At the end of a morning’s bird surveying I often treat myself to an extra wander, especially if I’ve ended up somewhere particularly lovely. Freed from the pressure of getting in another count before the late morning lull, it’s finally possible to relax and pay attention to the myriad other sights and smells of spring. For example: earlier this week I finished up next to the adjacent wildlife trust reserve’s information board, which sported a tiny picture of an early purple orchid. Thinking this sounded a good object for a quest, I ignored my stomach’s persistent rumbling requests for the fat rascally deliciousness waiting back at the car, and plunged into the woods in pursuit of the real thing.
Perhaps due to the stop-start-stop nature of this spring, most floral displays I’ve chanced upon so far this year have been of one or two species, desperately throwing their energies into flowering at the first sign of a decent weather window. In one little corner of Berkshire’s Moor Copse, however, the ground flora has got itself organised and put on as varied a display as one might see in a shop window, as if preparing for a one-stop field guide photography session. The show began just a few paces in from the wood’s edge, and I immediately began to lose myself in a reverie of petals and sunlight.
I have no doubt that so many folk songs* start early on a May morning because it is the most charming time of day or year to be outdoors. The sun is bright soon after it rises and the air is filled with both the heady scent of blossom and the sweet sounds of birds, for whom this is the peak of the singing season. Insomuch as birds are composed of the food they eat, which is in itself a product of the peculiarities of a place – of plant and insect communities determined by local conditions – their song might be called the very voice of the earth itself: the landscape’s character transposed into a musical score.
Like an orchestral symphony, the wonder of the dawn chorus is in the combination of disparate voices: the singular melodies, tones and timbres of each species woven together into a glorious whole. In fact the resulting wall of sound can be so overwhelming that it’s unwise to start surveying birds too close to dawn; better to wait until the sun has come up and the clamour has died down just a little. With concentration, individual singers can then be picked out from the crowd, in much the same way I recall being taught to pick out the different instruments in an orchestra or band during A-level music lessons. A thread between musicology and ornithology.
Of course the dawn chorus is not always overwhelming in a landscape that is degraded, fragmented, and polluted by noise, from which the full richness of bird life has long since departed as a result. In his fascinating book The Great Animal Orchestra, ‘bio-acoustician’ Bernie Krause defines noise as any sound which is out of place; so, in this way, noise is the polar opposite to bird song as I describe it above. When by our actions a species is removed from the wild choir, or when modern human sound invades its acoustic space, the full evolved order of non-human biological sound – what Krause calls ‘biophony’ – is disrupted and diminished. Whilst we celebrate what remains, the English dawn chorus is largely a remnant, a mere tribute band to an act that was forced into retirement generations ago.
Still, if you can escape the traffic noise which, to my dismay, is all too evident in much of Berkshire even before the sun comes up, the avian musical ensemble yet sings with surprising power in our land. Blackbirds, robins, wrens, thrushes and warblers take their cues in turn (not to mention the pesky deafening woodpigeons), building gradually to quite a cacophony, if you’re in an area still densely populated by birds. As it happens (indeed, it’s probably what inspired me to write on this subject), tomorrow is ‘International Dawn Chorus Day’, which started in Birmingham of all places. By chance, I will be up early enough to have a listen on the day itself. I know it’s a lot to ask, but wherever you are in the world** I can’t recommend enough that you follow suit, at least once this spring, and rise with the larks. For the experience of a world in which the birds still just about rule the air waves, it will be worth it.
*e.g. this one
**Those in the southern hemisphere may wish to wait six months…although I gather the tropics enjoy a dawn chorus all year round.
It must have taken a heightened state of birding awareness to notice that one of the black-headed gulls winging over Theale gravel pit on Friday afternoon was not actually a black-headed gull at all, but a smaller, pale-winged, black-billed Bonaparte’s gull. And even more astonishing powers of perception – combined with a hefty slice of luck – to follow up this feat by racing up to the Downs and locating Berkshire’s first dotterel in four years – the first ‘twitchable’ since 2008.* But then you don’t become Berkshire’s leading lister by going around with your eyes closed not expecting to see anything. I was my usual failed twitcher self when it came to the prospect of fighting Friday rush hour traffic to see a gull species I’d already got on this year’s list (albeit on a different continent). Call it larid-lethargy. But a dotterel? Irresistible. Not a wayward vagrant but a true spring passage bird, sought after for its beauty and charm. Thus it was that this morning’s walk location just had to be Bury Down, traversed by the Berkshire stretch of The Ridgeway path (and the site of Hatmobile II’s demise back on New Year’s Day).
