Shaking the Habit

IMAG0103I don’t have the best eye for a bargain, but I’ve always been proud of the first car I ever purchased. It cost me £200, bought from a friend, and on the same day I sold an old computer. For £200. So in effect I gained a car for nothing. It ran for about two years and then gave up the ghost, which is pretty low-cost motoring, though in that time I did manage to have approximately all of the known problems that occur with old-style Nissan Micras (otherwise very reliable cars). One of these is that the windows have a habit of jumping off their runners and, not being much of a mechanic, when the inevitable happened I ended up driving to work the next morning in full waterproofs, rain drifting unimpeded through the stuck-open driver’s side window.

After Hatmobile 1 went to the Great Car Park in the Sky, I did the sensible thing: I purchased a second Nissan Micra! And during the four-and-a-bit years I have had it, fully three of the windows have slipped their moorings and descended into the door with a graceful clunk. Luckily there’s a lot to be said for driving along with a permanently open window. Birdsong drifts in, or at least the sound of squealing brakes doing good bird impressions does (as a friend once discovered when he heard a ‘yellowhammer’ on a twisty country lane). And I bet I saved money on petrol by not running the air conditioning so often, relying instead on the cross breezes generated by windows jammed at various levels of open-ness. Most refreshing.

Clearly I have developed something of an Achilles’ window. After New Year’s Day’s unfortunate early demise of Hatmobile II, however, I began to dream of a car where all of the windows went up and down at my command. I marvelled at this convenience on all of the potential Hatmobiles I viewed, on the shiny little Skoda that I eventually settled on as the successor to the throne, and enjoyed fiddling with them on the car we rented for a trip last weekend. None of them broke in the process: perhaps at last I was getting over my window issues and quiet, warm, dry journeys could be mine forever more.

Before you think this blog has turned into ‘Considering Cars’, let me come circuitously to the point. Last year I developed as sure a touch finding crossbills as I had previously enjoyed with the breaking of car windows. At every vaguely suitable looking patch of conifers I visited I’d soon hear their characteristic call ringing overhead as flocks worked from pine to pine. As I think I’ve mentioned before, they resemble a flock of traffic lights: red for males, amber for immature males, and green for females. Out in the woods on my RSPB contract I frequently encountered big groups of all of these colours, and even had the pleasure of listening to males ‘sing’ from the tops of trees: a fairly unusual performance of regular crossbill calls interspersed with clicks, runs, whistles and other vaguely song-like sounds.

Alas, fast forward to 2013 and as with those windows I seemed to have lost my touch. Crossbills are what is known as an ‘irruptive’ species, meaning they follow the food – crops of cones – and their distribution changes greatly from year to year as a result, including the location of their breeding grounds. Despite this nomadic lifestyle they are reliably resident in quite a few parts of Britain, but I wondered if perhaps last year’s widespread bumper crop, a veritable crossbill cornucopia, had come to an end.

IMAG0106Or had it? On Saturday I was oop north in Yorkshire, and out for a very lovely walk in t’ countryside near the ruins of Byland Abbey (appropriately enough, since I’m on the topic of habits – ba-dum, tish!). It was bracingly cold, with a stinging north-westerly breeze whipping across the ridge we were picking our way across through cold puddles of slowly thawing snow. Perhaps as a result, birds seemed thin on the ground, or rather thin in the trees and in the air, save a lone buzzard struggling upwind, and a similarly solitary siskin that flew over in the opposite direction a few minutes later. Nearing the top of the ridge, a great spotted woodpecker teased us for the longest time, calling invisibly from the tops of a tree. We didn’t even catch the merest glimpse of movement. Nor did we see a single twitch of feather in the vicinity of a low squeaking call round the next corner, the origin of which I couldn’t have identified from sound alone. I began to suspect it was simply trees moving in the wind, doing a bird impression that was almost as good as my car’s brake discs.

After quite a few minutes of peering at nothing, my friend (happening to be the same Fish who heard the phantom yellowhammer) turned round, and said ‘uh, there are birds in the tree just over there!’ And he was right. In classic pantomime style, they’d been behind us all the time: large, finch-shaped birds, hanging in the outer branches of a larch. I raised my binoculars. ‘Crossbills!’ I declared, and there they were indeed, large as life and crossed of beak, close enough to see a marvellous level of detail and unusually well lit by the sun (in that the usual view of crossbills is of them silhouetted at the top of a very large tree). I hadn’t shaken them off after all, which is most gratifying, and I hope they stick with me through the rest of the year.

IMAG0102To find more of these parrots of the north I’ll probably need to get mobile again – conifer plantations being in short supply in Lower Earley – so it’s just as well that I was due to take delivery of our new car this week. But there’s been a delay. They informed me yesterday that a ‘minor mechanical issue’ meant they were waiting for a replacement part, and I’d have to wait a little longer to take delivery. And what was this broken part, this minor issue of which they spoke? Why, a window-winding motor of course! You couldn’t make it up. Perhaps next time I should simply resign myself to the fact that window switches and my fingers just don’t mix, and buy an open-topped roadster. At least I’ll be able to hear my faithful friends the crossbills as they go bounding on their colourful way.

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