As if they’ve never left. As if they have always been here. As indeed they have, part of the summer aural furniture. This is not an April fool, I promise you.
I should’ve guessed they’d be here very soon. As regular readers (!) will know, I called briefly to Portmore on my way back from Brackagh Moss on Wednesday. It was almost 9am so no surprise that things were fairly quiet. I did notice that the whoopers were gone. I’ve thought I’ve heard a blackcap’s bubble in the in the start-up of robins for weeks now. (In fact, once or twice I’ve been convinced I heard a blackcap, out of season; I know they’re reputed to occasionally overwinter, but after the last two it seemed unlikely; they’re not that good at weather forecasting, surely).
I was fieldworking this morning, after a two-day gap. Friday was an office day. Yesterday I had a lie-in (still woke at 5am, but never mind; did get back to sleep eventually; I’m learning to cat-nap in the afternoons). So this morning, I was out in my local forest in County Derry, Learmount Forest, as well known to me now as Castle Archdale, or the fields around the Fairy Fort were to me in my youth.
I know it sounds as if I never have much luck with blackbirds, but that not true. I got a great recording near Rea’s wood on Thursday morning. Really clear, the twitter part of the song nice and dark on the sonogram. Just perfect. He’d let me get pretty close and of course there was a rival nearby to motivate him, It was 6am, still dark, when a frightfully early dog walker arrived with two Irish setters (I know this because one of them veered off from the owner when I was still trying to set up and leaped up on me; with the car door open I could see him in the light). I could feel the man’s curiosity. I said hello, conscious of my female voice. But he went off, swinging a torch while managed to get my blackbird. Of course that set my expectations fairly high for this morning …
Got to the forest for just before 6am again, and there was a mistle thrush singing in the car part. Almost had me fooled because slightly further off, there was a blackbird singing as well. Aha! I trundled off into the woods, got, I’d say, with 8m at ground level of my target, got the mike on, the recorder going. He sang on. I kept my arm up, the mike as high as possible; was beginning to relax. This was another Rea’s wood job. In fact, this very individual was likely to be one of the ones I’d missed last Sunday. And, lo and behold, I could hear another one fairly close. Maybe I’d get him too?
Didn’t work out like that. Two minutes into the recording, just as I propped the mike at ground level on its little stand to begin setting up the tripod etc, and my target decides enough is enough. There followed at least half an hour of to-ing and fro-ing as the sky lightened, trying to get him or his neighbour. Meanwhile, robins, chaffinches, wrens, were joining in, all mocking me. I am beginning to feel I’m wasting my life. Whose idea was it to do this PhD anyway? Is it for this I’m losing hours of sleep?
I move on. It’s definitely morning now, shaping up to be a nice one, the sun’s out, the woods gauzing green with early-leaf. Soon the birds will be nearly impossible to see in the canopy. But for now when I raise my binocs, I can still catch the flits of great tits, blue tits. At the sound of a coal tit’s repetitive wheeze, I can still capture the little buff breast in my field of view. And the bluebells are emerging, the first indigo heads against the dense green of their own bodies full of the promise that spring really is here; it’s the first of April
A half mile on, I hear another blackbird. He’s still at some distance, and it takes me a good 10 mins to catch up with him. And this time, he’s brave, and I’m lucky. I have him. Then, I have a run of it. I hear another one, and he’s in the same location as I tried for last week also, close to the ‘castle’ (large abandoned big house), and its exotic rhodedendron, that are just coming into bloom with tropical cerise. I get him too. And as I’m recording him, I hear them. No mistaking the bubble this time! Blackcaps! Not on my list, but always a pleasure to hear. And then, slightly further off, the monotonous chant of a chiffchaff, yes, the onomatopoeic name is spot on. Like his cousin, the willow warbler (and so close a cousin, that until the good Gilbert White http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_White came along they were thought the same species; they can only be distinguished visually in the field a minor difference in leg colour; but the difference in voice is unmistakeable). This wee guy was in full throat, entirely unintimidated by the more sophisticated songs around him. He chirped on. I was delighted at the relative ease with which he let me record him. These were going to be as easy as willow warblers. Which by the way, I haven’t heard yet. Where are they?
I trotted on for another mile or so, and then there was another one. This one was more tricky. He moved around a helluva lot, and the equipment played up also. Visions of an entirely unnecessary trip back to Belfast to get a charger. The panic subsided when it finally started to behave. Then, I was still quite near the road, and it was now about 8am, I was subject to the unwelcome attention of a landrover, which paused to watch what I was doing. A couple of hundred yards off, so I couldn’t make out the driver, but I stared back anyway. Mind your own business! Go away!
He did eventually. So that’s four out of six attempts. And two species! And the migrants are here! A morning to celebrate.