Redwing at the University of Reading

It’s been a – how shall I say this? – somewhat unusual few weeks. Life hasn’t seemed to flow in any predictable, regular way and nor have the words from my fingertips onto the screen. I don’t know if all good writers require routine, but I suspect it helps. So might a safe and stable home environment, or at least some fixed reference points from which to write. Rest assured that we have survived and so will this blog, from which I hope better things are to come in the remaining 352 days of 2014. But consider this my apology for lack of normal service, especially the missing USA trip reports, some of which lie on my hard drive in a semi-completed state.

I had grand plans for this year, new things to learn and a thousand species to find. But at present I seem to resemble nothing more than a madman in a hat and rollerskates, clinging desperately onto the back bumper of 2014 as it veers off into the future. Serious listing natural history enterprises can wait until I’ve clawed my way back into the driving seat. For now, it’s enough to find consolation amongst everyday birds. It’s when life is at its most troublesome and frustrating that I turn to them more often, taking comfort in their familiar company. Great tits brash and strident; their softer, jazz-tinged cousins, the coal tits; the hurried dunnock darting into his hedgerow, weaving a thread of song into the wind as he goes. Amidst gale and rain, mud, flood and frost, they are still surviving, thriving. What else can they do? And for that matter, what other option do we have? Life persists.

Passing the university library at dusk on Monday, I noticed soft, sweet music wafting down from the rooftop. A small, dark shape was dimly visible above me: a blackbird, singing slow and gentle with head cocked, as though struggling to recall a favourite air from seasons past.  When I hear a blackbird in midwinter it’s usually in the dead of night, perched in a state of seasonal confusion by a streetlamp. This bird whispered his song into the darkness, increasing in confidence note by note, before stopping abruptly and striking up his usual nightly territorial alarm calls. Not confused, I would guess, but on the cusp of genuinely vernal vocalisations. Tunes with reproductive intent.

Similarly, our resident little owls seem to be getting noisier as the days grow longer, often calling to each other at dusk. They may be an introduced species in Britain but their curious hoots and shrieks add a welcome note of wildness to the Whiteknights soundscape. An unsuspected guest amidst the clamorous comings and goings of tens of thousands of students and staff. It’s a pleasing wildlife story, and they’re amongst the most characterful of birds – witness the world-weary expression on the individual I found sunning itself last Wednesday morning, wedged neatly in a tree-hole barely any distance at all from the recently constructed Henley Business School. It was clear that whatever business the owl has been attending to this week, it considers it to be of greatly superior importance to the financial education going on across the road. I quite agree. Who needs international capitalism when you have owls living on your doorstep?

Later that day, two goosanders were discovered loafing on Whiteknights Lake. The moment I saw the news I felt the first stirrings of competitive spirit for the year (there’s a contest afoot and I must help defend the university’s honour!), and set out to find them. Not much of a long-distance twitch – no more than a five- or ten-minute walk from my desk – and all the better for it. With just a little half-decent habitat, there’s no telling what could turn up close to home, or close to work, and whatever it is will be far more satisfying than a lost bird pursued along hundreds of miles of motorway. The best birds are local birds, from the song of the blackbird to unexpected ducks to the red kite breezing overhead. I can’t imagine what life was like before I began to notice them, nor could I ever imagine living without them again. I do believe my happiness and survival is tied to that of the birds.

Speed Birding

Monday December 16th

There exists in American birding lingo a condition known as ‘binocular neck’, which is the result of  spending too long in the car with – as the name suggests – binoculars weighing heavily around one’s neck. This being a vast country criss-crossed by often near abandoned highways, American birders are masters at birding from a moving car and it seems they’re prepared to risk even their spinal health to get that drive-by tick.

On Britain’s twisty roads packed with traffic, I wouldn’t dare attempt to drive with binoculars so close at hand, and prefer to keep them on the passenger seat (or perhaps tucked under the driver’s seat if I’m not alone) ready to grab once the car is safely stationary. Though I still must confess to having been called out on occasion for watching the birds, not the road. But what if one day it actually is a honey buzzard, identified even as I veer all over the carriageway? All that risk-taking might just pay off.*

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One Down

IMG_3698Sunday, December 15th

The first successful sighting of a bird on my target list was almost too easy. I’d stepped not a half pace onto the damp field behind Cedar Ridge Community Church when a loose group of small birds dropped in and scattered across the puddle-strewn grass ahead of me, subtly attired in warm beige and brown and gently peeping as they came. Pipits!

The buff-bellied pipit (Anthus rubescens, known here as an American pipit) strikes me as combining features of several of the pipits I’m used to back home. Their dark legs and relatively dark plumage call to mind the predominately coastal-dwelling rock pipit (indeed, the two were once considered so closely related they were lumped together, with water pipit, as a single species), but the American species’ affinity for grassland most resembles the habitat preference of meadow pipits. And, like meadow pipits, these are charming, active little birds, an underrated plus of winter birding in the lowlands.

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