Notes from the Hortobagy

Nagy. In Hungarian it means ‘great’, pronounced with a nasal ‘oi’ sound for the vowel, and with tongue to palette, spitting out the G sound. I can’t pronounce it the same way twice, but the result is surprisingly intelligible to waitresses, bar staff and our guide Tamás. It’s hard to know who is more surprised, me that it works or the locals who seem to be unfamiliar with English tourists trying.

***
Ahead of me is the puszta. The great Hungarian plain and the westernmost stretch of steppe in Eurasia. In the very distance — unfathomably flat and far — trees shimmer, shake and levitate, a fair distance above the clear sky swimming beneath. Clear spring skies. The air is hot and heavy. The soil says it hasn’t rained in weeks.

I thought I knew Hungary but I didn’t. Like it’s language, it never seems to stay the same. It is not settled, easy to master. I had it as Cambridgeshire on a vast scale: fen and farms. Flat, wet and traditionally kept — grey cattle, Racka sheep, the Mangalica pigs — an East Anglia with a better range of birds. I recently came across the poet C.P. Cavafy in a great piece by Amy Liptrot:

    You shall not find new places; other seas
    you shall not find. The place shall follow you.
    And you shall walk the same familiar streets

I was, the first time I was here, an East Anglian abroad in East Anglia: all wetlands and thin copses, and birds half-familiar. Though I did see a Black Stork and think it was, in that sun-addled moment of it sailing over on effortless wings, the most magnificent thing.

I was wrong. Away from the old fish ponds and reedbeds, there is a vast expanse of even older grassland. The flat sublime. A landscape impossible to take in in its entirety.

***

The woods here are not of nature’s doing. We drove up to one, firmly attached to the ground, though it probably levitates too if you look from the dusty red-roofed town on the edge of the horizon. Under communism swathes of the Hortobagy was dyked, irrigated and ploughed. Damage that is slowly being repaired. The trees that were planted here were, oddly, American. You can find Aspens with rookeries and Nightingales in them, and it is bizarre, incongruous and not as ecologically useless as you might expect. For although the Hortobagy is a natural grassland, these trees provide nesting grounds for lots of birds that would otherwise struggle, such as the Rooks. The Rooks have to compete with the Red-footed Falcons returning from the very south of Africa, who take over old Rook nests. In this hot, bare wood the Rooks croak. Spring is black and guttural. The falcons perched in the trees shriek like London parakeets. Grey males and orange females seeing the Rooks off their stolen nest-spaces and snatching insects over the grassland.

The grassland here is Sousliks scurrying, worrying amongst the brown waves and white ribbons of chamomile flowers. A Saker — large, so large — hunts overhead. Another of the Souslik’s predators, the Long-legged Buzzard, spirals on the thermals overhead. More of a fawn and orange than the Common Buzzards that sit on every fence and motorway sign here. The Sousliks never settle.

The falcon and the buzzard bear a familial similarity to British birds. It is a subtle exotic, the familiar yet different. It leads to a kind of uncanny birding where slight differences make different species, whilst the wagtail in the long grass has a blue-grey head, long yellow stripe above its an eye and is the same species as our Yellow Wagtail.


***

That night from the track outside our hotel on the edge of the Hortobagy, we watch a distant storm in the south west horizon. Lightning raking the sky. No rain falls on us, but the warm storm wind blows anyway. When the lightning flashes it lights up the serpent-like sidewinding of dust down the track.

The Nightingales sing regardless.

***

Two days earlier we were somewhere in eastern Hungary. Somewhere off the map in our hands, navigating by Tamás’s head into the land beyond the plain. If you had unfair stereotypes of Hungary, here is why they are manifest. A landscape of intensively farmed fields, flat and hedgeless. A colourless place and a ferocious sun — we drive past a man strimming the verge while wearing only his pants. For every absolutely gorgeous part of the country, Hungary has these places that feel neglected, run-down and unloved. We take a couple of minor roads and end up in the middle of a desert. A ploughed field that extends all around into a panorama of dust and dirt. There is no cover other than a few meagre, stunted trees by the road. All is arid and brown. A vision of over-farmed hell. An uncared for land.

