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Going and doing

March 29, 2012

The wonderful spell of weather continues. I was told yesterday that daytime temperature was 30 degrees higher than it was two years ago. The contrast between day and pre-dawn temperatures feels nearly as large. A few mornings I’ve risen recently, it’s been almost balmy. Not these last few. The change in the clocks last weekend has confused my own circadian rhythm. Even with my alarm set for 4:30am, I’m still getting up too early. When I got into the car it warned me that there was GLATTENEISGEFAHR. The reading shook around 1°C. Thank god I’ve attended German classes this past year, although quite why a French car (Peugeot) needs to address me in German, I haven’t quite figured.


I think the birds are confused by the temperature fluctuations too. I’ve mentioned before how the townie blackbirds are generally in full voice as I head off. Their country cousins are more erratic. Maybe that does reflect that it’s usually warmer in cities, as well as lighting, of course. I was in Brackagh Moss again yesterday morning, arriving just before 6am. The new dawn wasn’t until 07:08, a positive lie-in, and the birds were taking full advantage. There wasn’t a sound while Orion soared above, just as the ink of  sky began to dilute to the deep woad of pre-dawn. Within ten minutes the light had fuzzed to a haze, as the near-freezing temperatures spun mist from the night-clear air to blur the transition to daylight.


I strapped on and shouldered up. A robin started to sing. Usually blackbirds precede them, but the voice of my target species is proving harder to capture than I thought. There’s a lot of prior work done on blackbirds too, which adds to the pressure. Blackbirds should be easy! But they’re not. Different species have different sensitivities in terms of the distance they’ll allow you approach. I sometimes feel hampered that my research requires me to record species in areas which are often not that well used by humans, which of course means the birds are shyer. I’ve already mentioned how I think songpost height can give some species more confidence. Blackbirds should be confident. They sing at a decent elevation. They’re common in urban areas. But individuals differ, and it’s still early in the season. The dawn chorus happens because male birds rush to notify everybody forthwith that I’m still here! This is still mine! – that they haven’t died overnight, which is not an impossibility given their small size, and the rate they lose heat on cold nights. Cold nights mean the long fast has cost them more in terms of energy reserves, and they have to balance whether to forage or sing as the light grows. Perhaps that’s why the earliest risers like blackbirds and robins, do begin to sing in the dark. No more than us, they can’t see well in the dark, so they can’t forage. So they might as well sing.


But it’s been very cold overnight, and truth to tell, I haven’t wrapped up enough. The relative quiet means I can walk on through the reserve with a clear conscience, get warmed up a bit. Gradually the chorus begins to increase, although chorus is a bit of an exaggeration. Eventually I reach an area where there are deep furrows of standing water, a density of trees that could almost qualify as woodland. A song thrush is piping loudly, the clarity of his fluting notes a real temptation. Last year, when I was chasing song thrushes, I seem to remember thinking that blackbirds would’ve been easier. This year, I feel exactly the reverse.


He’s flanked by at least two blackbirds, but their voices are much quieter. I don’t think I’ll get a decent recording at this distance, and I won’t get past those canals. I walk along the bund. As I walk, the blackbird I’ve decided on keeps singing. When I stop, his voice flutters. I turn my back on him, not that he can probably see the difference. It’s still only half light. He sings on, rather quietly. I start the recorder. Two mins in, and he moves further along the line of trees. I follow him as respectfully as I can, but you know where this is headed. I spend about half an hour trying to record him or his neighbour. No joy.


It’s getting noisy. Brackagh Moss isn’t that far from the M1, it has a railway line at its rear. We’re getting up to 7am, the commuters are gathering. My teeth are chattering and my fingers aren’t working so well. I never get it right.


Eventually I do get a recording from a different blackbird, but it’s not brilliant. Once again, I had to record it from slightly too far away. Blackbird song can be divided into two parts: the flutey ‘motif’; the static ‘twitter’. The twitter shows up poorly on sonograms, as I later confirm when I get back to the office. Oh well. I still have plenty of time, and the chiffchaffs aren’t even here yet. Mind you, with these cold nights, even with our seasonally inappropriate scorchers of days, are there enough insects for them yet?


I head on to Portmore, getting there just after 8am. The smaller birds are a delight to watch. I hear a dunnock when I get out of the car (cue gnashing of teeth). I even see one later on, perched in full view on a bramble, but I don’t even get to catch him in the binoculars before he takes off. The air is full of chirping chaffinches, tree sparrows. Wrens are trying to drown out everyone else; robins are sorrowing. Not a cheep from a blackbird.


I console myself with a wander through the body of the reserve to the hide looking out over the water. On the way, there’s a flock of about 20 curlew, just beyond the reserve boundary. Inside the hide, the silvered water is blebbed with mute swan, the whiskered silhouettes of great crested grebe; a few tufted duck; screaming terns fighting over a nesting raft. No whoopers. They’re probably gone already, prompted by the unlikely daytime weather. The light is harshly bright, darkening the colours of the birds. I wish I knew more about ‘jizz’, that ineffable quality, the essence of bird shape and movement, that marks a true birder from an amateur like me. The people who can fix a name to a flutter of wing, a flick of tail, a single note, or, like here, a tiny blemish on sheer water.


I have to hurry back. There’s office work to attend to, someone else will need the car. But I’ll keep showing up. That’s what this work is teaching me; patience, obviously; and trust that you just keep on getting out there, keep on doing. There’s over two months to go. I’ll get my birds.


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