To help lift our spirits during this frustrating turn of events at Manton Bay, here is another chapter of Ken’s heartening Site B diary. Guaranteed to take your mind away from your troubles. Over to Ken….
5.58am : A gloomy, grey and very wet start to the day. Two things cheer me up – porridge cooking on the hob, and Kate Humble presenting ‘Tweet of the Day’ on BBC Radio 4. Today it’s the Stock Dove – a species I shall be seeing and hearing on my way to Site B within the hour.
Despite the unrelenting rain this morning, I arrive at the parking place in good spirits. After all, the next four hours are the highlight of the week! I get fully kitted up for the walk to the watch-point. I am in complete wet weather camouflage gear from head to foot, with a rucksack on my back and a heavy walking stick for support. I must look a frightful sight! The lambs will run a mile! I set out. As I surmised, the lambs do not approach me today, but cower under their mothers at the sight of this monster emerging from the gloom. Even the newly arrived bullocks, usually so inquisitive, remain beneath a tree, morosely staring and following me with their eyes. I pass on without a comment; there will be other days to pause and have a chat with them.
Have you ever been in an oil-seed rape field in full flower during steady rain? Do it before the blossoms fade – it’s wonderful! Whatever one’s opinion of these yellow expanses throughout our landscape just now, it is an intoxicating experience to be enveloped in this aromatic and exuberant invasion of the senses. The crop is waist high now. I crouch down and peer through the closely packed green stems to see if there is any life on the ground in here. I see nothing but a receding jungle of greenery, and stand up again, my head and arms breaking over the yellow tops like some crazy living scarecrow, scattering raindrops around me. A group of small birds go skittering away, landing a little further into the field and sliding down the stems again. It’s too wet for the binoculars, but I don’t need them. The birds were Linnets, neat little finches : the males are suffused with pink at this time of year. There will be more of them here later in the season – they love the rape seeds.
I need to get on. The Osprey nest is usually visible from here, but not today – it is somewhere in the mist. I hope 03 and his mate are covering the eggs against this steady and persistent rain. Bird song always seems louder in or after spring rain, and as I pass along the wood edge I note with pleasure some new additions to the ensemble today – Willow Warbler songs running down the scale, Garden Warbler marvellously clear and rich, but perhaps a little less fluty than the competing Blackcap, and a definite scratchy snatch of Whitethroat in exactly the same spot as last year. Welcome back all! My own private ‘Tweet of the Day’ !
I arrive at the hut dripping and bedraggled, but inwardly warm and glowing. That was a brilliant walk! I learn that 03 has not been seen at all yet, and the female has been incubating since the nest first became visible at about 7.00am. She has made the food-begging call a few times, but to no avail. He must be sheltering somewhere nearby, or maybe at the Reservoir waiting for the fish to start to rise. My friends depart, and I immediately take my top layers off and hang them up to dry at the end of the hut. They drip forlornly in the corner. Boots come off too, and a pair of warm soft shoes, specially brought for the purpose, are put on in their place. I normally have a rule : ‘No coffee until you’ve done an hour’s monitoring’, but today is an exception and I have one straightaway. The steam mists up my binoculars, but I soon clear them and settle to watch the female on the nest, exposed out there in the still steady rain. She is alert and facing me – she knows where her mate is, and I suspect he is not too far away. Raindrops patter on the roof of the hut. I’m drying out in here, warming up, and looking forward to the morning shift.
I suddenly become aware that the female is tense, fidgety and on high alert. Bird song in the wood has momentarily ceased. Even in this gloom I am aware of a shape passing over me, silently aiming low over the yellow field and lifting at the last moment onto the nest. 03 has returned, and the time is 0847. The change over is completed with the accustomed efficiency, and there is no danger of the eggs becoming wet or chilled. The female takes her break on a nearby perch, repeatedly shaking her plumage and releasing showers of droplets onto the lush foliage beneath.
For the next three hours or so, change overs are regular and smooth, with the female doing on average about 45 minutes per hour on the nest, and 03 about 15. He shows no inclination to go for a fish in this weather, and she, doubtless understanding, makes no demands. It is a scene of perfect domestic bliss. The rain persists until about 10.30, when at last it starts to ease. I poke my head outside the hut. The air is clean, fresh and delicately scented with the perfumes of the wood, the flowers, the crop, and the earth itself. With the sound of the rain now gone, the birdsong seems even louder, and one species after another joins the chorus, including, as Kate Humble told me in her ‘Tweet of the Day’, the soft notes of the Stock Dove. It truly is wonderful. As I stand under the oak tree, the occasional drip from the saturated branches above landing on my head, another call comes to my ear – very faint and distant at first, but surely travelling towards me and becoming ever louder. Two notes, definitely a tune, probably in D major, A followed by F sharp, though perhaps there is a hint of a minor key about it. Yes, it’s a Cuckoo, my first of the year, and a more welcome harbinger there surely never was. I urge him to continue to come my way, and to show himself, but he never does, and soon the sound is receding again.
The Ospreys do not react to the Cuckoo’s call; maybe it’s familiar to them whilst on migration – Cuckoos are known to start calling in Africa in February and March. I am still straining my ears to catch the last distant rendition ‘cuck-coo! (rest) cuck-coo! (rest)’ and thinking of a title for a new composition along the lines of ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo at Site B’. Suddenly a bold Jay lands a few metres away and stands with head on one side contemplating the strange shape under the oak tree. I try to stay still but he soon recognises my alien intrusion into his world, and he is off with a grating shriek which momentarily silences the wood and sends me back into the hut for my last look at the Ospreys and their nest. All is fine. This pair is an example to Ospreys everywhere. Perhaps 03 would agree to my ghosting his forthcoming book on successful Osprey family life.
The weather is improving all the time, and my relief team arrive in the dry. I briefly fill them in on the morning’s events and leave them to enjoy their afternoon. I stroll back, still composing in my head my Opus No.1. I flick the car radio on, and vaguely hear that a football manager has lost his job, and a Prince and Princess have been photographed somewhere near Ayers Rock. I turn it off again. For now at least I’m still in (Cloud) Cuckoo Land.