A late spring, then, by 21st-century standards. Migrant birds trickled in tentatively before arriving en masse with the first, belated hints of warmth. Insects have remained in suspended animation on what might have been busy days for them in the past few years. By April 16th two young frogs were still hibernating beneath a rock in our front garden. The day before, amidst what can only be called an unfamiliarly on schedule spring, the turn in the weather had tempted me out to the expanse of scrubby heath, grassland and gravel at Greenham Common in West Berkshire.
Alas, the sky had darkened since morning’s freshly laundered sunshine, and clouds were leaning threateningly across the open common. Nonetheless chiffchaffs and willow warblers lent something of a summery air to the soundscape, singing from time to time when the mood took them. From somewhere off stage to the south the pulse of a nightingale’s crescendo was just audible above the breeze. More distant still, a woodlark’s lulling refrain arrived in fragments, jumbled and broken by the wind but remaining unmistakeable. Yet on large swathes of the common, birdsong was absent.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of early spring birding in America. I had hoped for a repeat of October’s passerine migrant-fest, but was disavowed of that illusion by browsing species occurrence frequencies on the excellent E-Bird database.* From that, wildfowl seemed to be where I should be concentrating, and a focus on ducks certainly did pay off early in the trip. Following that aquatic flurry, the species accrued so steadily that I barely noticed it was happening until I was pretty close to autumn’s total of 95.
This would be a good time to mention I have a bit of a thing for round numbers. Been for a short walk around our local park, and seen 18 species? I’ll try a few known spots for two more (after all, every birder needs to be sure to meet their RBA). Day list hovering in the mid-40s, or 50s, or 60s, and I’m already heading home? I’ll rack my brains for anything I had seen and then promptly forgotten, and then maybe hope for an extra species or two close to the house, something suburban like collared dove, to make it up to 50, 60 or 70. Most months my secret aim will be 100 species. And I make no secret of 200 being the UK year list Holy Grail. I have further ambitions of a global-year 300: theoretically 200 UK + 100 USA, but those pesky crossover species do make it difficult!
On Thursday we attempted to play tourist, and caught the antiquated-but-efficient MARC train into downtown Washington DC. We had timed our trip to coincide with predicted peak cherry blossom day. Since I was wearing my Yorkshire tweed flat cap I was feeling particularly miserly, so rather than buying a ticket for the Metro (DC’s underground system) on arrival we had decided to walk the five- or six-mile round trip from Union Station to the Jefferson Memorial near which the cherry blossom trees – a gift from Japan – woo crowds every spring. Alas, cherry blossom singular was an apt description, and the crowd that was present was wandering around wearing an expression that was part bemusement, part disappointed resignation. I would say roughly one tree was in bloom, on which one flower was fully opened, and the Yorkshire tourist* was destined to go home in the sort of gruff mood to which he is accustomed.
Although I’m currently over 3,000 miles from home on a different continent that’s stuffed with exotic animals, birding here can be a strangely familiar affair. I’m not just referring to the teeming masses of house sparrows and starlings, which it is hard not to look at without feeling a twinge of postcolonial guilt. What I’m more interested in seeing are those species which have a globe-circling distribution – that is, those found right around the northern hemisphere – but which didn’t achieve that status with the helping hand of the “American Acclimatization Society.”
Most of these like-for-likes shared by British and American birders are waterfowl, waders or birds of the open sea of one kind or another; which makes sense in terms of ability to disperse across oceans. From pintails, shovelers, gadwalls and (inevitably) mallards on a pond to dunlins or sanderlings on a mudflat, to herring gulls in a harbour town, encounters with these old friends can lend an uncanny, déjà vu-like sensation of being at home whilst at once remaining geographically far away.