February 2nd

Although my job is far from being a typical 9–5 office one, I am a rush-hour rail commuter. Bleary-eyed from an early start, I try to use the time well by reading a book, or watching the world rush by the window. Moments of beauty often surprise me: even a low forest of lights alongside railway sidings takes on a magical quality in the half-light.  Lately I’ve been concentrating on trying not to read the news, and scanning the blurred countryside for signs of hope. They’re getting hard to find, aren’t they? January is hard enough to get through, even without a daily bombardment of exceptionally bad tidings. I’m paralyzed, stuck between wanting to stay as informed as possible so that I might figure out something positive to do and simply retreating into my own little world.

Nature is no cure-all, but that’s where I tend to go for solace. Two birds in particular have been appearing faithfully on my journeys—one in the morning, one in the evening—gracing the day with a much-needed touch of wildness. First, a herring gull. A magnificent full-adult specimen see-sawing in a wide arc over the bus stops, showing off the length of its pale grey wings.  It carries with it a sense of adventure and a whiff of salt spray, for such a bird might also be seen patrolling a windswept fishing port on the North Sea coast.

At dusk a blackbird claims the town square as his own. In a few short notes all of spring comes pouring out, and I can feel it trying to break. Leafburst and catkins, crocuses and snowdrops, daffodils, lambs in the fields, more and more birds joining the chorus. Chattering passers-by and the low growl of buses and taxis fade into the background, and cease to matter.

We did finally see off January yesterday. The weather on the first day of February was mild and the dampness of the air smelled somehow sweeter. Insects could feel it, breaking cover into the sunlight, wings a frenzied blur. Black-headed gulls rode the breeze for the sheer hell of it, as far as we could make out. The blackbird abandoned a loftier perch, descended to the small trees in the square, and began to sing all the more loudly. Much cold weather may remain ahead and storms both political and meteorological loom on the horizon, but in that moment the year’s promise was already fulfilled in a bird’s song. It was all that mattered.

Simply Birding

It’s one of those birding weeks when anything and everything can happen. The supposedly boring land-locked county of Berkshire has played host to a flurry of superb migrant birds. The first ring ouzel on (what should be*) my local patch at Lavell’s Lake in 25 years as well as a wonderfully elegant little gull; a Slavonian grebe coming into breeding plumage;  wheatears, redstarts and yellow wagtails passing through; the first nightingales, cuckoos and house martins of the year. Two pairs of garganey continue to pop up from time to time in and around the Kennet valley. Yesterday a hoopoe was seen in a suburban garden to the northeast of Reading, though it went cunningly undetected by the local birding community.

Most of this is happening to other people, for I have remained mysteriously unwilling to haul myself any further than the immediate vicinity of my home and workplace. Fortunately, they offer splendours of their own – following on from last week’s minor fall of willow warblers (i.e., one), lunchtime on Tuesday saw a relative deluge descend on campus. At least three sang from low trees near the weather station, mixed in with many chiffchaffs.

We were passing through them on our way to see redstarts, another passage-only species on campus and an even scarcer one than willow warbler. There are surely few finer-looking birds in Britain than a male redstart. The one we saw flitting from low perch to ground and back again was in immaculate breeding plumage, the pale silver on his forehead glinting in the sun like a sliver of diamond. To see one in a place that means as much to me as Whiteknights Park is almost indescribably special: that’s the magic of patch birding.

‘Hardcore’ birders will notice that nothing I’ve mentioned is stonkingly rare, but these birds are all the better for it. Mildly unexpected or even somewhat-expected-but-hard-to-connect-with birds are the best birds. A fleeting encounter with a beautiful species in the company of friends always beats joining the twitching paparazzi for some half-dead mega-vagrant.

It’s times like this I wonder why I don’t spend more time simply birding. There are many other distractions and pleasures in the natural world, for sure. I am proud and mildly amused to frequently find myself labelled an entomologist these days. The more my taste is for small-scale, local discoveries, the more entomology has an edge over ornithology in my affections. But still, there’s nothing quite like plain old birding. To go out with few expectations or cares simply to look at birds, knowing that anything and everything can, and sometimes does, happen.

Redstart song is a lovely, lazy summer afternoon sound. Alas that they’re uncommon as a breeding species hereabouts!

*I’m just too lazy – whyever I don’t visit what is a fantastic inland birding site more often I don’t know. Though of course I do have the many pleasures of Whiteknights Park on my doorstep every day.

Willow Warblings

Gentle, nourishing, and very, very wet: the classic April shower is to the earth as a watering can is to a flower pot. There’s no rain as soft as spring rain. Neither, as it happens, is there anything as hard as spring rain that’s been repeatedly flung up and down through the troposphere until it freezes into projectiles roughly the size and density of Bird’s Eye petis pois. In the last week we’ve had plenty of both sorts of precipitation, deposited by a beautiful range of clouds from sky-covering sheets of off-white to otherworldly cumulonimbus, dark and heavy with undulating mammatus clouds.


Mammatus over east Reading, April 2016

Perhaps not coincidentally, the willow warbler’s voice calls to mind the cascade of a small waterfall, a burbling river, or a cleansing fall of rain. A descending sequence of rich, musical notes, it’s a song that washes warmth and spring cheer into your very skin:  the vocal personification of an April shower on one of the first truly warm days of the year. Not so many years ago most of southern England was bathed in willow warblings; now it’s a more sporadically enjoyed pleasure, replaced by the more prosaic (though still seasonally essential) song of the chiffchaff as the two species play out their climate-driven shift northwards.

Happily, willow warblers seem to enjoy singing as much as I can’t get enough of listening, and they do sing on migration. My first for this year was singing early one morning in our suburban back garden. The second was from low lakeside trees in Whiteknights Park. Willow warblers are unlikely to breed in either location nowadays but their passage through my everyday places of home and work, now all the more unexpected and touched with magic, is for me as swifts were for Ted Hughes*. In other words, they’re a sign that, despite everything, the global ecosystem still functions. Hope lies just around the corner.

Willow Warbler from Chris Foster on Vimeo.

*A contemporary sign of spring that I’ve yet to record this year is nature columnists quoting Ted Hughes on swifts.