Blacktop Rain

…and other secret joys

A rainy afternoon at Attenborough

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Not quite the sunny afternoon I was hoping for.

Not quite the sunny afternoon I was hoping for.

Yesterday, I woke up at 5am to listen to the dawn chorus. It wasn’t quite as impressive as I’d hoped. I could have done with getting up a bit earlier and I did just stick my head out of the window, rather than going for a walk in a wooded area. The noises of traffic and cooing wood pigeons also drowned it out somewhat. But as the sky grew lighter I did notice the different birds gradually dropping off. After about half an hour I went back to bed ’til 8.

For the rest of the morning it threatened rain, but I had been itching to go down to Attenborough all week. So, despite the chance of a soaking, I packed up my bag and headed out on my bike. The ride there goes along some fairly busy roads but once I reached Attenborough Village I felt as though I was a long way from the city.

I locked up my bike at the Visitor Centre and headed toward the hide. The air was hot with flies and bird song, but just as I got up into the hide the rain started falling and bought with it a chill of cold air. The grey clouds and mist advanced until I felt as though there was nothing beyond the ring of water and trees around me. The rain got heavier and pounded on the roof, finding its way in under the door and windows.

I was surprisingly brave and didn't let the spiders bother me.

The rain also bought out the spiders. I was surprisingly brave and didn’t let them bother me.

I got out my binoculars and scanned Wheatear Field and Tween Pond. There seemed to be nothing much of interest until I spotted the Grey Heron in the flooded field. It was hunting for food. It slowly stalk through the water, before suddenly plunging its head under to stab at something lurking below. Most of the time it seemed to come up with nothing but every now and then there would be a small dark shape at the end of its bill. I looked up herons in my bird book to see what it had to says about the way they hunt for food:

Often stands motionless for minutes – sometimes hours – on end, waiting for prey to pass within striking range of its bill. However, sometimes it will engage in active pursuit, too.

This heron was definitely actively pursuing its prey. I was in the hide for two hours and it was out there stalking for (what I assume were) fish the entire time.

I have been fascinated by herons for a long time now (see my previous post about herons: The Heron Journal). I think part of their appeal is that they are so easy to identify and yet they don’t seem commonplace. Unlike other city residents – like magpies, pigeons or mallards – herons do not look like natural urbanites. They seem to slough off the city and retain a wildness about them. They are not curious about us either. We are a loud, stumbling nuisance to be flapped off.

I had the hide to myself for most of the afternoon, with the exception of  a few migrant birdwatchers and a man escaping the rain. At one point a couple came in and sat on the opposite side of the hide. They started counting off all the different species they could see, including lapwings, which I’m really keen to spot. They only stayed for about 15 minutes and as they got up to leave the woman said: it looks like all the interesting stuff has left now.

After they’d gone I went over to their side of the hide and tried to see all the exciting sounding birds they’d been spotting, but all I could see were gulls, swans, geese and other ducks I’d seen many times before. I returned to the heron, but what the woman said played over in my head. I thought of J.A. Baker, who wrote so beautifully about the moments when Nothing happens and how he knew that eventually, if you watched a bird for long enough, it would do something interesting. I watched the heron and waited. It continued to hunt and seemed to be completely impervious to the pounding rain. Unlike the Canada geese, which were all in a flap and running every which way with their six fat goslings running after them. I turned to my notepad and started writing. At the end of every sentence I looked up to check it was still there. In the time it took to write a sentence the heron was gone.

Like J.A. Baker I came late to the love of birds, so birding is all rather new to me and I’m guessing it’s going to be a steep learning curve. To begin with I probably won’t be able to see everything that a more experience birder can see, but I enjoyed my afternoon of birdwatching all the same. It was good just to be in the hide, away from life and listening to the silence beyond the noise of the rain.

Eventually the rain stopped and I was starting to very get cold, so I decided to walk back to the Visitor Centre and warm up with a cup of tea. Oddly, once I got down to the path – the hide is raised up stilts – the heat that had been rained out of the hide still lingered there, as though trapped by the trees and hedges.

I made it back to the Visitor Centre just in time for it to start raining again. I sat by a window, drinking my tea and watching the swifts wheeling and jinking through the air. I started to feel increasingly sleepy in the heat of the Centre and an old man sat across from me had already nodded off in his chair. I noticed the birding couple from the hide come in. They bought tea and cake and, unlike everyone else, went out again to brave the outside seating. The rain came in thick and the gusting wind seemed to push the big grey clouds through the sky. I eked out my pot of tea for as long as possible until it looked like a break in the rain was appearing.

Part of me thought I should probably go straight home before the rain came back again, but I just didn’t want to be back indoors. I felt a need to be outside. I decided to do a loop from the Visitor Centre around Coneries Pond.

The rain had flushed out all the people and the path was clear, with the exception of huge swarms of flies – several of which ended up in my eyes, nose and mouth. I cycled slowly, trying to savour it and asking myself: how can I put this moment down in words? But I struggled to find the words. Small birds flew between the trees and bushes on either side of the path, too quick for me to identify them. The birds sang and everything was still and quiet.

I passed the field shared by a solitary brown horse and a black cow and rounded the bend to the pylon.

Pylon of the month.

Pylon of the month.

It is only the second pylon I’ve ever come close to in my life and the first is a very vague memory of walking across a field as a child. There is something oddly beautiful about pylons. They’re such an established part of the British landscape that we’ve naturalised them now and they don’t seem to stick out as hideous eyesores. Or perhaps that’s just me. I’m as fascinated by industrial landscapes as I am by natural ones (although I’m coming to see that there isn’t really such a thing as a natural landscape in Britain, only landscapes we’ve come to naturalise. Think neat square fields divided by hedgerows or stone walls.)

After the pylon the path runs along the railway lines and turns into a wide stretch of smooth tarmac. It was completely empty and I pumped at the peddles, riding as fast I could. Out on the pond yachts with brightly coloured sails flickered at the edge of my vision.

As I cycled back round towards the Centre through a tunnel of trees dripping with rain, I thought of a similar moment in Baker’s The Hill of Summer:

I cycle downhill, freewheeling under the low branches of the dripping trees, falling slowly through the caves of green spray and the flowering blue flight of the misty swallows.

I remember reading it and feeling a knot of envy and longing – I wanted to be there, experiencing that moment just as Baker had. Yesterday I almost felt I was there.

Back at the Visitor Centre I still didn’t want to go straight home, despite the drizzle heralding more heavy rain. Instead, I slowly cycled back along the river, turning my face up towards the sun that was breaking through the clouds.

N.B. For fans of pylons, I’ve been enjoying this website: Pylon of the Month. It seems the website started life as a joke, but it’s actually very well done and full of interesting snippets.

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Author: Naomi Racz

I am a nature writer, with a particular interest in urban nature. I also write about social media and work in communications with an NGO.

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