The air today is filled with the figures of primates made from a certain metal alloy, they cling to and bite every patch of exposed flesh as I pump the wheels of my bicycle in ever faster circles. The fresh air and the fast contraction of my muscles causes my heart and lungs to pulse in my chest – effervescing my blood with oxygen. This increase of the good gas in my brain stimulates it and my awareness increases, I am more awake, alert, my thoughts are faster and the sluggishness that misted my mind as I sat indoors earlier has now been cast off.
I dismount my bike and pull out my binoculars as I stroll off the path and into the small wildlife haven that is hidden and unknown to all but those who live right next to it, the ground is sodden. A stream meanders through this rectangle of trees and grass; it will turn north soon and head through concrete tunnels beneath the airport before it eventually relieves itself into the river Mole – which in turn will join the Thames. My arrival is serenaded by the squeaks, wheezes and tinkling of Goldfinches in song, from where I am they appear as only grey silhouettes against grey clouds. My attention is diverted by a similar tinkle of song that is so high pitched you would expect it to excite dogs, this delightful ditty is whistled by the smallest member of our avifauna – a Goldcrest, swinging like a pendulum from a low branch.
As I stroll onwards I notice that the stream must have burst its banks recently, for the bank-side grass is swept flat, strewn with flotsam – it is important that the waterway floods here because it will avert high water levels downstream, thus protecting the airport and housing estates. Through my binoculars I am gazing at the top-heavy form of a Greenfinch, a male in brand-spanking new plumage, positively glowing grass-green and highlighted by a gilt-edged wing. The largest of the four ponds has a lid of two-centimeter thick ice capping it, with the dead spears of reed-mace and Iris puncturing through and preventing the water from freezing over completely. A cobalt and buttercup coloured titmouse tears apart a reed-mace seed head; sending fluffy seeds drifting away over the pond and past three Jays chasing each other over the meadow.
I sit on a bench so that I can focus my binoculars across the damp field to the very thick bank of shrubs that lines the western edge, for these blackthorn often harbour many small birds. The arching tendrils of a bramble patch in the center of the meadow conceal a bronze Wren which has been encouraged out of the undergrowth by a remarkably warm spell of sunshine. The shrubs appear to sparkle and flash with gold and only through the binoculars can it be discerned that the gilt colour is caused by a charm of Greenfinches and Goldfinches, each of them twittering their songs as though it were the height of spring. One Greenfinch is so bright in colour that I mistake him for a Yellowhammer, amongst them are also white and chestnut glimmers from Chaffinches and the more solemn blues of great and blue tits.
I walk on, closer to the hedge, the charm of birds trickles from one side of the path to the other; filtering into some ivy-clad Alders that rise out of the stream bank. As I watch in silent delight at the colours and songs, I see the familiar lollipop shapes of Long-tailed tits hopping through the twigs; these birds are quite unique with their flowery-pink plumage, streaked with black and white and finished off with that fantastically long tail.
I follow the path across a small bridge before doubling-back on myself to walk up the other side of this tiny haven; the track disappears into a long and muddy puddle because of the sloping ground so I have to ride my bike through. Halfway across the flooded trail I stop suddenly and am forced to dunk my boot into the water to prevent a cold bath, I have stopped because ahead of me on the dry path I can see quite clearly a bird that should not be there. It is hunched up against the cold in a mirror image of myself, balancing on one sturdy black leg, its plumage is the colour of snow-covered ivory and its beak is like a spear of iron. Without a doubt it is a Little Egret, one of England’s most recent avian colonists, it lives along seaweed strewn estuaries, tidal rivers and reservoirs – this one is currently surrounded by suburbia on a very small patch of green that is a good ten miles or more from the nearest reservoir. Not wanting to soak my left foot any longer I cycle slowly towards the Egret and out of the puddle, surprisingly the bird does not flinch and I manage to get within ten meters of it before it rears its elegant neck and flexes its paper-thin marble wings to raise it gracefully into the air.
On my way out to the cycle path, I am literally about to mount my bike when a small bird flashes its white rump at me as it flits away and into a hedgerow, I have an inkling as to what it is. I have put my binoculars away but I do not need them for the bird reappears and alights on a twig right above my head – it is a wonderful female Bullfinch. I am rather taken aback by the encounter with the Egret and this attractive black and fawn bird that sits above me, yet it re-affirms my belief that every time I visit this place I will always see the unexpected or witness something interesting. Nature is both beautiful and mysterious.
(painting by David Inshaw)