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Birds without songs

March 26, 2012

Have you no songs for me today? The glossy bird with his bright orange bill just stares back at me glumly. Then as my attention begins to unnerve him, he opens his wings and swoops over the bank’s hedgerow out of sight.

I’ve been at Inch Island Wildfowl Reserve since first light. It’s a wonderful place, not far from Burt, in Co Donegal, overlooked by An Grianan hill fort which dates thousands of years back. The walkway through the reserve is the old railway line embankment which forms a causeway linking island and mainland. On one side of the track are flat arable fields that form the plain below An Grianan. On the other is an inlet of Lough Swilly that attracts hundreds, if not thousands, of wildfowl. I’m there so early that, overlooking the water, all I saw are the faint white islands of hundreds of sleeping swans, their necks fallen languidly over their backs, their heads underwing. As the light grows and I proceed along the walkway, I feel myself equally observed: when I lift my binoculars, one or two peeps an ink-black eye over the crease of wing; I’m being cautiously monitored, despite their dreamy appearance.

However, blackbirds are my mission this morning. We are undergoing a wonderful spell of weather, and over the weekend, I’ve been out in my local forest in Co Derry, and got one decent recording. The blackbirds are certainly singing, but their commitment seems to vary from location to location, and between individuals. The first few I tried to get on Sunday morning were desultory in their output. One briskly-singing individual, when paid close heed to, was definitely a mistle thrush. It’s funny how every spring I have to tune myself into the difference between these two. Once attuned, there’s no mistaking; but in the early season when the blackbirds seem to tune up and tune out on a whim, and the mistle thrushes are a relative rarity, any deep flutings are a momentary puzzle: mistle or blackbird? What’s the rhythm like? Is the typical blackbird static-sounding flourish there at the end of a phrase or not? I was glad not to waste any time on him, especially when, deeper into the forest, I happened on a blackbird ensconced in a stand of spruce, singing away with real fervour. I set up and began to record him, and listening hard, was able to identify the reason for his determination in the distance. A competitor. Oh good, I might actually get two.

Well, that turned out not to be. Bird one was beautifully co-operative, sang away for a good 15 minutes while I clattered about underneath him, was still singing when I left. I was well pleased. Bird two was shyer. Sometimes I curse the fact that they can fly. I caught up with him after about a quarter mile. He receded further into the trees. I followed him as quietly and as disinterestedly as I could muster. He flew back the other way. That went on a few times till I gave up. There’s no point in trying to chase a bird. If they get a whiff that they might be your interest, you haven’t a hope.

Back to Monday morning. Inch reserve is long and narrow, liminal to the water, but shaded by trees and tall hedgerows, and I knew from previous visits, that it has no shortage of blackbirds. I’d hoped that the streel of trees would confine the songsters to quarters, give them less room for manoeuvre. No such luck. When I arrive, it’s still dark, but the sky’s acquiring that deep blue tinge that anticipates dawn. I’m startled by an explosion of ducks as I get out of the car. In the distance, across the stubble fields, I hear a sedge warbler. My first of this year! The willows and the chiffchaffs won’t be long in coming then. Things will get busier soon.

I head first along the eastern arm of the causeway where there’s a thicker stand of trees in the distance. I can definitely hear blackbirds, but as I walk, they seem to recede. Eventually I reach the little woodland. At least one blackbird is there, but as I approach, he falls silent. Finally, after passing a manic song thrush, I hear a blackbird who is singing with some effort. However, once I’ve set up and recorded him for about two minutes, he decides he’s done enough. I hang around for about 10 mins. No joy. I tidy up and begin to move off. He starts up again. I come back. He goes quiet. I’ve played this cat-and-mouse too often, so I decide he’ll still be there for the taking in a couple of weeks when he’ll have had time to work out if he’s up for it or not.

It’s the same story along the other arm of the causeway, and when the sun comes up, I see three or four male blackbirds just hanging around in the trees, not remotely bothered about singing. I decide to forget recording for the moment. My other main target species, the chiffchaff, still isn’t in the country, at least as far as I’ve heard, so the wrens, chaffinches, robins, and even the couple of dunnocks are wasted on me at this stage. I’ll just enjoy what this place is reserved for: the wildfowl.

There are hundreds of swans, at least half of them whoopers. Not vanished from our shores just yet then. The sky is loud with the screams of gulls, and, looking out over the water, I can see a frenzy of them swooping and mobbing each other over a little runt of a island barely out into the bay, which is evidently a nesting grounds, or will become so. They are mostly black-headed gulls, all in full summer plumage. A few herring gulls lord it among them, but the sheer intensity and numbers of the black-headeds keeps manners on them. The ducks are almost overlooked. I’m used to seeing the tufteds here, the piebald males easy to identify at a distance  but I’m pure delighted that the binoculars reveal widgeon and teal, and a couple of smart-looking shelduck. Swinging my binoculars to the other side, a harrowed field yields a procession of greylag geese, almost blended into the colour of the earth. Somehow they notice my interest, and, they take to the air with a noisy clatter of wings, revealing the white ensigns of their rumps. I feel the child in me longing to call after them: Don’t go! I won’t hurt you! But I’m also glad these birds have the sense to take themselves out of potential harm’s way. Their self-reliance, their mistrust, is a comfort also. Hopefully they, or their descendants, will always have enough of it to keep themselves safe through all the seasons of their migrations; that they will still be coming back here when I no longer can.

On the walk back to the car, I enter a haze of risen sun. The sky is blue as a robin’s egg. The sheer of the water is glazed with silver, steeped with apricot. A last sighting of blackbird in the carpark is a promise for another day.

By the way, my talk went well on Friday. There were no prizes, perhaps because we’re all thought too grown-up now to need such encouragement. That was fine by me. I was awash with enough adrenalin. We all did a good job. It was great hearing about other’s work – even when you share an office with people, you may have no real clue about exactly what they’re doing. It was a genuinely worthwhile experience. But it’s good now to have the mental space to focus on my fieldwork. Blackbirds, you have been warned!

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