‘When we discovered this place there were 50 pairs here. Now there are 2.’

It’s hard to imagine what 50 pairs of Short-toed Larks in song, rippling across this barren place would be like.

Tamás pokes the soil with his tripod leg.

‘They need this dry, dusty soil. They used to be a speciality of the Hortobagy but in parts it is under grazed and they don’t breed there now. Same with Kentish Plover and Collared Pratincole’.

The worth of a guide is that he can navigate to places like this. It begins to feel a little like cheating when after five minutes you’re watching half the Hungarian population of Short-toed Larks, crawling between the furrows, a tiny sandy speck in a vast brown plane.

***


The next evening it spits with rain. Grey clouds rolling in over the steppe, promising future storms. A big sky, bigger than I’m used to. We sought shelter by a ruined farm, riddled with bullet holes. We passed a T34 tank on a plinth by the road: a monument to the Battle of Debrecen, when the Hortobagy was a front for a tank battle between the broken and soon to be defeated nazis and the red army sweeping through eastern Europe. Or perhaps from the Soviet occupation of Hungary — the Hortobagy is just inhospitable enough for forced labour camps.

A Barn Owl detached itself from the farmhouse and slips into the gathering gloom. It is not used to people being there for large parts of the Hortobagy are restricted access and to get onto the plain requires a guide and is strictly policed. I have mixed feelings about this but it indisputably provides Great Bustards with the space to thrive — and all the other open grassland loving wildlife of the area.

The landscape is charged with absence. The bullet holes in the farmhouse chill. The trees have no leaves. There are no people, nobody working, other than lorries thundering past a road just visible on the horizon. It is a haunting, inscrutable place in these overcast moods. Not East Anglian in the slightest. Whilst we are stood there nothing arrives and nothing leaves. A couple of Roe deer bucks leap from patches of long grass to long grass, the only movement, the only thing other than a vast still quietness.

And then we pick out one, three, then six Great Bustards out in the grass. Not too far from the Roe Deer in size, a fabulously eccentric bird with a fanned tail that almost reaches its head, a tigerish mottled orange and black back, whiskers that fan out from its grey, turkey-like face. When it shakes, it ruffles its entire plumage, flashing white like a can-can dancer.

It is an absurd bird. A relic from Europe’s past as a flat and open and remote country; a bird for Europe’s future where places like this remain protected for their self-evident qualities. 4 Accent 6;

Wallasea Island (February, 2015)

I’ve recently been discussing landscape with a good friend and it has reminded me that my taste in landscape is an acquired one. She is excited to be among the baize and bone of chalk downland; I am thrilled by marshes, space and the absence of ‘landscape’. We both grew up in the same part of Suffolk. She turned inland in the search of English hills and I turned outward, looking for the edges. She thinks these marshes are boring. I think I get it from dad, who as a child asked to go on holiday ‘somewhere bleak’. I’ve always felt the same, as if taste in landscape was genetic and not formed from a patchwork of childhood memories involving seawalls and shingle beaches and ever-grey skies.
 
I mention this in lieu of explanation. It was dad’s fifty-something birthday and we were stood on the selvedge of a seawall, admiring the scimitar curve of Essex. We were stood on an island but it is almost indistinguishable from the mainland. Behind us: a yachting village the other side of the river. The Crouch washes the bank metres from our feet and stretches east, merges with the Roach and dissipates into the shallow muddy expanse of the North Sea. In front of us: Kentish power stations are dark smudges in the murk, the Thames hidden and betrayed only by ships apparently sailing through dry fields. The marsh is essentially a building site. It has yellow cranes and diggers — emblazoned with Hawk — spread across it. Here is where the dirt being dug out from under London by Crossrail is being shipped to and turned into a new island in the river. The island will be an RSPB reserve and the noticeboard has optimistic images of Spoonbills. While they have high hopes for here, politicians bicker over whether to build a Crossrail station over my local park.

