Nation diary: Rain turns the marsh into a bird’s paradise


Only a little downstream, people in anticipation of the flood had lined up their furniture.

But the exceptional rains have come here bearing gifts. The marsh was a lake for a week at the end of the year, and where there are usually just a few hundred birds, one evening I counted 12,000 gulls, game birds, and wading birds in a single flock. The atmosphere was tumultuous throughout the day as the valley was patrolled by marsh harriers and pilgrim falcons. They set off disturbing volleys of calls from the geese and whistling ducks everywhere they went, but that fear could escalate until, in waves of panic, the birds rose off the ground as the soaring woodwind music of all those fleeing wings joined the chorus of their excitement. After the sun had set, it was easier to enjoy the scene, and I switched to visiting in the last light, partly because I think these birds are more active after dark than before, especially during the waxing moon phase. The world may be emptied of visual detail, the landscape reduced to a blackened matrix, but the foreshortening merges the individual bodies of water into a single, sparkling insane plane.

During the day, the lapwings, which I estimated to number 10,000 and have seen here for 20 years, were layered through the vast fields in thick black and white folds, and some were scattered into the sky by passing birds of prey as they scattered like a fine-meshed web all over the valley’s winter blue, but some of these thousands came to feed individually after dark.

The lapwing’s flight appears leisurely and loose by day, but it always takes on a new urgency after dusk. In an almost bat-like, chaotic line that was rough and twisted, these lone individuals darted across the marsh. Then the bird dived, and the lapwing nestled against the pearly glow of Claxton Swamp under freezing stars, with the hazy darkness of its wings above the lesser darkness of night.


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