First outing of the year
I decided to go to Hillsborough Forest about a week ago as a gentle introduction to the season. Hillsborough is only about 12 miles from Belfast. It would just be a half hour run down the motorway. This year’s mild weather has prompted me to start earlier in the season than last year, so I wouldn’t even have to rise at a particularly ungodly hour.
Last year I also used to get up even earlier than absolutely necessary to walk to the University to pick up one of the two departmental vehicles that are available for fieldwork. This year I’m a little wiser and have a little more confidence, so where possible, I’m going to take the car the night before, park it outside my flat and save myself at least half an hour in the morning.
That was the plan. The first part of it went well enough. The car I’d booked isn’t a car at all. It’s a monster of a jeep, the biggest vehicle I’ve driven in years, the biggest ever if I exclude the tractor and the bulldozer I drove in Norway on a working holiday on a farm more that 25 years ago. I treat the jeep with respect. It has bulk, power, presence, and when I drive it, internally at least, I can’t help but swagger. However, the jeep has a several untoward features. It bleeps in reverse, which I can live with as I know it’s useful, but it’s also a little embarrassing. However, worst of all, it has an alarm which is completely unpredictable and liable go off for no reason that I can yet fathom. I move gingerly around it, and open it carefully ready to leap into action should it start screaming at me.
I was lulled into a false sense of security the previous evening. I got in and drove it off without so much as a murmur of protest. I’d parked it in the little courtyard that my block of flats encircles, and it seemed content. Next morning I rose in the dark and ferried my equipment outside and opened the passenger door to load up. Not a sound. Then I opened a rear door. The jeep sprang to life. Lights flashed, the alarm shrieked and I panicked. This was 6:30am, my neighbours were no doubt being roused from deep sleep by this diabolical racket. I raced around to the driver’s door, leaped into the car, mentally noting the light of one of my neighbours coming on, and I cringed. I reversed (!) out of the courtyard at high speed and drove like a mad thing through dark silent streets, as the jeep flashed and blared all the while. Thank god the police didn’t appear. I got to a car park about a mile from my flat where the houses are a little distant and, more importantly, not my immediate curious and disapproving neighbours, and somehow, through random pushing of buttons, got the thing to quieten down. Relief. I breathed deeply for a minute or two, reminded myself that fieldwork is full of the unexpected, and that me and the jeep need to get reacquainted after all these months. I drove on for another mile or two. Before I had quite reached the motorway I touched the key in the ignition. I had fastened it to my own keys the night before. My own keys were no longer there! I swung into another quiet street, searched the car and myself, fighting my returning panic. I was left with the vision of myself leaping into the car as it started. I must have dropped the keys. Otherwise I was in for a hell of a lot of inconvenience.
It was nearly 7am. I cursed myself and the jeep as we crept shamefully back to my street. I considered parking in it rather than exposing myself to the courtyard again, but decided that time and the jeep’s headlights demanded I must face my neighbours. I drove in and the headlights picked up the gleam of my keys lying on the tarmac almost immediately. Thank god. I stopped and leaped out. Then my neighbour’s door opened and I sprang back into the driver’s seat without looking at him, but as I turned and drove out for a second time I felt his eyes watching me. I muttered to myself but could hardly blame his curiosity. He must seriously wonder what the hell I was doing.
Finally I hit the motorway, noting the grey light growing in the sky as I drove. At this rate dawn would be well broken by the time I got to Hillsborough. The other side of the motorway was arrayed with commuters. I was so glad to be driving the other way, out of town.
All the delays meant that I was not the first person into the forest that morning. As I got to my familiar starting, a narrow door in a large iron gate that is well away from the main entrance, there was already another car parked, and a woman, probably in her early sixties, slipping through with two dogs. Drat. Beaten by a dog-walker.
Eventually I was sorted, and finally walking through the forest. Hillsborough is a typical forestry commission plantation, with its ranks of dense spruce, but it also has patchy areas of deciduous natives. My mission was to record dunnocks, one of my target species from last year, the only one of my eight of which I hadn’t got a decent sample size. But I would be content enough just to refamiliarise myself with the fieldwork routine, get my body used to this activity again.
The song thrushes were singing hard. They’ve been going since December. They were a temptation but I’ve got enough from last year. Ditto the robins. Nevetherless, at one point I stopped to record a robin just for the practice of setting up the equipment in the field again. I didn’t quite get finished before he obviously decided whatever I was up to demanded too much held nerve from him. He flitted off to resume singing at some distance. I let him go.
I accepted the morning for what it was, just a re-acquaintance. The birds were singing reasonably well. Plenty of wrens, chaffinches, all superfluous to me this year. I’d probably recorded many of these same individuals last year. As I passed a little birch sump, I remembered that that was where I’d recorded my first willow warbler. Hopefully he’s now just beginnning to make his way north from the Congo. Willow warblers will be here next month. With them, their cousins, the chiffchaffs; and blackcaps. I’m looking forward to them. My sense is that migrants with their tighter time-scale for breeding, are ‘easier’ than our residents. At least that’s the theory.
I finally heard a dunnock in a brambly patch. Dunnocks love thickets, hedgerows. I managed to record five or six songs over a minute or so, but then he fell silent again. I hung around while curious early-morning walkers passed me, greeting me politely, but with evident bemusement.
It started to rain. The equipment can’t cope with prolonged rain. Time to call it a day.