If the new nature is that which we can find in the margins of our urban lives, then I guess this is the new old nature. The desolate and remote locations of old nature, but a nature made by diggers and trains instead of fences and signs. We can lose sight that nature is as often man-made as it is man-destroyed. And the wildlife? A Rough-legged Buzzard hung over the marsh, flickering wings and spread tail, showing its patchwork of peat and cream plumage. A Hen Harrier ghosted low along the ditches, terrifying partridges and a Marsh Harrier drifted higher over the wetter areas, worrying the wildfowl. They do not care about the diggers.

But the real highlight was the Corn Bunting. In a crop field by the car park we found one. Dumpy, streaky and very brown, it is what is thought of as a birder’s bird. We found another, and another, until the crop field was alive with birds moving amongst the leaves. The flock was at least 100 strong, which would’ve been unremarkable 100 years ago. Perhaps even 50. But since then they’ve declined by 90% throughout Britain. A bird that used to be so local that populations 30km apart could sing with different dialects, they are the canary in the coal mine of British agriculture. I hadn’t seen this amount of Corn Buntings in my entire life, before today. I wasn’t even aware such gatherings happened in the 21st century.

And I remember when I last saw a Corn Bunting. I was a couple of miles into the Sussex downs with the same friend who is now so excited to be moving there. It had rained all morning and we were on the top of the green escarpment. Around us the landscape seemed like a dream of genteel Englishness, a period fiction of the past. From a manure dump a Corn Bunting sang its tuneless jangle. It looked as though it could’ve been shaped out of a lump of soil and straw, earth magicked to life. I was excited. My friend was bored, irascible, thoroughly uncharmed. Evidently an acquired taste.

Wicken Fen (01/01/15)

Hoar frost forms as a sub-zero dew, on bitter still nights under the stars. It is the architecture of temperature and moisture: a crystalline fragment of frozen water like glassy barbed wire. On fenland afternoons when the blue sky lies about the temperature, the hoar clings on to the links between the boardwalk slats, out of the sun and beyond the reach of errant footsteps. Breath still condenses around our faces. The track away from the boardwalk is thinly iced and deeply puddled. We turn back with the ice cracking around our feet above puddles deeper than our boots. Between the reeds and the lode runs a thicket of hawthorn and tangled guelder rose bushes. A mob of Fieldfares descends from the clear sky on to them, as unruly and noisy as drunks at closing time, squabbling over the best of the pale red berries.

The fens. A landscape made by man. The extent of green and brown and water may deceive but the spirit level horizon and ruler straight lodes remind you that this was once below sea level. It is a landscape you can put a precise date upon. Wicken Fen is also precisely datable: from 1899 when the first patch of land was bought and set aside as one of the first nature reserves in Britain. Fenland is a young habitat too, requiring constant management to ensure it doesn’t dry out or succeed into scrub or woodland. The sea of reeds in front is a landscape that is kept permanently young, younger than its 115 years. 

The sea of reeds gently sways in the slightest of breezes. Spider silk shines against the light, joining reed head to reed head. I shiver. I’ve been coming here since a child and I have no warm memories of the place. I have memories of seeing my first Barn Owl on a family walk down the lode, wellies ankle deep in snow. It was spotted first by my mum, flying towards us. She thought it perhaps was a swan at first. I’ve been here in summer and still felt a distinct chill sweeping over the landscape. I can hardly picture it in anything other than winter; half-frozen in still tranquility, full of the empty space and silence I crave.

The sun turned golden and lit up the reeds.

The tranquility lasts just a moment until the next step flushes a Blackbird with clanging alarm notes. The sun disappeared. A Hen Harrier drifted down a ditch. A young male. Young: the brown-streaked underparts were suffused with a golden freshness; male because the wings were glazed with a greyish-blue tinge. It is a bird that carries its own sense of drama. There are no underwhelming Hen Harriers, being physically imposing and the rarest raptor to breed in England. Winter in the fens offers them relief: easy pickings along the fields and lodes, safe roosting in the middle of undisturbed marshes. In summer they head to upland moors where — with the habitat for 300 pairs — four nested this year. Tagged chicks vanish. Adults get their legs crushed in illegal traps. Meanwhile an adult male joined the young male out over the marsh. The adult’s blue-grey plumage appeared as ghostly as its effortless movements in the cold light.

