The wind came from the east and set the reeds a-whisper yesterday at Cley. Readers of Chaucer (all of you, surely) will know whose secret the reeds whisper and why.
And sith she dorste nat telle it to no man,
Doun to a marys faste by she ran -
Til she cam there, hir herte was a-fyre -
And as a bitor bombleth in the myre,
She leyde hir mouth unto the water down:
'Biwrey me nat, thow water, with thy sown,'
Quod she, 'to thee I telle it and namo;
Myn housbonde hath long asses erys two!
Now is myn herte al hool, now it is oute.
I myghte ne lenger kepe it, out of doute.'
The Wife of Bath's Tale
The whispering reed did nothing to help us though, as we came seeking bearded tits. Leanne had never seen a bearded tit. During my twenty-five years as a naturalist I have seen many. Quite a number of them were birds. Of late the bearded tits at Cley have been numerous and conspicuous, in these joyful gold hours of autumn. So I promised Leanne I would show her one and we chose a day. Thereupon the wind swung to the east, the reeds told Midas' secret, and the bearded tits, so recently so obliging, took to the reed-bed's depths.
We heard them easily enough - pting pting pting - but the wind kept them hidden from our view. A Cetti's warbler plinked for a moment but tailed off, realising no-one would listen until the spring. Two redpolls rattled overhead, then another, and many a teal snipped at the sky with quick wings.
Coyly, the tits (un-tits to the initiate) began to appear. A photographer to the north of us saw a pair perch; we caught a glimpse of them diving into the sky-stroking hands of the reed; then a pair perched for us too, the male's ice-grey head fading fabulously into his autumn-tawny mantle.
Leanne had seen her bearded tits. So we sat in Bishop's and watched ducks. The one-track gadwall drakes puffed their square crests and tilted tails to flash black bottoms at the ducks. Shoveler pairs swam in tight pirouettes and wigeon drakes moulted, before our eyes it seemed, to reveal their pied posteriors and buttery bright foreheads. With the reed a-whisper still, and in the comfortable knowledge that in a week I shall be in Antananarivo, I was reconciled to this autumn, so unlike the last.
When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.