flock. Beautiful birds, distinctive in appearance, flight and that call which gives them their other name, peewit. These days, though I quite often see the odd one or two probing the mud along the river shore, the appearance of large numbers together is rare enough to cause comment.
The lapwing is so significant in English country lore that it has its own law – the Lapwing Act of 1926, which banned the collection of its eggs for food. That habit was common enough to have caused a decline in lapwing numbers, which picked up again after the act was passed. Since then, however, changes in land-drainage, ploughing, field sizes – and especially the use of agrochemicals – have hit peewit populations hard. What was once one of Britain’s commonest birds is now reduced to red list status for conservation concern. Since 1960, its numbers have fallen by 80 per cent.
But they are still out there, a sight and a sound to lift the spirits.
And so are the rooks, as ever at this time of year, gathering in their chosen fields like delegates at a conference.
What do they all talk about at these important, well-attended meetings? And how do they select the venue?
Don’t think I’m being over-imaginative, either, in describing them as talking to each other. This is not anthropomorphism, it’s observation.
Some years ago my attention was caught by a fight going on, high above me, between a rook and a sparrowhawk. A second rook joined in – then almost immediately left again, flying fast and straight towards a distant wood. Within a couple of minutes it was back with reinforcements, maybe 20 other rooks. Exit sparrowhawk, as rapidly as may be.
Now tell me rooks don’t talk to each other. What else can you call communication of that kind? The cawing of a rookery may just be rather charming noise to us, but I have no doubt it has meaning to them.
Like all the corvids – crows, jays, magpies, jackdaws – they are far more intelligent than our study of brain size and shape suggests they should be. Which says more about our understanding of the brain than it does about the birds.
That rook encounter, though memorable, was far from being the only conflict I’ve witnessed between hawks and other birds. The preyed-upon, or those whose chicks may become prey, don’t like raptors. And even quite small birds can be valiant defenders.
I’ve seen a hedge appear to explode with tits and finches fleeing from a sparrowhawk that came down from the sky like a bomb. I’ve also watched from my dining-room window another sparrowhawk being driven off by a small group of determined blackbirds.
Last summer, in Orkney, I saw a single plucky oystercatcher risking its life in driving away that most savage of sea-going pirates, a great skua.
Closer to home, on another riverside dog-walk, I was startled recently to see a buzzard –a very large bird, and well armed – fly past me fast at head-height, pursued by a single angry crow.
A few weeks back I watched another crow engaged in a long, almost balletic, aerial dispute with a kestrel. I didn’t see the outcome of that confrontation, as the two wheeled away out of sight, still locked in combat.
Most remarkable of all, perhaps, I was watching a buzzard recently circling over the river near my home. Suddenly it dropped, in a hunting manoeuvre that just failed as a redshank flying low over the river dived into the water to escape. Redshanks are waders, not swimmers – their spindly legs and feet are not designed for swimming – but it was a lifesaving move to land in midstream, well out of its depth.
I’d never seen anything like it before. It may have been a rare event – or a commonplace occurrence in the world of birds. That wonderful, strange world that goes on all the time, all around us.
You don’t need the telly. You only have to keep your eyes open to witness marvels. What happens in the mountains, the forest, the desert, happens right among us too. Life-and-death struggles between hunter and prey. Parent birds of both kinds working hard to rear, feed, teach and protect their young.
Keep your attention at street level, or on your smartphone, and you might never know what you’re missing.
Meanwhile, on an HD screen near you...
It’s an unusual experience for me to be part of one of TV’s biggest audiences – though I did get drawn into the later rounds of the latest Bake Off. But no series, surely, has so thoroughly deserved its viewing figures as Planet Earth II.
Even more certainly, there can never have been better use made of the modern wonder of HD filming and broadcast.
From close-ups of lemurs in Madagascar to penguins struggling on Antarctic cliffs; from rare Himalayan snow leopards to tiny, near-transparent rain forest frogs; from young ibex gambolling about vertical slopes to an Amazon jaguar killing a large caiman (or croc, to me and you). That baby iguana running for its life from the pursuing snakes. That gangly giraffe kicking out against an ambushing lioness. Those shimmering hummingbirds.
We’ve long grown used to seeing stunning footage from the BBC wildlife unit set up by David Attenborough more than 50 years ago. But this series has raised the bar for stunning. Again.
The term “national treasure” is much over-used, especially of TV celebrities. But if anyone deserves the title, it’s Attenborough. In fact, if the title of British President were available, there couldn’t possibly be a better candidate. (Though if it were, I’d fear the danger of ending up with a President Clarkson. We might once have had a President Savile.)
Throughout my life, Attenborough has been not only the great entertainer, but the great educator. A man whose knowledge and enthusiasm have guided my own, and that of millions, more than almost anyone.
And over all the years, the underlying message of all his glorious programmes hasn’t changed. Only become more vital, more urgent.
It is that there’s a world full of wonders out there. Beautiful, incredibly varied and endlessly fascinating life. Independent of humanity. Except that humanity, in its spread and its ingenuity, now has the capacity to destroy it all.
And in its carelessness, selfishness, recklessness – our clever stupidity – threatens to do so.