12 for 2012: Birds

Well I wasn’t going to leave the birds out, was I?! In crude numerical terms, this was my second best year of birding, a final total of 186 coming in some way behind 2011’s 210, but a little ahead of 2010’s 176. I got off to a much faster start, twitching up and down the Hampshire coast through January, but the preceding year’s incredible autumn run (131 species in September alone – that’s good, for me!) ensured I missed the 200 target.  I can’t pretend nice round numbers don’t matter to me, as two hundred birds undeniably has a better ring to it than 186. It will ever be my minimum target.

Look at it another way however, and I’m not sure it matters at all how many species I happened to see in an arbitrary calendar year when many of them were special things seen or heard in memorable circumstances. I added some choice rarities to my life list, but it was catching up with scarce breeding birds that afforded the greatest buzz. For example, the year that started well on January 1st with lesser spotted woodpecker held many other sightings of this sweetest woodland specialist, thanks to bird survey work in the woods of Kent. More regular sightings for me than I’d ever had, in fact, at least since Chobham Common in Surrey a few years back when I saw one over several days one magical September, during quick morning pre-work walks. It’s less spectacular than a great-spot, maybe, but arguably more charismatic, with its diminutive size and far-carrying ‘ke-ke-ke-ke-ke-ke-ke’ call. A bird worth beating the conservation odds for and hanging on to in the UK.

Another bird slipping through our fingers is the cuckoo, something that’s become harder to hear even in my relatively short (a-smidge-less-than-thirty-year) living memory. Yet also one which, as with the woodpeckers, I encountered more times in 2012 than I had for a number of years. I most regularly heard them at a beautiful undisturbed woodland nature reserve managed by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, as in the little taste of spring video below. Something to look forward to in the warmer months to come, if enough make it back from Africa this year that we all get to hear one at least once. I trust and hope it will be so. Same for turtle doves, completing a trio of birds which are all in a spot of trouble in this country but imparted a good deal of joy into this birder’s heart nonetheless.

Redstarts buck the downward trend, but in the south-eastern extremities of England where I was living during the summer they’re not a common breeding bird. It’s a real beauty that delights me whenever I see it, but it had been a rare event that I caught a lengthy snatch of redstart song before. This one entertained me for a long while high on the south edge of Knole near Sevenoaks, his subtly inventive, lispy tones showing that the manmade and managed landscapes of the deer park were much to his liking. I only hope that a female redstart of similar taste was able to connect with him, though I didn’t see another of his kind that afternoon, nor did I see redstarts again in Kent.

Speaking of red, choughs are worth a mention, as a year in which I see any is a good year. But this year’s brief encounter was not vintage chough-watching, however satisfying it was to see them. So no top-12 spot just now. But I will gladly award one to another specialist of the southwest, the cirl bunting. A close relative of yellowhammers, cirl buntings have a striking black and yellow striped head and charming chestnut tones in their plumage. So for no other reason than that they always looked nice in the book, and that I’m fond of the bunting family (both because they’re pretty and in a Pokemon-style gotta-tick-‘em-all way) they’ve always been close to the top of my wish list.

I was very pleased to have a convenient excuse, holidaying and eating (and such good eating!), to end up in their home range. It was also a noteworthy experience to see a new bird that was no vagrant but clearly very much at home in the rolling coastal farmland of South Devon. A quintessentially British-looking landscape, but with a fresh, unfamiliar grasshopper-esque song ringing out across it. It’s a shame that the rest of the country lost them so long ago, though a reintroduction to Cornwall is underway. Cirl buntings don’t have a virtuosic song by any stretch of the imagination but it is a pleasingly sleepy, soothing, post-summer-afternoon-picnic sort of sound that is quite in keeping with its surroundings.

We’ve nearly reached the end of my twelve. But this blog is far too pretentious to be content with a mere list, no, I need a narrative thread that binds the year’s birds into a take-home message. For 2012, it’s birdsong. To hear a wild bird sing is to encounter a wild bird – no ifs, no buts, no poking around the undergrowth desperate for a glimpse of a retreating nightingale’s tail feathers. To be honest, I do still find it very satisfying to get eyes on whoever is doing the singing, but in the vast majority of cases I know anyway without looking. I still maintain ‘seen’ and ‘heard only’ birds as separate lists, but mostly for comparison with previous years. And if the song is spellbinding enough, I’m too busy listening to it to worry about catching a glimpse anyway. So it seems appropriate to grant the last place on my list to a bird I heard this year, just once, but never saw: woodlark. A species for which hearing is believing, and seeing close to irrelevant.

Epilogue

I was too busy standing about open-jawed in wonder as the woodlark sang to get my camera out, but in April at ‘Victory Wood’ in Kent I had a very pleasant walk amongst many, many of their skylark cousins, which are the next best thing, and managed to get some nice footage.  

The reason Victory Wood doesn’t look much like a wood is because it’s a new one, which the Woodland Trust has purchased and is encouraging to regenerate naturally. I hope they leave at least some of it open, which will favour the tree pipits currently using the edge habitat between the new wood and the older one next door, and the linnets that danced about, and  the skylarks which will need somewhere else to go once the trees crowd them out. Conservation is almost always about choice: one can rarely have it both ways. 

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