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Country diary: New discoveries on my childhood patch

<span>Photograph: David Chapman/Alamy</span>
Photograph: David Chapman/Alamy

I’m visiting my mum and out for a walk along paths I walked when I first started birdwatching in my teens, through the grounds of the Colzium Lennox estate. The day’s dreich and a smirr threatens to turn to a downpour. This woodland has always felt pretty, but modest, ordinary, with no particular species of note. It’s part of the fabric of my birdwatching life. I know exactly where, decades ago now, I first saw a sparrowhawk darting through the trees, and where, by the canal, I heard a grasshopper warbler for the first time.

Now I’m drawn to an unfamiliar call. I scan my binoculars up and down a huge old sycamore until I see a nuthatch scuttling down its trunk. I’ve never seen one here before. These lovely wee birds were only first recorded in Scotland in 1989, and I wonder, in their slow creep north, when they first arrived in these woods, knowing it would be after I left for university. The sycamore is covered by a pelt of moss. Ferns grow out from its branches, softening its winter silhouette. I can’t believe I’ve never noticed it before.

I keep going, disturbing wood pigeons that ruffle up the fallen leaves as they take flight with loud claps. I head back to my mum’s house along the Lade, a long channel built in the 18th century to supply water to the Forth and Clyde canal, and I recall fishing for minnows there as a child. It’s hard not to think of time passing. I’m crunching beech mast underfoot and marvelling at the grand old trees, hearing wrens and robins, a blackbird alarm call, two distant jays.

The smirr is thickening when suddenly there’s a flash of turquoise; a kingfisher alights on a branch hanging over the river, its russet breast impossibly bright in the gloom. It sets off back along the burn, around a bend and away. In all the years I birdwatched here growing up, I never saw a kingfisher, and I’m thrilled now at how this familiar, ordinary place still has the capacity to surprise and astound.

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