It is the one thing we cannot control. Indeed, with climate change, it’s the very thing that reminds us that the planet has its own system of self-regulation which cares not a jot for our parochial miniscule concerns. The whole lifetime of our species, never mind that of a single individual one of us, is to it as the span of a mayfly is to us.
Having said that, I live almost perennially with the feeling of lucky escape. To check the local weather forecast over the last few days, is to get the impression that we are living through a pluvial to match that which corresponded to the last ice age, and which led to the bottleneck for modern cheetahs (sorry, this is just the way my mind works. Cheetahs, some of you will know, are famed for their homozygosity; pure-bred as modern racehorses, due to their tiny founding population, which some people think may have cut down by aeons of rain. Perhaps Noah’s Flood is actually based on some folk memory. Well, granted, evidence may be mounting that cheetahs may have been historically more diverse (See: Charruau et al 2011: Mol Ecol, 20, 706-724: “Phylogeography, genetic structure and population divergence time of cheetahs in Africa and Asia: evidence for long-term geographic isolates”; and, a little less specialised, http://www.amazon.com/King-Cheetah-The-Story-Quest/dp/9004085882) than the current decimated crop – who would have thought that the remnants of the Asiatic cheetah still survives in Iran, of all places – but nevertheless the point, that I’m circling around still holds: the forecast has been dire).
However, I’ve hardly had a drop. I was out on Saturday in Randalstown. I was out again yesterday in Peatlands Park. Now today, in Gortin Glen. Yes, I get around but blackbirds are proving tricky. Not only do they sing with any real fervour before dawn and for about an hour afterwards, but country-dwellers are also shyer than you’d think from the urbanites. I’m having trouble getting decent recordings of the high-frequency twitter part of their songs. Their penchant for flitting when they see me coming is making me a little desperate. I’ve even started to record mistle thrushes, which rise at a much more civilised hour, as a back-up. Eg: got a decent one today after 9am. Of course, now that the chiffchaffs are here I’m out later in the morning anyway. Today, I was on site from 5:30am till 11:30am, as I say, without a drop of rain. It threatened. The clouds gathered. I’d my plastic bag with me to swoop over the fuzz of the mike should a drop fall. It didn’t happen.
It’s weird though, how different places have different success rates. In Peatlands Park yesterday, I got five – five! – chiffchaffs. Chiffchaffs are not shy. They are relatively unperturbed by my presence, and they let me clatter away while they sing on. Blackbirds, on the other hand often clam up if they think I’m getting just a bit too familiar. I wonder is it due to the trials and exertions that the chiffchaffs have gone through to get here in the first place. If they were any way precious about themselves they wouldn’t have a hope of facing that biannual migration. And they are such tiny, nondescript little birds. They don’t look as if they’re designed for epic journeys the way the swifts and swallows are. To think of them crossing the Irish sea, never mind the English Channel, the straits of Gibraltar, to get here, is staggering. But they’re here, and here in large numbers. The willow warblers, a few days later, are here in droves also. They’ve further to come of course, central rather than north Africa. They’re beginning to make the later arrivals look like wimps: here they are, the little insectivores, before there are even many insects, and while the night temperatures still hover around zero. Their songs are like the bloom of an aural spring flower: I heard no willow warblers in Randalstown on Thursday last; two on Friday; on Saturday, still in Randalstown, I heard at least ten. Since then, they are ubiquitous in the woods.
Today wasn’t a successful morning in terms of recordings. I went straight to the songpost of a blackbird that I heard last spring, but there was nothing. Meanwhile the woods began to stir with the songs of robin, song thrush, mistle thrush. It’s funny how I now mark these areas with the birds I recorded last year. There’s where I got that great song thrush; that was the willow warbler next to him. Oh, there was that decent great tit, that I surely woke the campers for in my insistence on following him.
Noise is a constant issue. I thought, by focussing on Gortin today, I’d avoid the motorways, the aircraft, around Belfast. Well, I did, but the recent rain has every stream in spate making nearly as much noise as rush hour. I had to forgo a chiffchaff because he was singing near just such a stream. He was the only one I heard this morning which was a bit of a disappointment after the previous day. I was shocked at the state of the upper regions of the forest however. I’d forgotten about last year’s fires, but their legacy is all around. I must’ve completed my fieldwork here last year before they really got going. Gortin is a huge forest; it must be one of the biggest in Northern Ireland. But swathes of the hills are still charred. Evidently the forest service has been in, cutting down the burnt carcasses of the trees, but between the blackened soil, the chalk white stumps (looking in the distance like serries of irregular headstones) and the odd stripped trunk left standing like a mast in a sea of wreckage, it was a bleak and barren landscape. At one point I passed by an area that had been thick with furzy bushes and trees last year, and where I had got at least two great wrens; this year, it was devastated; and there wasn’t the sound of a single avian voice.
However, there are still large tracts unscathed, and it was a beautiful morning. The grass was jewelled with wet and sunlight. All colours: silver, of course; but also gold, blue; even pink and orange. From Our Lady’s View, in the early part of the morning, I had the rare treat of the unmistakeable cone of Errigal off to the far west, rising like a mountain on the moon. Muckish, which is the usual treat, was diminished beside it. On the way back past the same spot a couple of hours later, the clouds had settled like a cape over Muckish, and Errigal had vanished like a mirage.
I finally got my mistle thrush after three separate goes. In the end, his own curiosity may have actually brought him closer to me. He hung around singing on and off for around 45 mins, and, having checked the sonogram, it’s a pretty good recording. So the morning wasn’t entirely a waste. I also fitted in a recce of another region of the forest. The jeep is great over the gravel tracks, and I feel like a total adventurer exploring what passes for wilderness in this part of the world. Just as I was driving out and padlocking the gate behind me, the heavens opened. It just confirms that, like the birds themselves, the vagaries of the weather are something to be worked around. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep showing up.