… Nulle lux sine tenebris…
I had just emerged from an old river tunnel when a shiny object shot past me, missing my nose by about three inches. It was dusk and at first I thought it was a bright yellow sweet wrapper dancing in the breeze, a refugee Haribo ribbon floating downstream from the nearby city. I’ve seen stranger things drift by. But this was no ‘thing’. It was brimful of anima and curiosity- exploring every part of the stream and the surrounding foliage as only a real water baby could. I had no camera or binoculars but on the way back to my car I was fortunate enough to encounter a far more experienced river walker, who solved the mystery for me.
I was informed that the creature was a grey wagtail… ‘Grey?!’- I asked incredulously. And so began my relationship with perhaps the most unfairly named beasts in all of England. Because these particular wagtails are in every way- song, dance and pigment- as full of vigour as any other native on this island.
It is a great pleasure to find diamonds in the rough. In fact it’s become quite a curiosity of mine that the darkest places often hold the brightest jewels. I have recently fallen under the spell of an old weir pool in Kent, which I visit once per week in order to fly fish. So far I have caught no trout from it, although several small perch have become attached to my flies. Pretty little weir beasts, their stripes are all the more vivid in such a seat of darkness- and they never fail to raise my spirits.
But despite their devilish charms, the perch have recently been forced to take second prize in the beauty contest. Because the ‘grey’ wagtail, with his delicate symmetry and indulgent, custard-coloured chest, can rival even the most handsome of kingfishers for good looks. And in terms of charisma? Well, I’m afraid that he can best them all with just one swoop of that eponymous, ever-quivering tail.
I first saw them only in the distance, raiding the weir’s rubbish-raft for flies, bugs and other goodies. Just like us, they are nothing if not adaptable. They have compromised on nearly everything yet still they beat on- in ever smaller pockets- pushed back, harried and diminished by the modern world. They are a river bird and although I have fished since I was twelve, I don’t mind admitting that I have rarely seen them. I think the last time was over a decade ago. And so when I first saw these flashes of yellow in the distance, I was hugely intrigued. Like a stargazer viewing a returning comet.
And for a while, that’s how it was. They would come no closer than the other side of the pool. But just like that first faint spectre I encountered some weeks ago- they are curious animals; thus my visits have become ever more colourful. The weir is rather a lonely place so perhaps they couldn’t resist finding out more about me. As time has passed, the tunnels that grant me access to the area have become our meeting place and from my third or fourth visit, that’s where they’ve met me- no longer flying away but rather tolerating my clumsy presence.
My closest encounter thus far was when one of the birds landed upon the end of my fishing rod. I’d put it down to drink my tea- and from a distance of ten feet we stood staring one another in the eyes for about thirty seconds, which is a long time for an animal to spend gazing at a human. Most nature lovers will tell you that it’s an arresting experience whenever any wild species ‘locks on’. I can remember a mistle thrush, with its long neck and high-seated eyes, doing the same thing to me a few seasons ago. And last summer, I caught a large wild tench which stared so hard at me that I actually had to look away.
Since then we have become quite friendly; the birds are cheerful, intelligent and- most of all- inspiring; after all, they have somehow turned a chaos of weeds and abandonment into a comfortable home. The river is at its most unpredictable here; the pool oozes danger and its bed is littered with old tyres, bottles and umpteen bits of detritus from our own world- yet they rule over all of it like little yellow gods; the Kings of a forlorn wasteland.
Indeed, the Wags of the Weir are all the more fascinating because they thrive in so violent a place. I very often see the birds flying straight up the centre of the drop-off, just inches above water that would drown me in seconds. It’s hard to believe that such seeming frailty could survive- let alone prosper- so close to mortality. But as well as accentuating their fragile elegance, it also enhances the deathly nature of this dark place. Especially when you see two at a time balancing their dainty stems on the ivy just adjacent to the main sill…
A daredevil act because the pool rages at this part of the river- and affords no casual visitors. Myself, I tread gingerly. I have occasionally fallen foul of the weir and suffered my waders to be breached. But more troubling has been the persistent sense of treachery that such a location instils in a man. If ever you’ve waded a dark, lonely place then you too will know that feeling of control drifting from you- followed by the momentary dread that it’s no longer yours to regain. In those few seconds when you lose your balance, you often feel other forces at work… And they’re not always benevolent.
Tragically the grey wagtail is in serious decline. Two years ago he was granted ‘Red’ status by the RSPB and judged, just like the nightingale, to be of the highest possible conservation concern. Over 50% of the species has vanished in just the last twenty-five years.
Thus it is a bittersweet experience to watch my local birds playing so happily, because I worry that one day we may lose them completely.
Consequently I treasure the memory of each encounter and can vividly recall our last meeting; it was at twilight, two weeks ago.
I was leaving the tunnel when once more I was accosted by a familiar, sweet-wrapper apparition. I watched in the dim and traced the yellow shape back and forth across the surface of the river until in the coming gloam it became a flash of zest. It zigzagged faster and faster until it was just a blur; a neon comet. My eyes could hardly keep up and in the day’s dying moments it seemed to me that the bird had transformed into a river spirit-completely oblivious to my presence and that of all mankind- dancing peacefully to an innocent rhythm known only by the animal kingdom.
Finally the bird melted away into the darkness and was gone forever.