• Charlie Moores

Tuning up

I’m doing my best not to turn Common Ground into a birding blog, but this time of year there’s really not all that much else going on – besides which the responses to even temporary changes in the weather that birds make are quite fascinating (though I appreciate not everyone might think so). Just a couple of days ago Storm Christoph blew through, bringing heavy rain and grey cloud. It was dark for about 48 hours. Remarkably there is heavy snow forecast in a day or two, but last night the skies cleared and we woke up to frost, mist, just the lick of a breeze, and the promise of clear blue skies as the sun rose. This may well be the situation for just one day, but the effect on our local birds has been surprisingly dramatic – at least it sounded that way this morning… Now before going any further, I should say that our garden (our ‘lockdown centre of the universe’) is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the sounds that the sunshine brings. To a Robin, for example, we’re just a contiguous part of the formal garden (a mix of parkland and woodland) next door. We’re separated by nothing but a wall that is no obstacle to a bird or insect, or even to the occasional Wood Mouse we’ve watched run along it. From above we’re just a small patch of grass by a small lake, in between beeches and oaks, next to the fields and streams. One large and varied habitat with just a handful of people in the middle. But it’s the shape made by the three little stone cottages here that make the difference when it comes to acoustics. They seem to funnel sound, catching it and playing with it. It can be disconcerting: there are times when we genuinely can’t quite work out if a noise is coming from behind, in front, or to the side of us. But on the plus side everything seems slightly amplified. It’s like cupping your ears with your hands. We’re living in the focus point of a house-sized parabolic dish. Our local birds are well-aware of the effect of course. Almost every bird species has evolved to be acutely attuned to sound. So why wouldn’t our local Robin understand that if he sits on a certain branch his song will sound ‘bigger’ to his rivals and sweeter to a potential mate. Singing from the top of a tree, like the Song Thrush I wrote about a few days ago, obviously helps the sound to carry further. If you want to be heard at the back, pouring your song into a natural bowl makes perfect sense (something stage performers must have learnt off birds generations ago). All of which preamble leads to this: mid-morning was a clear, still, temporarily warmer day, the sun was shining, and for the first time in a long time bird song was all around us. We’re a long way from bathing in the sound of a spring dawn-chorus, but in an hour I could have identified at least twenty species on sound alone. Loudest of all were our near-ubiquitous Robins. The garden seems to be roughly where three territories meet and they are getting increasingly scrappy and vocal. The local Wood Pigeons have started up again, sitting in the yew trees giving their sighing “Whoo-wroooo” calls as well as the very familiar five-note ‘song’: ‘Coo-coooo-cu-coo-coo’. For the first time this year Greenfinches wheezed from the tops of the beech trees. In the same still-leafless giant Chaffinches gave occasional ‘pink’ calls while a small charm of Goldfinches chattered cheerfully (neither were singing though, that will come later). In the distance I could hear the occasional mew of a Buzzard, the raucous caw of Rooks, and from our own roof the arguments of Jackdaws prospecting the chimney. Out of sight on the reed-fringed fish pond a small group of Mallards discussed the day (or a passing dog). Our near-resident Grey Heron (we’re still not sure where it disappears too) splashed down with a prehistoric squawk spooking a Moorhen into an angry ‘ki-keck’. A Grey Wagtail buzzed over in a series of ‘zip’s.

From the parkland just over the wall presumably the same Song Thrush I heard earlier in the week tried again, but more muted and less committed for reasons only it will understand. A Great Spotted Woodpecker, perhaps using the same hollow branch it or its relatives have used for years gave a half-hearted drum roll, a high ‘Yick’ then fell silent again. A Green Woodpecker ‘yaffled’ twice then too fell silent. Perhaps its just too soon for them to get too excited? Much more enthusiastic, though, was one of the local Nuthatches, sitting in the vast oak tree that dominates our view to the west, calling ‘doit-doit-doit’ before skipping across to our feeder for sunflower seeds. Blue, Coal and Great Tits will become much more a part of the background sounds as the winter fades and Spring returns. Right now they’re subdued and its all about a few contact calls as they move between the trees, the feeders, and a few holes in the brickwork they always dig around in. And if we’re lucky the two Skylarks that arrowed across the blue sky above us giving their rolling ‘preet’ calls will stay to settle down in the fields, occasionally drifting high over our house held aloft on a torrent of song they cascade down on us. So, a hint of things to come. Something of a warm-up for the performances later in the year. But such a pleasurable hour, listening and thinking and loving the sun on my face. Many elements of the orchestra were still missing. There were no warblers or Swallows of course (Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, and Common Whitethroats are here all summer and the air usually carries a few Barn Swallows and House Martins, but they’re still a million miles away in Africa), but oddly even though I saw Blackbirds, and watched Dunnocks hop around looking for weed seeds, neither were singing. The Mistle Thrush I always wake to in late-April early May hasn’t started up yet. There were no Wrens singing either (they’re common here) and no Goldcrests (one or two sing throughout the summer from the Blue Cedar that towers over the house). They will be back, I can bank on that, but – on a less happy note – there are some sounds I will almost certainly never hear on our Common Ground. In twelve years of living here I’ve never seen or heard a Cuckoo or a Turtle Dove, both once-abundant visitors that have plummeted in numbers over the last half-century. At one time there must have been Quails, Red-backed Shrikes, Yellow Wagtails, and Nightingales here in the summer. I’ve neither seen nor heard even a whisper of any of them. Go further back still and there would have been Corncrakes in the fields and Wrynecks in the pastures. Long gone, along with the House Sparrows (I’ve only seen three here) and clouds of Starlings (which are now scarce and don’t breed). We’re incredibly lucky to live where we do, I know that, but we are missing vast numbers of birds that have vanished along with the insects and seeds they fed on. Many people couldn’t possibly hear so many birds from their front door, but not so long ago we could – all of us – have heard so much more. But all that’s for another post. Today the sun shone, and after a long grey wet winter the birds sang. And right now that’ll do...

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