Bikes with bird moments: right place, right time.
Let’s start with the February ride. It was a special one, the first major trip on a new ‘Specialised’ mountain bike; a 65th birthday present. The coastal path from Spittal to Holy Island promised adventurous, scenic cycling through a variety of bird friendly habitats: sand dune,and sea shore to the left,marshland to the right, and mud flats beside the Holy island causeway. Waves crashed into the rocky shore while trains sped past as I negotiated the opening cliff top section betwixt sea and rail track. Further on things settled, the terrain got easier and my eyes were drawn upwards. A huge flock of greylag geese rose from the rough pasture and swirled away in slow undulating flight towards Holy Island. Next up were curlew, a flock of thirty birds, calling melodiously before descending a few more yards inland. It was leisurely solitary cycling amidst bird song, flight sights and with Holy island gradually filling the skyline. A narrowing of the track along an embankment leading up to Beal sluice switched my attention from bird to bike so intent was I on keeping my balance. Things changed in an instant when up from the mudbanks beside the sluice flew a pure white bird; an egret. I couldn’t believe my eyes; an egret so far north in February. Its whiteness was stark and exotic amidst the dun winter hues of the estuary. It re settled in the wetland and proceeded to high step its way around, prodding the shallows now and again. There was no bright sunshine, no Mediterranean or Caribbean warmth yet the bird was here ; a bright jewel set down in its Northumberland home from home. The startling white of the bird recalled a snippet from Derek Walcot’s poem: “egrets are the colour of waterfalls and of clouds.” My bike ride had revealed this to me.
Two months later I set off on my old Raleigh road bike, not with any great expectation of anything more than a good ride and walk at the end of it. I headed out along the Wooler road and up to Mounthooly at the head of the College valley. There I called at the youth hostel and asked if I could park the bike as I wanted to walk on and up into the gorge that cuts deep into the Cheviots. The young people assured me it would be ok so off I went. It was a still somewhat overcast afternoon. All was quiet and still with the only bird life a heron perched amongst the boulder flanked burn. After an hours walking, the craggy sided opening to the gorge drew nearer. As it did a patch of blue sky appeared in the cloud and bright light lit up the rocky terrain. A wheatear popped up from the moor and settled on a big solitary boulder set in the grasses. It was my first sighting of the year and a perfect one. Bobbing up and down, the bird’s slate coloured back and buff chest was a perfect complement to the silver and green lichen covered rock. My approach prompted flight so I was able to track its white rumped progress up into the gorge itself. There I settled down beside the tumbling College burn and peered into a deep, copper coloured pool. A dipper sped by. Things were happening but even so I was totally unprepared for what followed. A rapidly repetitive ‘kwik,kwik, kwik, sound took my eyes upward: a peregrine falcon had flown out from the crags and was circling above me. Cloud moved away to leave the birds dark flight paths etched clearly against blue. It was the perfect sighting of this master of the air. I sat back and watched for a full five minutes before it wheeled away over the tops onto the Cheviot plateau beyond. I felt in tune with J A Baker, the acknowledged oracle on peregrines . He describes one of his many sightings thus:
“He rose upon the wind and climbed in a narrow spiral…He skimmed and floated lightly small and spinning like a drifting sycamore seed…[then] rose and fell like a black billhook in splinters of white wood.”
My bike ride had brought me to a similar moment.
A hat trick of such occasions occurred later in the early spring. My other old cycle, an Armstrong racer, took me down the Bowmont valley. By the time the bridge at Kilham is reached the river has crossed the border and been re named the Glen. I stopped on the bridge for a breather and peak into the shallows below. It was a cool and grey day so dallying for long wasn’t on my mind. That is until a sharp whistle from behind announced the approach of what? I waited. A blur of two toned blue streaked from out under the bridge beneath me. A kingfisher of course. Amidst the greys of the day, the clouds, the leaden water and skeletal trees the sight was electric, a momentary flash of light. It alighted on a slender curved branch overhanging the Glen and peered downwards. It was less bright in colour now but still vivid as its rusty chest was in full view. In flight and at rest the kingfisher brought the only moment of colour to this late April day. It must have been a bit later in the year when John Clare described one of his kingfisher ‘moments’.
“Grey waving in the sunny gleam,
Kingfishers watch the ripple stream
For little fish that nimble by
And in the gravel shallows lie.”
Three bike rides had brought me three bird watching moments. Somehow I had arrived at the right place at the right time. What I had seen there was all the more special for being totally unexpected.
1. White Egrets. Walcott. D. 2010. Faber
2. The Peregrine. Baker. J A. 1967. New York Review Book
3. The Fens. Clare. J. reprinted in Selected poems by John Clare by James Reeves. 1954 Heinemann