The sun was shining but there was a north-east breeze that raised bumps on the skin, the trees sighed and creaked in the wind, waggling their fresh new leaves or scattering petals like confetti into the air. I was walking around my local park just to see what I could find and already a great spotted woodpecker had revealed its presence with a clear ‘chack’ call – though it still managed to avoid my eyes, if not my ears. A grey willow sitting by the stream had just put forth its leaves upon its whip-like branches, it still held its fat catkins; though they had begun to turn like old bananas from fluffy white to grey husks.
Further along the stream the hedge bordering it grows wider, becoming a thin wood, and bluebells are raising their sleepy heads to the sunlight beneath the trees. On the path in front of me a bee-fly hovers and dances low over the dusty leaves, then movement distracts my eye and I see a Blue-tit clutching a wad of moss in its tiny beak; it flutters onto a fallen tree trunk and vanishes into a wide crack in its side. Slightly further on I stop to look for Nuthatches that I suspect have their nest in one of the trees by the stream, I have searched for it for weeks but have yet to see a bird fly into any hole. Then I hear the males distinctive calling; ‘weep-weep-weep-weep’, I look for the source and find him on a wide oak branch preening his ruffled feathers in-between bouts of calling. Then he glides down to a small alder and is greeted by his mate; she quivers her wings and makes quiet whistling noises as though begging – he runs along a branch poking and tapping at the bark then rushes back to her and passes a morsel of food into her beak. This is courtship-feeding, a way of strengthening the pair bond (like men taking women to restaurants), this is repeated many times as I watch – the male eager in his search for something to give his partner, it is rather romantic and fascinating behaviour – though eventually she is going to have to give him something back.
Dainty, fragile milkmaids are clustered at the base of the hedge, as pale pink as cherry blossom but with the appearance of being fashioned out of bone-china rather than balls of cotton. I pass over the small bridge that leads into the main field, but spying darts of movement in the water below I stop to look closer; a small, scattered group of red-bellied three-spined sticklebacks are hiding amongst the rotting sunken leaves of the very shallow brook. Once in the field I scan the woodland edge for the bird I know will be there somewhere, it does not take long to find my quarry; an understated Stock dove sitting on the dead branch of a large oak tree, still as a rock, yet the metallic-green patch on its neck flashes in the light. I search again for the Nuthatches, this time from the other side of the hedge, amazingly I spot what had evaded me for so long; the nest hole, where once a branch had been on the trunk of an ash there was now an opening – partially blocked up with smooth mud. I wait to see if one of the adults will emerge or enter, no nuthatch appears but something else behind me does, a strange and high-pitched piping call makes me twist around; flying through the air above the river is a dark bird with a white rump and sharp wings. My binoculars don’t come up fast enough so I only get a glimpse of its thin, straight beak, yet I am in no doubt as to what it was – a small wader, hardly a likely bird to find in a small park in Crawley. The dark colour of its wings, its small size, the white on the rump and especially the calls all lead me to conclude that it was a Green Sandpiper, probably a bird migrating north that had spied the river below and made a pit-stop – my reward for visiting the park regularly.
I then pass into the wood, striding through swathes of green ramsons; the smell of crushed garlic wafts into my nostrils and the drumming of a woodpecker beats into my ears.Peering over the high bank of the river I can see a shoal of silver fish swaying in the current, facing upstream and waiting for morsels to fall onto the surface – they are chub, and no more average-looking a fish will you find. I pass several wood-spurge plants and marvel at their surreal green flowers shaped like two tea-cups on a saucer with a couple of Chinese pastries in each cup. As I turn ninety degrees down a narrow path that looks more like a green tunnel I spot a clump of redcurrant canes, each dangling their catkin-like flowers which will one day be clumps of delicious red fruit, eaten by the birds and probably myself.
To end the walk I stop to check on a long-tailed tit nest hidden from the world in a dense bramble patch, the two parent birds are flitting around in the nearby trees so I keep my distance and view it through my bins. I can barely see it even when magnified, so camouflaged is the nest and so dense are the brambles, yet I can just make out the lichen-coated ball woven together with spider silk – I can scarce believe that a bird could construct such a thing with only a beak as a tool.