• Charlie Moores

Three Great Waves

I had planned to get up early this morning – the first morning in weeks it’s not been raining – to record what is beginning to sound like a dawn chorus. It may have been dry, but when I woke up all I could hear was the wind… If you listen to our podcast (and thank you if you’ve taken time out to do that, we appreciate it), Jo and I often talk about how the wind sounds here. Like the sea. It seems to race across the open fields just over the road from us before crashing like breaking waves into the Yew trees at the front of the house. It’s a genuinely mighty roar. When we first moved in here and the wind swung, it seemed suddenly like an extraordinarily powerful force was heading straight towards us. I’d only heard a sound like that before on the coast, yet here it was miles inland. I’ve come to understand though that the angry howl is more of a death-throe, pretty much like waves being drained of their energy as they try to run up a shingle beach. The Yews (like Willows) are infinitely flexible. They shift around the wind as it tries to get through the branches. Fingers fill gaps, and filter the wind into a breeze then into thousands of individual fragments. The roar is in reality the last exhalation of a fury being broken apart just as it reaches out for us. I’m not sure, incidentally, when the wind started to sound so melancholic to me. I was brought up in a coastal town, and our home was perched seven stories up facing the sea. The wind used to tug at the windows most days. Others it would batter into the building like it wanted to pull it down. I used to lie awake listening to the struggle outside, but never for a moment felt vulnerable. It was comforting somehow. It was never going to win. Not while my grandmother was there to make sure it didn’t… Ah, and perhaps there it is. Why despite Jo and my family and my friends and all the good things in my life, I hear that deep sighing of the wind now and feel small and unsettled… Anyway, the crashing of one wave after another into the yews, and the oaks, and the beeches, and the regal Blue Cedar just over the wall, made it impossible to hear the more subtle swell of what will soon be the second great wave: the dawn chorus. I tweeted yesterday (@charliemoores) that ‘there was a symphony of bird song out there this morning’. I could hear Wrens, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Robins, Great Tits, Wood Pigeons, and Chaffinches (plus the thrubbing of the honey wagon pumping out the septic tank, but that's living in the countryside for you). I was using shorthand really (tweets are like that of course) because it was more accurately a symphony warming up. Not really a rehearsal – these are expert musicians with superb muscle memory – but any group getting together after a winter break needs to find their place in the orchestra pit, to check out their neighbours, wait for the more far-flung players to arrive, and get a feel again for how loudly they need to play if they want to be heard. Some species have been claiming their space for a few weeks now. Our Robin (‘our’ as in ‘co-opted on to the Common Ground Team’) sussed out the acoustics of the hall weeks ago and has staked a place in the great Cedar that towers perilously close to our roof. I wrote a while back about the pioneering Song Thrush that I’d watched throwing caution to the wind – and a whole repertoire of notes – from the topmost branches of a tree in the garden of the ‘big house’: if a passing Sparrowhawk head heard him, he’d have been (in a breakfast sense) toast. It took a while before the first Wrens joined in – a rather uncertain version of the ‘How does something that small make so much noise’ performance to come. Then a few finches began to wheeze or pink. Wood Pigeons began to sigh. The trembling, sibilant ‘Full marks for trying but it’s not really a song is it?’ of a Dunnock stuttered from the tangled base of our still sleeping Buddleia bush. Our Jackdaws of course have never gone quiet: they were arguing from the chimney pots all through the winter and have simply turned the volume up. It’s all lovely to hear, but these are still early days for what will become the full-blown pulse of wonderful, life-affirming, territory-claiming, partner-attracting, rival stare-downing songs and calls of early May. That’s partly because the third great wave of this short blog is only just beginning. Migration. That huge wave of intercontinental travel is much diminished compared with only fifty years ago, and we’re very unlikely to hear once common species like Cuckoos or Turtle Doves here now. Both have been starved out of even the apparently ‘good’ countryside that surrounds us, but there is still food for smaller species that contribute so much to the dawn chorus. Warblers will turn up soon. Blackcaps (known colloquially as the ‘Northern Nightingale’ for its beautiful song and the fact that it reaches far further into Britain than the more southerly-distributed Nightingale) and Chiffchaffs (called after their apparently simple onomatopoeic ‘zip zap’ of a song – ‘apparently' because if you listen carefully it’s more varied and complex than it seems on first listen) are both common and a much-loved part of the chorus from April on. Whitethroats will rattle from the blackthorns down the lane. With luck and a favourable wind, Swallows will have made their journeys all the way back from southern Africa and be adding their twittering, chittering, bouncing song a few weeks later. Around the same time our woodpeckers will be drumming. Skylarks will drift overhead as if supported below the clouds solely by the tremendous energy of their song. Great, Blue, and Coal Tits will add all sorts of whistles and chimes. Perhaps if I can still hear him (he’s pitched very high for these old ears), a Goldcrest will be in the Cedar too, singing like he wants to prove to anyone listening that just because you’re only 5g doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be heard. All these sounds, all these components, all these different notes from differently-skilled and differently-sized vocalists will rise like a huge, beautiful wave. Every morning for weeks. All for free. Breaking on the common ground and bubbling and foaming all around it. It will be incredible, mesmerising, utterly uplifting and even the wind – if it’s still blowing – won’t stop me going outside and letting it soak right through me.

Common Ground

All words and images

© 2021  Jo Hanlon-Moores & Charlie Moores