A blood-orange sun sinks out of the cloud, flares briefly and drops below the horizon. A clean air sunset. A Barn Owl quarters slowly into the gathering night

Lost (December 2014)

At the tip of Portland — an island that is not an island — is a garden that sits just back from the cliff top overlooking the English Channel. A cold wind blew under deceptively blue skies. In the garden was a Barred Warbler, a young bird that got lost on leaving Eastern Europe and ended up clinging to the last bush in Dorset. And stayed there, not trying to relocate to the rift valley of Eastern Africa where it belongs at this time of year. A wintering record in Britain is almost unprecedented. 

The first glimpse I had was of a disembodied bird in the back of a bush. Against the light, haloed and fragmented by twigs, I could make out the stout bill and tip of the tail surprisingly far apart. I was expecting a grey bird, but found a delicately silver one instead, with a keenly staring eye. It hopped out and the stout bird turns graceful, clinging to the thin twigs and contorting its body to dismember the fruit donated to it by local birders, which it vigorously guarded from the local sparrow flock. Over the course of about an hour’s observation it revealed a subtle charisma; a behaviour more akin to a bolshy thrush than a small Sylvia warbler.

We laud birds for their migration feats and characterise them as epic and heroic. With that though comes something quite human; they got lost. Whether by winds, misfortune or a misfiring migratory impulse, they become transient visitors, a temporary taste of somewhere exotic in the bleak last bush in Dorset. If an interest in birds is built around a pan-animal empathy, I empathise most strongly with these birds. The lost and the awkwardly out of place.

Spiders (October 2014)

Spiders in Acton are a sign of seasonal change. I’ve not experienced anything like it, nor lived anywhere like it since the age of seven, when I was ripped from the suburban housing estate comforts of Hertfordshire, and rerooted to an ugly working village in the middle of Suffolk. In that village there was space, and the privacy that comes with four walls separated from the neighbouring houses. I discovered birds. Cocksure Pheasants strutting through the garden, the raucous Rookery over the road and Fieldfares raiding the apple trees in the garden of my neighbour too elderly to pick them. The first Chiffchaffs of the year became important to me. It signified spring. Autumn by the sky filling with birds again after the summer lull. Juveniles of many species locating due south and sailing over. 

Last summer I moved to London. To a job in deepest west London, where the grey and beige seep from the sky and the concrete and color everything. I lost my horizon to the perimeter of the street. My sky was no longer so full of birds. In its place I found spiders. I found spiders straddled across my front gate in the murky half light of the morning, only I didn’t find them until I found them on my face, silk breaking around me and feelings of both disgust and guilt. Sorry little guy. We repeated it for two months, gradually decreasing in frequency until around November and the arrival of winter in the city. 

Winter isn’t a season worth celebrating in London: it is damp, mild and filthy, and its citizens match the gloominess of their surroundings. It is mild enough so that the Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps don’t have to leave, and this doesn’t give spring a headstart but spoils it’s grand arrival with the longer, brighter days. If the leaves never quite all fall from the trees than what is winter? Where does that leave spring?

So instead I celebrate autumn, and away from the countryside and coast that I grew up on, in and with, I’ve turned to spiders. I watch them on grey Saturdays as I wash away the past week with endless coffee. I learn their names. It seems the polite place to begin. The Garden Cross spider. With a name it can go beyond mere surface appearance. A surface that is stripy brown legs, alternating light and dark, with a crucifix of broken white stamped onto its abdomen. And I watch one weaving its web from the inside out, against the pale sky where the web can’t be seen, leaving her to space-walk slowly and purposefully, suspended by her own invisible lines. When woven the web is both intricate and massive, the size of the window looking out onto the garden. It collects a hoverfly and a small wasp, both quickly wrapped up in excess webbing and slowly deflated. A life transfusion. In it she finds the protein that gets metabolised into the white crucifix mark on her back

Meanwhile in the spiders I find a life that makes me feel better about being in the city. Amidst the rush that threats to drain the life out of me, I can still find new ways to mark the seasons, and keep in touch with the nature around me that’s different to what I’m used to in the country.

