Out of the drought, came forth the deluge. One can hardly have failed to notice the volume of water that fell from the skies last month and continues into the so far un-spring like month of May. It’s not so much drip, drip drop, little April showers as splosh, splish, thunder, great big April downpours. Let’s just hope this pattern doesn’t persist until St. Swithin’s Day on July 15th. Fortunately for the soaked, embattled birder, persisting through the unpleasantness of rain can really pay off.
Of course, birds like a bit of sun as much as us humans. Even on a mostly wet day, a gap in the clouds raises the background volume of bird song and tempts the smaller ones especially to become more active, using the window to feed (not to mention to show themselves off a little better to grateful birders). But even where such a break is not forthcoming, birds still have to feed, still have to begin to make an effort at laying eggs and raising chicks – the breeding season is only so long, and there’s already no time to lose. I can’t claim to enjoy boots and coat not drying from one day to the next, but I’m still reaping wildlife rewards from out of the fields of rain. Some of them quite extraordinary. You might even say miraculous.
The Miracle of the Many
Boris and Norman, more influential than their everyday names suggest, want to build an airport. Not just any airport; the largest in the country, twice the size of Heathrow – and situated bang in the middle of the Thames Estuary, one of the crowning glories of Britain’s natural habitats. Not to mention a place generally stuffed full of birds – which don’t mix with aircraft engines very well. What better way, I thought, of protesting than a day’s birding under the potential flight path?
Despite now customary ill weather, we managed over 60 species in just a handful of hours at the RSPB’s Cliffe and Northward Hill reserves. Some of them, nay, all of them remarkable: turtle dove and nightingale singing simultaneously (not often you can say that in 2012), avocets down on the scrapes, a lesser whitethroat in brief full view, the cacophonous delight of the rookery and heronry, perched up in the rigging: real life crow’s nests balanced in a beautiful hillside of towering oaks overlooking the rain-soaked sea of grass below.
The crowning moment of the day was on the entrance track to the reserve at Cliffe Pools. Suddenly birds filled the air above the car – soaring, swooping, screaming swifts, streamlined sickles sweeping the moist air clean of flying insects. Swifts where none had been for eight months, in our field of view and over England’s fields. May they keep returning to this place, un-harried by A380’s and feckless mop-haired politicians.
The Miracle of the Glove
Back at work – which, for me, means back out birding again – came the miracle of the glove. I lost one, several weeks ago, somewhere deep in Kent’s woods. I didn’t have a hope, or so I thought, of ever finding it again – one dark blue scrap of polyester against acres of leaf litter, brambles, bluebells, and puddles. Maybe a dog would find it, sniff and chew it a little, then bury it somewhere to become part of the wood’s fabric forever. Then, one day last week whilst walking along an overgrown ride in the heart of Blean Woods, I put up a woodcock. Nearly trod on one, in fact. So remarkable is the bird’s camouflage that I’d got to within a couple of metres without seeing it. The bird reacted before I did – it had probably watched me bumble towards it for some time – and veered up towards the canopy with a whirr. I watched its rich rufous-brown form glide back down to the wood floor for a few seconds – as long as you will normally get one of these secretive animals in view – and stared after it, trying to remember what little detail I’d seen.
Turning back to the track ahead, now belatedly super-attentive to my surroundings, I got just a few paces further on before a dark patch at my feet caught my eye. A dank, sodden, stinking glove, on its way to becoming compost. I held it up gingerly between two fingers. A fading trace of slug-slime decorated the thumb, whilst a nematode-like creature was wrapping itself around the brand label on the side. “Somebody’s lost their glove,” I mused, “and it looks awfully like one of mine.” At this point, a dim light bulb appeared above my head…
The Miracle of the Ordinary
Rounding off this parade of birds, yesterday I did something quite mundane. I went down to the shops, to get myself some tea*. And at last, as I stepped out, the curtains of drizzle which had hung over the North Downs seemingly for weeks were drawn back. Then, against the pale orange skies which were revealed, a small flock of house martins appeared, chattering to each other as they went about fuelling up for the night ahead. The numerous blackbirds which inhabit the gardens hereabouts serenaded them as they went, whilst further lifting my spirits as I made my way down St John’s Hill. The prospect of a dull trudge to the Co-Op had been transformed into a delightful mini-safari. It’s always worth setting out into the rain.
*That’s a super-obscure reference, readers, which I will be delighted if you recognize.