As is the usual routine of my day, I woke early to shining wet lanes, dripping citrus green beech leaves and an overcast sky. However, there was promise on the horizon across the moor – brighter weather was on the way… but for how long I wondered? Behind the bedroom curtains and in the fields beyond there grazed a large herd of red deer, eager to glean what they could whilst the pickings were good in the fields. They’re back with me for the moment and making their way each day, across the fields to the thick woodland for cover.
The vibrant pair of goldfinch were still busying themselves with their young. It’s wonderful to see them outside the bathroom window, sitting on a rather large white flowering shrub, picking away at the new blooms. I don’t mind them using my blossom as feed for their little ones if it keeps them around the cottage. To be able to clean my teeth, whilst they potter about on the branches, so close, just outside the window is a very special moment for me. I just hope they can’t see me, first thing in the morning!
We are inundated with swallows at the cottage and it’s good to see. Dive-bombing their way back and forth with beaks full of flies, they fair-by take the hair off my head with their acrobatics, which are akin to the famous Red Arrows at times. Boy are they swift in their flight. It’s amazing to watch them speed their way to and from the eaves. Their constant chittering and chattering goes on from dawn until well after dusk. Using the adjacent fields as hunting ground – climbing high and then swooping down low across the meadow grass, they take what they need for their young. I count myself very privileged to be able to see these birds working their socks off at such close quarters. Their nests, made from mud and horse hair, cling to the side of the cottage and look as if they are about to fall off but you know that they are solid as a rock and not going anywhere. They are a work of art.
Out of the bathroom window, two days ago, I was over the moon to see the male bullfinch with us again. They are one of my favourite birds with their bright orangey-red breasts and their thick beaks. I always look for them at this time of year as it seems the only time that I have them here with me. The male, majestic and very bullish looking with his jet black head, was soon joined but the dowdy, dull looking female. She looked for all the world like a medieval lady in mourning, as she picked and poked about on the same shrub as the goldfinch had done this morning. A stunning pair of birds and, again, so lucky to have them with me here at the cottage.
Anyway, I digress because today I was going cuckoo searching. With the weather much improved and the sun trying to shine through the thin, wispy clouds, I thought I’d be good to go. The cuckoo always seems to return to the same places on the moor and I packed up a lunch and headed off to see what I could find. Driving along roads edged by the vibrant yellow gorse and down lanes pretty with red campion, bluebells and white wild garlic, giving off its pungent smell which I enjoy, I arrived at my destination. It was a trek over the moor to where I needed to take root for a couple of hours, but already I could hear the call of the cuckoo in the distance. You can never tell exactly where they be, so I decided to plonk myself down where I always do – under a thorn tree, on a flat area of grass. Scraping away the rabbit droppings and pieces of twig, I made myself comfortable. The sun was shining weakly and the breeze was a little sharp but it never bothers me much – I’d never venture out if it did. Waiting for the elusive cuckoo to come along is always a pleasure because there is so much more to look out for. There’s never a danger of becoming bored…numb, maybe, but never bored.
Along the way a herd of cattle grazed quite peacefully until one of them began to let out a plaintive mooing bellow. That set them all off and I wondered what had triggered this joint calling. Down in the valley below me I spied one lone beast, feet in boggy ground, trying to make its way back to the herd. Its blackness stood out against the wheat coloured grasses, yellow gorse and bracken. The lone cow and its herd called to each other continuously as it made its way back up the steep hillside to rejoin the group. Only then did silence return.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a hawk-like bird flying low across the grass. It dropped down onto the flat terrain and I knew I’d found my cuckoo. My first ever sighting came only three years ago when I’d thought I was watching a kestrel at work but, low and behold, it was the cuckoo. It had fooled me like it fools the little meadow pipits, whose nests it uses to lay its egg in.
It was very quick in its movement and I sat quietly there on the moor, well hidden and observed it swooping from thorn tree to ground for some time. It seemed to work in a pattern, using a semi-circle of trees from which to work, calling frequently loud and clear. It will never cease to amaze me that they lay their egg, deny all knowledge of it and carry on with life, using a nanny to bring their young up. I can’t help but love them though for their markings, their wicked, knowing eye and that distinctive call that heralds the beginning of spring. It’s a simple pleasure for me to be able to share its time here and I always look forward to early May out on the moor and cuckoo time. Whether I see it or not is of no consequence to me but to hear its call is everything. Outside the cottage door is a rather peculiar shaped stick. It’s simply a stick, but I picked it up on the moor the very first time I saw a cuckoo and I call it my ‘cuckoo stick’, funnily enough! Each and every time I pass by it, it brings memories of that day on the moor and my first sighting and that’s where I return to every year.
As time went on, the cuckoo moved further down the valley and who could blame it? I was in my element that I’d been able to spend time watching its antics so I sat for a while revelling in the colours, rich with the newness of the season, that were bringing the deep valley alive. I knew it was boggy and wet on the valley floor but it wasn’t bothering the grazing sheep that were freely wandering nearby that day.
Taking the opportunity of lightening my load by devouring my lunch with a coffee, whilst the weather was still good, I turned my attention to the grassy banks opposite. Here, the banks are dotted with rabbit holes and the inhabitants are never backward in coming forward. Rabbits of all sizes popped out of the burrows and were quite entertaining to watch as they encountered varying obstacles on the hillside. They frequently showed me their white rear ends as they hopped in and out of the grassy tussocks. On an old, gnarled log to the right of me, a stonechat landed. It made me smile with its white eye markings and colourful breast as it flitted back and forth. It stayed about long enough for me to finish my refreshment and I enjoyed its company.
Time to return to the cottage then and, whilst I walked, I contemplated whether I should turn my slow cooking chicken into roast or salad later that evening. What did I fancy after a peaceful morning on the moor? Time and the weather would tell I suppose but if I opted for a simple salad I’d be able to wander over the fields, perch on a gate and watch the world go by after planting up some herbs in the garden. Now that sounded like a plan!
Decision made, I’d lengthened my stride across the moor, bid the Exmoor ponies, who were grazing not too far away ‘a good day’ and headed for the car and home with a happy heart.
The cottage down the lane was calling me once again and I was happy to oblige.