In praise of the honorary team member
I'm going to be a little bit heretical in this short post - at least at the beginning - but I'll turn it around by the end I promise.
Okay, so the thing is this: I've been a birder for a very long time and I've never really been too impressed by Robins. I know lots of people love them - it was officially voted Britain's national bird in a 2015 poll taking a third of the final vote, after all - but they just seem a bit too much like a non-birders bird to me, a little too obvious, all that sitting around on spades and Christmas cards and being all fluffed up and pretending to be cute while actually being pint-sized brawlers spoiling for a scrap who run the other way when anything larger than a Nuthatch turns up.
And I know the song is supposed to be all sweet and tumbly and so, so evocative, but frankly I always thought it was a little - well, unnecessarily melancholic. And half-hearted. A bit noodly. Sort of unfinished, like a Robin just couldn't be arsed to give it a real go. Good for a second or two - really good - then sort of fading away, as if he got distracted and thought to himself I've got this red breast and I'll fight you soon as look at you so why should I bother with all this singing stuff...
Having said all that (and hopefully this is where I restore your faith in my pro-wildlife credentials and persuade you to come back to this blog again) I've changed my mind. Or had it changed for me. By a Robin obviously.
You don't need me to tell you what a horrible winter this has been. Not especially from a weather perspective - though our old stone cottage is soaked right through and at times the only thing thriving inside has been mildew - but from stress, job insecurity, financial worries: all because of that damn virus. We're very lucky in that no-one close to us has died (nearly, but they've pulled through) and we're not under the relentless pressure faced by some of our amazing NHS staff, but like so many other people we feel worn down and tired. Our batteries are drained.
We started 'Common Ground' when we did because we desperately needed something to refocus on and get us outside of ourselves. And because I'm a birder and it was December and there was no chance of seeing any insects or plants I turned to whatever birds I could find. There really weren't that many, but every day, every time I went outside, every time I opened the window (which wasn't that often) there was a Robin. Singing from somewhere deep in the huge Blue Cedar just over the garden wall. Or from an elder in our tiny back garden. Or somewhere in between. He's been there every time Jo and I sit outside and record our podcast. He's become part of Common Ground and if he wasn't there I'd really miss him.
I've spent hours trying to record him now. Mostly while I'm sat half out-of-sight under the stone roof of our porch. He often seems to sit where his song can bounce around off the stone walls of an old apple house. I've noticed a change over the weeks I've listened to him. Hesitant at first, almost whispering, his song has slowly opened up like a flower. And the more I've paid attention the more I've heard the nuances and the rolls and the tones shift. Okay he's no Blackcap (but then apart from Nightingales and Skylarks what is?), and he's never going to keep me on the edge of my seat wondering what comes next like a Song Thrush - I still think he's a little too wistful, a little too careful for that - but he has perfectly matched the mood and reeled me in. And I've been reminded that when the world seems to be piling in on you it easy to forget how difficult it must be just to survive when you're tiny, sleep outside in a bush, and have no idea when - or if - the winter will ever end. Yet, you can still sing.
I almost wish it wasn't a Robin that (unknowingly of course) has been there for me. I kind of enjoyed being curmudgeonly about a bird that so many other people have never had any doubts about. But he's been utterly dependable, the one constant glimmer of light in a shed load of darkness.
Not for the first time I guess I've just been a little slow on the uptake...