Seven days straight
Yesterday I was giddy with relief at the thought of this morning. A planned lie-in! I still woke before 5am, but still, I got to lie on. I got to be horizontal for over eight hours. I got not to get up in the dark.
I’ve done seven days straight of fieldwork. Seven days of rising at 4 or 4:30 am. Seven mornings driving through the dark to get to my chosen fieldsite. Two mornings I had to defrost before I set out, hoping that the cold wouldn’t delay the dawn chorus too much (it didn’t: nest material is being gathered; overt flirtations have been witnessed). I’ve had a couple of close calls with the terrain in a couple of places. I’ve learned, through necessity, to operate the four-wheel drive on the jeep. However, I’ve been blessed. It didn’t start raining till yesterday afternoon, and when I left the office in the evening, I couldn’t help smiling at my inadvertent good judgment. I’ve had sunshine every morning. I haven’t even checked the weather forecast for tomorrow. Just a few more hours before I switch myself back into that mode for a couple more mornings. Then – wait for it – I’m taking the entire weekend off!
I’m already at quota with the chiffchaffs, and they’re only back a fortnight. They are such troupers. Nothing deflects them. The thrush species (which includes blackbirds) have been trickier, but I’m getting there. And two memories of this past week. A couple of mornings ago, I was in Peatlands park. I was standing next to some low bushes recording a singing chiffchaff. Peatlands, as the name implies, is mostly open bog, covered in heather, with decking or woodchip for the paths that criss-cross it. Like all reserves/parks to which I have privileged early morning access (ie, I’ve a key to the gate), the first sign of any other humans always provokes in me a little disappointment that my private show is over. So when I saw the dog-like animal trotting down the path (and why wouldn’t he make his travels easier for himself?) my first thought was, oh here we go, the first dog-walker. Then I looked at the sandy colour more closely. This was no dog. It was a fox, entirely unaware of my presence, sauntering towards me like he owned the place (which, outside of opening hours, he probably does).
I waited with held breath for him to notice me. The air was still so he probably couldn’t smell me yet. I became aware of how motionless I must be for him not to have detected me. I remembered my childhood reading not to make eye-contact, to haze my gaze so he wouldn’t be sure whether I’d seen him or not. But it was impossible. I couldn’t resist. I stared at him. He was swishing along with the loitering gait of the truly relaxed. He must have come within 10 metres of me. Then he looked up at my face and horror flashed over his own. His eyes widened. He literally leaped into the air, spun around and bounded off, his long tail like a banner behind him, into the heather where he vanished from sight.
Another morning. For once, a shy chiffchaff. He was hidden from view behind a tall thicket of rhododendron. I could hear him chirping steadily, but the minute I approached, his voice receded. I gave up on him. Walking on, I found a way into the undergrowth, perpendicular to my original path. I could hear him more loudly. Then he obviously heard my approach and his voice moved back to his original area. I backtracked also, much more slowly and awkwardly than him, obviously. Fast forward about 45mins of to-ing and fro-ing. I had managed pursue him persistently enough to get what I though could make a semi-ok recording. Not one of my best, but it might do at a push. I found a log, and using my hat as a cushion, I sat down for a few minutes rest.
It was a beautiful morning, the sun was gleaming through the branches, lacquering smooth bark with white gleam. The trees, there were many birches, beech, the more rugged oak, were just coming into leaf, that pale spriggy green. The chiffchaff’s voice became the loudest I’d yet heard. In front of me, there was a snarl of bramble and he suddenly landed right onto the tallest loop. He was no more than two metres from where I sat. This is the closest I’ve ever been to a chiffchaff. I have never seen one that close before. They are fairly nondescript little birds, buff-olive in colour, no really distinctive features, but I could see the dark legs that distinguishes them from their close cousins, the willow warblers. He kept singing (must keep to the task at hand, after all!), but he was watching me. I gently switched the mike back on, and marvelled that my own repose could have been recognised by him which may have given him the courage to approach me; that the greatest fear can mask the greatest curiosity; that the coward was the bravest of them all. He stayed about a minute. Then he flitted off.