And then October. The spiders begin to fade away and the sky is pierced with the soft edged calls of Redwings and the clatter of Fieldfares amongst the traffic noise, jet engine roar, parakeet shriek and sirens, alarms and the hectic hurry. I miss the spiders just sitting there.

March 2014

Birds don’t sing with subtitles and I struggle to remember the identifying features of any birdsong for more than about five minutes. I’m deeply envious of the birders with a xeno-canto of the mind, as I can just about manage to hold twenty five species or so in my head at any time. For me there’s a reason why birder is a contraction of birdwatcher and not bird-listener. And yet…

March baked. The trees shook through the haze over heath. A Stonechat perched in a stunted Silver Birch, not quite in the brightest orange and black of its breeding plumage. Buzzards spiral high into the wind, surveying their territory over the Surrey commons; a fragment of the old English landscape. In the bones of a tree a lark sat. Not your typical lark. Through the haze of the telescope I could make out the salient details: black and white coverts on the edge of the wing interrupting the dull brown plumage, and a longer bolder stripe over the eye. A Woodlark. It is a classic boring bird. Important too: only 3000 or so pairs left breeding on the southern and eastern heathlands. And then it started to sing.

‘Teevo cheevo cheevio chee’

Initially tremulous – as if still warming up for the spring ahead – notes shaded the air. Then a torrent. At this distance the bill doesn’t appear to move, but stuck open directing its aria, descending through notes as blue as the sky, echoing.

Echoing. That’s what flicks the switch in my mind and it’s 2007 again. I am 15 and wandering the sanderling heaths of coastal Suffolk by myself. Cautiously, it’s spring, there might be Adders about. I found the heath by accident, following a track round from the adjacent estuary. It looked good habitat for Dartford Warblers, but I don’t see them. Instead, I enter a glade of pines and am struck by birdsong. The most intensely delicate, beautiful melody I had heard from a bird. And the volume! It seems like the exaggeration of memory, or of youthful exuberance but it filled the glade like a soloist in an opera hall. Volume and beauty. It moved that cold teenager — shy, and not much given to displays of emotions — to a moment of rapture. I never saw that Woodlark well, but I knew I would never experience one like it again.

The song from the bare tree fades, the lark flies to the ground and lands out of sight, but never out of mind.

It is a typical boring bird. One of my favourites.

January 2014

It could have been a scene from Scandinavia: the silver birch and the rusting bracken, thick dark mud and lashing hail. It lasted for two skin stinging minutes. The wood thinned out. Bracken gave way to heather, the hail to the numbing wind, and the path to a bridleway of finest sludgey mud, studded with white ice. Half a kilometre over the heath to a clump of pines where the Parrot Crossbills are and the clouds break up; the last hour or so of sunlight appearing over the distant pines. All around was heather, oak, pine and birch; damp and glittering in the light. It is tempting to lose yourself in this landscape that feels so old and right and proper. 

It is not Scandinavia. Not even Scotland. It is Nottinghamshire.

Behind the pines on the horizon the black edge of a slag heap can be seen. The product of a hundred or so years of removing useful things from the earth and putting it back somewhere else. The map is ridden with names that tell my dad – Nottinghamshire lad – of the old pits and collieries that were shut as he grew up. They’re just names on a map to me. Further back, and the animals that would’ve kept this area open and unwooded have been replaced by conservationists, counter intuitively pulling out trees in the name of nature. It’s in the name: Budby Common. Ignore the fences passed on the way here and it still appears like the common lands of a John Clare poem, though lacking in its people.
Curious landscape paradox. It is deeply coloured by human hand yet it looks and feels untouched.

Parrot Crossbills. Large red finches from Scandinavia, they are rarities that turn up on the back of a poor pine seed crop in the Arctic taiga, in search of food. I had tried and failed to see them elsewhere three times this winter. The itinerant nature that brings them here also makes them hard to catch up with. This time felt luckier. A birder we had met on the way here had successfully seen them and gave us directions to the pines on this heath.

