A Year in Birdsong
Last year I joined a creative writing group. Unlike my friends, writing fiction at first was way outside my comfort zone. Listening to the birdsong from my bed one morning, led to this piece of longform nature writing instead. It seems fitting to offer it to you in celebration of this year's Big Garden Birdwatch which takes place this weekend. The links below will take you to the RSPB's information and birdsong audio file of each bird mentioned, so you can listen along as well as read.
One day - possibly in January and definitely by February - there's a sense that spring is beginning to win its fight with winter. At last there's a hint of warmth behind the sunshine and the air seems washed clean, leaving a sky of benign blue. The clincher for me is the first song of the year from the great tit. You may know it; the loud call which sounds like a squeaky gate or a wonky wheelbarrow. It sounds clear and true in the trees at the side of our garden, and sometimes there's a distant duet with another perched further up Hardenhuish Brook. These are male birds, shouting out their fitness to be a mate; each trying to out call the other.
Welcome winter visitors are the long-tailed tits, unmistakable in their top coats of gaudy pink. A punk-style of bird, they like to travel together and their chattering announces their arrival, usually by way of our neighbour’s birch tree which stands sentinel in the corner. As many as 20 birds may arrive, carefully inspecting each branch in their chosen path, seeming to announce their satisfaction or disapproval of what they find to their companions. They don't stay long, and the garden seems quite diminished when they've gone.
One late winter we had a surprise visitor. Its rasping gave it away and for days I couldn't quite believe my ears. Pheasants are frequently seen in nearby fields, but in our garden? It must be somewhere nearby surely. Then one day it took flight from its hiding place at the bottom of our garden, just managing to clip our roof as I watched it from a bedroom window. One final rasp and it was gone. How it found its way here I'll never know.
Around the time the clocks go forward, the dawn chorus begins to make itself known. I guess my sleep is lighter at this time and the birds become my natural alarm clock. Pairing and nesting are finished, but the birds still have an early roll call to show they’ve survived another night and are fit and ready to face the day. It's a welcome sound for now, but later when dawn is much earlier in the summer, I curse its loudness. The bird calls start at around 4 a.m. and combined with the light I find it difficult to get back to sleep. I'm often found with a pillow over my head at that time of the year.
Perhaps the loudest bird I’ve found is surprisingly the wren. I first knew we had one when there was a deafening noise in the clematis growing up our neighbour's garage. The foliage is particularly dense, perfect for this tiniest of birds to build its nest and shout its presence to the world, safe in the knowledge nothing can reach it. Other nest locations aren’t so easy to find until the chicks hatch; then I simply have to sit on our patio and count the soft, insistent chirrups when the parents fly in their tasty morsels.
Did you know there's a dusk chorus as well as the dawn one? It's a reprise of morning with some variations. A male blackbird on the fence rapidly pinks a warning of my presence to all the other birds in the area (and is quite different to the song in my video above). The song thrush ignores him, singing from its perch high in the birch tree; its bubbling song gets louder as the light fades.
In summer the music softens. The parents have finished looking after their broods and there is less need to advertise their potential fitness. The warmer days descend into drowsiness, punctuated only by the lazy proo proo proo of Mr and Mrs Pigeon in the birch tree. They’re a devoted couple who one year forsook their usual perch for the quaking aspen by our bathroom window. Theirs looked an untidy nest, not much more than a pile of twigs with little space for a growing family.
Summer evenings can be spent watching the swifts’ acrobatic antics. The warmer the day, the higher they swoop, catching insects on the wing. Like the long-tailed tit, their song is more of a chatter; perhaps they're keeping count of their catch as they soar along. Sometimes their tally is silenced and the black dots I'm following scatter. Then the mystery of their disappearance is solved, when the high pitched keening of the buzzard is heard. Mr and Mrs Pigeon fall into a protective silence too.
A new sound heralds autumn when a tawny owl checks in at bedtime. She's calling for a mate and patrols Hardenhuish Brook in her search. I have to open the window to try and see her, but without luck so far. As her distinctive ke-wick fades in the distance (sometimes answered by the hoo-hoo-ooo of a neighbouring male), the cheerful bubbling notes of the robin are all that's left, who's singing on the lamp post at the side of our house.
I close the window and prepare to rest. Unlike summer's dawn chorus, the robin’s song is the best lullaby for a good night's sleep.
Afterword: I wrote this longhand the first time round as it was just after I broke my wrist. This version was put together using the Voice function of Google Docs, then pasted into Blogger and edited. It worked much better than I was expecting 😃
NB the photos of all birds except the song thrush at the top of the post, plus the blackbird video and the woodpigeon and robin photos are supplied via Wiki Media Commons. The source and attribution are shown in each photo's Title for these.