The Dunnock: Drab or Dreamy?3 minute read


A dunnock features in this piece of nature writing, which is based on the start of an early-November walk from Pooley Bridge to Aira Force, a section of the Ullswater Way in the Lake District National Park.

The Dunnock: Drab or Dreamy?

I step off the road and into the forest, and in that moment my feelings and emotional state are entirely transformed. It is as if I have stepped out of the dark and into the light. My mind slows down, my breathing deepens, my heart rate and blood pressure drop, cortisol decreases, serotonin increases, all weight is lifted from my shoulders, all physical and mental tension dissolves; I am in the moment, in that zone where past and future have no place.

With a heightened set of senses, I hear the faint tapping of crisp-dry leaves descending through a sunlit canopy. They add to the potpourri of autumnal shapes and colours that thickly carpets the forest floor.

Not ten seconds pass by before I am joined by a jaunty party of long-tailed tits, followed closely behind by two blue tits and a single female chaffinch. They flutter through trees whose leaves are discs of gold, so thin that the morning sun shines through them, lighting them up like stained-glass windows.

The forest is not flat but on a small hill. The unmistakable calls of carrion crows echo from yonder side of the brow.

The footpath gradually rises, taking me past tree stumps embellished with crowds of fungal fruiting bodies, then I arrive at a clearing where I stand spellbound by the sensational view before me.

A great, shimmering, pearl grey plain spans the floor of the Ullswater Valley. From the water’s eastern shore, the precipitous slopes of Arthur’s and Bonscale Pike rise up to form what looks like a tableland. A sheet of benevolent, white cloud hovers above these far-eastern fells, but gives way, over the lake, to a beautifully clear blue sky.

Ullswater is so big and long—a classic Lakeland ribbon lake—that I see only a fraction of its whole. In the background, fells form the horizon; in the foreground, the Pooley Bridge pier pokes out into the lake providing a stopping point for the Ullswater steamers.

I am suddenly distracted from this Lakeland view by a small passerine appearing out of the blue. Perched just two metres away and two feet from the ground, I am offered an experience whose effect on me is quite profound.

From afar, a dunnock may not seem like any star of any dream, but, close up, I beg to differ. The bird is, indeed, largely brown and grey, the latter limited to the head, breast and belly, but open your eyes and you will see what lies across the majority of its body: a captivating, indeed, mesmerising complex of black spots, smudges and streaks.

Down the dunnock’s back, these dark intricacies flow in snake-like zigzags, black becks on a bed of hazel brown, a colour pattern and combination with an extraordinary knack for drawing my attention. Ironically, the main purpose of this patterned plumage is to camouflage, to break up the bird’s outline so that it blends in better with its environment.

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