We were not lucky. Damp and cold, we saw Common Buzzards shrieking over the woods and Jays flash exotically against the sky, but nothing particularly out of a birder’s idea of the ordinary. It’s only on the long dark train ride home that I begin to wonder why we do it. Why I, in particular, turn my nose up at the idea of twitching, but continually return to places where Parrot Crossbills have been seen and will be seen by seemingly everybody but me. I don’t keep doing it for the dubious honour of being Britain’s unluckiest birder.

I’ve been birding for eight years to general apathy from friends and occasional hostility from others. But oddly there’s been a recent flourishing of interest from several people, mostly focusing on why we do it, why we ‘just look at them?’. It’s a question that opens a gap of mutual incomprehensibility. They can’t understand the interest, and I can’t understand why they’re not. I have to explain my hobby and the seeming irrationality of it.

I’ve always been interested in animals, since childhood visits to the zoo, watching birds on the garden feeders and being sat in front of the Lion King and Free Willy, my favourite films as a kid. I’ve been a fisherman – fly and coarse – but thankfully never a hunter. I found watching wild animals to be the best route to knowing and to experiencing nature with as minimal an impact as possible. I would feel the thrill of catching a fish between the waits that seemed like they would never end. I would feel conflicted about hauling it on to land, looking at it, then putting it back. Better to have never taken it out in the first place? I recognise that need though, the drive that makes the fisherman spend days on the lakeside, waiting for the elusive fish bite. I don’t know why millions of people will watch Attenborough documentaries, but never try to seek out nature for themselves, unmediated and with the intimacy of real experience.

will keep trying to get to know nature. Nature may be amorphous and defies definition at every attempt, but for me that’s part of the attraction. It is at once full of things to learn and full of things that are unknowable. It takes me to silent places and a horizon without houses, but lets me hear the beating of my heart, and hold conversations with the most interesting people.

The box-ticking, blinkered, crowd mentality of twitching is something I find very distasteful, but with my attempted twitches of Parrot Crossbills it’s taken me to new places, on the Essex coast and in my own home county. It’s shown me the loveliest part of Nottinghamshire.

All without the actual birds.

All in the act of just looking.

Noup Head 04/09/13

Ravens hang in the white like crucifixes on church walls.

The wind that fixes the Ravens there is the wind that pushes the tops of waves over, picks up the scent of salt and the stench of manure and crushed crab fertiliser, and takes it to the gulls circling overhead like vultures.

The path to the cliffs is a rough track over damp grassy ground, becoming steadily bleaker as it extends out of the bays either side. Westray is an isolated Orcadian isle, the most north-westerly of them all, and the ferry from Kirkwall takes as long as the ferry from the mainland did in the first place. On the bus to Pierowall – the main village – we hardly lost sight of the sea. But if sea explains islands, it’s the wind that characterises them. It is the wind that carves the cliffs at Noup Head into the serrated stack of sandstone they are today.

But the wind purifies too.

I stood on the clifftop after a walk that felt longer than it looked, close enough to the edge to worry my mother. The salt and sand and wind that grinds down rock over millennia was gentle on me, rubbing away the tiredness accumulated from early starts and fitful nights in tents. With a wind like this I feel you can breathe again, properly. I can feel more than just air reaching down into the furthest alveoli. I feel the unexpected ecstasy of fresh air again.

The waves below literally boom as they collide with rock. Gannets cry. Fulmars chuckle.

And with the ecstasy, the fear. This is not a towering cathedral of rock but one that plummets, sheer, to the jagged rocks and white chaos of waves below. And I feel a twinge of the old vertigo that inflicts dad and lurks in me. My friend inched to the edge on hands on knees to peer over an overhang. I couldn’t bring myself to get more than a foot closer. Sweaty palms and leaden feet. Vision takes on the peculiarly sharp yet disorientated feel, as if your retina was an unspooling, like a tape measure, into a distance fathomable only by fear.

I stand back. Admire the naturally fearless Gannets folding themselves up and falling headfirst into the water at speed, emerging with a fish and returning to its identical sandstone ledge with its near identical chick; and repeating this with clockwork regularity, clockwork efficiency.

I stand back. Admire the view – greater than 180 degrees – of sea in almost every direction. The most northerly I have been and to the eye just sea beyond.