An Indian summer has produced some wonderful displays of russets and golds around the school campus. Oaks, ashes, alders and birches are common natives, although there are some more exotic varieties of oak on South Field. The flowering cherries and horse chestnuts which delight in spring give further value in autumn where their long tapering leaves turn a burnt orange. The star performer is the acer in Crane House garden.
However, I want to focus on two areas of school which receive the greatest footfall as thoroughfares and where the habitat is relatively sparse, perhaps not the most obvious place for wildlife: the quad and the area in front of the Emms Centre, Common Room and squash courts, soon to become a more obvious second quad with the building of the new academic centre.
The predominant feature of both is grass, although the ‘new quad’ has some shrubs, a few ornamentals and two Lombardy poplars. They are not my favourite trees, are not long lived and their roots are invasive. However, one of their virtues at this time of the year is the quiet whisper their fine leaves give to the autumn winds and that they provide a resting place for starlings which chatter incessantly and who seem to be most vocal at break time and shortly before supper.
When I lived in Somerset, it was a regular autumn and winter treat to journey to Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall to witness the spectacular displays of starling murmurations as thousands of individual birds, visitors from Europe joining the residents, form shifting shapes and shadows in the crepuscular light. Brighton Pier is your best opportunity nearby to see them more locally. Do not be deceived: their numbers are in decline, and we have relatively few in Cranleigh.
The grass is a good place to look for green woodpeckers, predominantly ground feeders, which I see regularly in Crane House garden. In the new quad, they dart away quickly so you are lucky to get more than a prolonged glimpse. The birds which appear to own both quads at this time of year are less spectacular in colour, black and white, and the females and this year’s juveniles more grey and white. These are pied wagtails. They are in constant motion, flitting from one side to another, from ground to roof, their tails living up to their name after every hop.
Like the starlings, their numbers increase with European visitors and they too like to roost together. They can often be seen in cities, taking advantage of the warmth of shopping centres. I have not found a site on school grounds which has such large gatherings, although I have spotted up to twenty together on the Lowers below Westcott.
These are the birds I associate with my primary school, in particular the dark grey tarmac of the playground and the roofs of the classrooms. It has always astonished me that these insectivores find enough food in such sparse environments, though it is easier to spot. These Cranleigh wagtails rekindle those early memories, especially when I hear their shrill calls to each other. For me, they will always be ‘school’ birds.
On Thursday 29th October, I was waiting for a bus. This time, I was standing in a very different school amongst the dusty red and ochre of Kawama School in Zambia. The earth is baked dry and hard, although more insects are drawn near the spread of water that runs into the play area from the drainless tap that serves school and neighbouring houses. I heard a familiar tone and looking up to the iron roof of the Holiness Pentecostal Church at the centre of the school, I spied two black and white birds with tails constantly wagging: African pied wagtails. They really are school birds.