Invisible Things

I always thought that ‘writer’s block’ must be some kind of excuse, or perhaps something that afflicted only proper artistic types. Something you only got if you had actually ever written anything worth reading, and were finding it exceptionally hard to follow. The date appearing on this entry might suggest that it can actually strike anybody, without warning. It’s not really been to do with busyness – during our first batch of exams on the MSc in January I was blogging several times a week. I simply haven’t been able to settle to the task of writing.

And it isn’t for the want of seeing things to write about. Well, I say seeing things, but I intended this to be more about hearing things. At this time of year birders up and down the country, anxiously scanning every hedgerow, tree and fence post to be the first on to an early migrant (not early anymore, really, since it is nearly May), have also been getting back into the audible groove of spring in Britain. Encouraged by the first repetitive see-sawing chiff chaffs, they are relearning all the songs learned in seasons past: so that’s a Blackcap, but that’s a Garden Warbler – of course! – hoping to latch on to an unfamiliar call that might lead to something new. And for many migrants, warblers especially, sound is often the first, and sometimes the only, clue to the presence of a bird. Skulking in dense vegetation, or hidden by newly opened, luxurious canopies of fresh leaves, catching a glimpse requires patience, luck, and perhaps the echolocation skills of a bat.

My journey in sound for the year started back on the banks of the Loddon in March, scene of past glories and long vigils previously documented, and what was hoped to become the site of our latest triumph, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I start with this, the first of my invisible birds, because they are one of those birds often located only by call or, since they are a woodpecker species, by drumming – higher and faster than the Greater Spotted and normally for a couple of seconds longer with each performance. Actually, seeing one is complicated by their size, roughly equivalent to a house sparrow, and their habitual behaviour of clinging to treetop branches, well out of the way of nosy binoculars below. It is even further complicated by their gradual disappearance from the woods, copses, parks and gardens of Britain. The estimated decline is about 50% since the mid 80’s, though it is difficult to tell as they are considered ‘too rare to be adequately monitored by the BBS scheme.’ And, of course, because they are invisible.

Not just invisible in the Reading area but also supposedly extinct, but tell that to the female caught and ringed in December last year. Or the brave observer who dared to mention having seen one with a winter tit flock round the lake, only to have their sighting subtly questioned in the local bird news update. These were clearly brief visits by either a real or imaginary female of the species, passing transiently through and then gone again. Or were they? As if they had never been away, first one male, then a pair were seen poking about for suitable nesting habitat in dead trees by the riverside, close to where the last pair had nested some eight years ago. As the woodpeckers were showing astonishingly well for a bird so elusive, Reading’s birdwatchers flocked back to the river, our firequest still fresh in our minds, happy to take up station on the Loddon banks once again for another fantastic local tick. Good practice for the disciplines required of spring: standing still, listening and noticing.

I stood, and listened, and noticed very little in the way of very tiny woodpeckers, alas, though it was hard not to feel it there, as some kind of presence. That sounds silly, but perhaps you know what I’m talking about, how sometimes you just get a feeling that a particular bird is about to show up – perhaps a subconsciously heard distant snippet of call or contact note. I’ve had that a lot in the last few weeks with treecreepers, since I’ve spent a lot of time wandering in woodlands for my project (of which more tales are sure to come!). Before actually seeing one, or even really hearing a proper call, the idea of treecreeper will enter my head somehow, I look about, see nice old trees, and more often than not one flits onto a trunk before my eyes just at that moment. It would be easy to dismiss it as an over-active imagination or wishful bird daydreaming, if it didn’t work quite so often.

Perhaps it works better with treecreepers than with lesser spotted woodpeckers not simply because they are more common, but because I know them that bit better. I think that’s the way with invisible birds. If you want to see them, you have to give them a bit of time. Once you know what you’re listening for, where to look, and what the bird in question gets up to, they start popping up all over the place. Especially if you really learn to separate their song – if you can pull it out of the background noise and get a clear fix, like the audible equivalent of a ‘Magic Eye’ picture. This year I finally have a good hold of blackcap song, and now as I go out and about in Hampshire they seem to be everywhere, in every wood edge and hedgerow, ten times more common than they were three years ago. For me, anyway.

I’ve also nailed Marsh* and Willow tit. Well, nailed is probably an exaggeration since tits have such a wide vocabulary and habit of varying their songs that you can never be 100% sure, but it is the only reliable way of separating the two species in the field. The birds themselves aren’t generally invisible; in fact, they can be fairly confiding, cute characters with sooty black caps and bibs, but their identities, without sound, may be. And what would birding be if we couldn’t tick off what we had seen when we got home?! I found the first Willow tit I’ve ever been absolutely sure of by following the source of an unfamiliar song until I found the bird that was singing it, then watching and listening carefully until I felt like I just beginning to make its acquaintance.

The nature of my research this spring means I have no choice but to immerse myself in the world of bird noise. I can’t say it’s a particularly difficult burden to shoulder, apart from getting up at dawn every day – in fact, it’s such a nice sort of project that I feel duty bound to share gleanings as I go. Sure, by the end of the summer I may have learned a good deal about woodland edge biodiversity, and very useful I hope that will be. But what I really want from the spring is for this to be the year that all the hidden things in the woods start to become known to me. Afterwards, they might not be quite so invisible.

*Marsh tit is pretty easy to learn if you remember them as the sneezing bird. No really, go and listen online!

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