The old Lammas meadows are bustling with life, the brambles along the chalk stream rowdy with communal chit-chat. Somewhere in the scrub, a parcel of linnets is unfolding. Earlier in the afternoon they rose from the alders, perhaps a couple of hundred birds, and danced as one over the sedges. Now, the little finches are settling down to roost, filling the bushes with their non-stop twittering. Unseen, but definitely not unheard.
I sludge through the boggy top meadow to the mud by the stream. Up ahead, the flame-licked willow tops resound with the noisy tidings of magpies. Most afternoons they congregate here in a pre-roost assembly, up to 30 birds jostling and trading places before diving into the safety of the wet scrub for the night.
A sudden eruption from one of the shallow pools catches my attention. A wisp of snipe rises up. I can just make out four birds zigzagging away, melting into meadow. A few seconds later, they vanish back into the rushes. These are the first snipe I’ve seen here since last February, and their brief emergence is a burst of winter joy.
Whistling wings overhead. Looking up, I realise I’m under the flight path of several mallards. They come in dribs and drabs: three, five, then a couple of pairs, flying in haphazard formation, quacking loud and low. Wheeling round in the failing light, each squadron ducks under the overhanging willows and splashes down in the disused watercress beds. No longer airborne, the raucous sord (from the Middle English sorde meaning to soar up in flight) transforms into a silent paddling of mallards.
I ford the stream and slip out of the meadow through the kissing gate, full of the sights and sounds of birds gathering in parcels, tidings, wisps and paddlings. I almost expect to see crowds in the pub, busloads of commuters returning from work. But the main road is muted. Pedestrians edge past each other, trying to maintain a polite distance. Four masked passengers sit in the corners of the 98 bus. Ours is a world apart.
• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary