October Frost

A hen harrier over the snipe bog – the colour has gone a bit weird.

A few successive mornings of good frost is always enough to set the juices going, and this morning I headed up the hill about half an hour before the sun was due to rise over the Solway.

When God built the grey partridge, he intended it to be seen shortly before dawn on a frosty October morning. Peering into the silvery radish seed pods, I was thrilled to see a series of arrogant little orange faces peering back at me as the sky turned to a glowing peach and the turnip shaws crackled crisply under foot. A cock bird skreiked further back in the game cover, and as if in response, a red grouse began a string of cackles from the hill behind me. It wasn’t just the cold morning which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up as I leaned up against the lichened wall and sipped at my coffee with greys below and reds above.

It was fairly uneventful up on the hill, and my feet crushed prints into the icy moss as if I was walking on a stale sponge cake. I stopped in to see the pheasants, then set off back down the track to the car with Scoop trotting cheerily at my heel and a fat, warming sun staring intently into my face. I was amazed to see a single wheatear chick bouncing along the stones in the frost – I saw another one two days ago, long after the adult birds have left. I don’t hold out much hope for juvenile birds who still haven’t left by the second week in October, and while they could well make it to East Africa, I think it’s more likely that they’ll just fade away quietly one frosty night.

A few yards back from the car, I heard the familiar skreech of snipe, and turned to see three little shapes turning in the sunlight overhead. Another group rose up from the rushes in the field that I plan to drive next summer, and I caught a flash of something hunting just above the height of the tallest seed heads. It was a cock hen harrier, silhouetted against the rising sun and swirling mischievously through the ranks of gathered snipe. Like the harrier I saw on Monday, it clearly didn’t know that unless you catch a snipe when it’s asleep, you might as well try and catch the wind, and it was clear that it was never going to have any luck. Maybe it was just hoping that it could sweep in suddenly on a snipe that wasn’t on the lookout, but given the noisy swirl of skreeching birds which were rising up in all directions, only the stupidest of snipe wouldn’t have been on the alert.

Back in the house by 8:15 and time for a fried breakfast before work. There are worse ways to start the day.

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