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Random thoughts of the sleep-deprived

May 13, 2012

I have entered a blue haze of exhaustion. I feel physically distant from my own body. My brain feels like a different planet. Emotions run dangerously close to the surface. Tears and temper have been provoked over trivia. My fieldwork progresses satisfactorily; it’s the rest of my life that is on the slide. I feel persecuted over commitments which I have neglected, and for which that neglect is entirely my own fault. Me, that am organised to the point of obsession or even neuroticism, am forgetting things. I can’t read. Even when I take a lie-in, I often can’t sleep. I wake entirely alert before dawn, and strain to hear that blackbird that is always my exhortation to rise. For a few hours, I feel normal. By 11am I’ve entered the zombie-zone. At the week-ends I fall asleep on the sofa in front of the tv. All I can think or talk about are my birds. I’m becoming a bore.

I’ve also become fit. I’ve lost more weight, I can walk for hours, I can climb six flights of stairs to my office hardly losing breath. When I feel tired or hungry when I’m fieldworking, I can feel my mind hardening. This is not allowed. And the feeling goes away, temporarily at least. I didn’t know I’d such powers of endurance. Of course it whacks me later. I’m eating like a horse when I do eat. I feel shaky with exhaustion a lot of the time. But I never knew I had such determination or discipline. In fact, I didn’t when I was young. This is something I’ve acquired with age, which is why when I find myself regretting not doing a PhD twenty years ago, I tell myself, the time wasn’t right. I couldn’t do this work in my twenties. Nevertheless, having listened to much discussion of those in the department who took part in the Belfast City Marathon last Monday, I feel like I’m hitting my version of the wall. Now I have to draw on that discipline and determination to an extent that is beyond even what the ‘training’ has prepared me for.

And patience. I am frustrated by the weather, but there is no point in arguing with its vagaries. I was out last Wednesday, a beautiful morning, in Lagan Valley Park. I got four blackbirds on the trot, no doubt their relative equanimity at my presence inspired by the regularity of the people traffic that is part of their environment. The waning moon shone in the canal, from which early-morning mist rose. Squabbling little grebes bleated. By 7am the planes had begun to roar overhead, and I turned for home.

Thursday, the rain came, but I was committed to going to Tollymore to collect my key which had been sequestered in a secret location at the rangers’ hut. I got the key, and finally got back into the forest. I drove to the clearing that I’d planned to start from the previous Sunday, when the new padlocks had thwarted me. I managed to get a single blackbird before the equipment, and myself, was so sodden that I decide there was no point in continuing. The noise of the rain elevated my background noise readings to level that was only just acceptable. I drove around another part of the reserve to recce it for my next visit. As always, I’m astounded by Tollymore’s grandeur. Even with the veiling of rain and mist, the expanse of the place is both thrilling and soothing. The fact that I have it all to myself in those early hours is a bounty. And I was pleasantly surprised when I got back to the office and found that the recording was fine. Possibly the dampness of the air had allowed the song to transmit more effectively than if the weather was good. The sonogram, despite the rain, was clear and well defined.

Friday, I wasn’t out, due to an early-morning appointment and Saturday I was committed to leading a Dawn Chorus group. Now this has been a treat. I was asked last year by my local community group in the village where I live in Co Derry, whether I would volunteer to take the Dawn Chorus group out there. I did, and it was a great success. A few years ago, I’d never have had the nerve; and while my bird song identification skills were reasonable, I could not remotely call myself an expert. Now, after three years of total immersion in bird song, I’m getting there. I have found I have a good ear. While I’m not remotely musical, and can’t sing a note, I can identify birds’ voices. I listen to them now and am shocked there was a time in my life I couldn’t tell the difference. And it is practice, abetted by obsessive CD-listening when I’m alone in the car. And some day I must tell you about Geoff Sample, who has a wonderful way of describing bird song that, for me at least, helps me retain it. I’m now moving on from song to really getting the contact calls. Not that I need to know these for my research, but I want to learn them. I want to know the conversations as well as the displays.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, Caroline who is the driver of Learmount Community Group, which is (unbiased opinion) probably the best community group in the country, put me in touch with another group who needed someone to lead a group in Gransha woods just outside Derry City. I said yes, despite the fact that it would mean two weeks without a planned lie-in. But I’d be paid for this work, and I am surprised and delighted to find that one can get remunerated for the ability to be able to recognise bird song. And I’ve met lovely people, whose interest in birds is inspiring. I feel a bit like a Johnny-come-lately confronted with these individuals. Suddenly, the world post-PhD feels like it may offer possibilities that I had no idea were open to me. I would love to get a post-doctoral position. But if I don’t, I may be able to find other ways to work with birds. While I have no wish to return to the classroom, I realise I’m still a teacher.

Following that early-morning work, I moved on to Lough Foyle nature reserve. More on this to follow, but I needed to recce for fieldwork the following day. I was there for the reed buntings to boost last year’s sample size. The area of interest were a series of deep pools fringed by the balsam-to-golden phragmites reeds. There is also a rough lane running alongside, so it’s actually possible to drive along, windows down, and literally pick off the birds, metaphorically speaking of course, one by one. Inland from the reedbeds, over the flat arable plains of reclaimed land, the air was full of skylarks. I’d seen two small flocks of graceful curlew foraging fastidiously. The reed buntings were singing their grating little songs, that were punctuations among the effervescence of the sedge warblers who were also spaced out at regular intervals. Unlike the reed buntings, who pose prominently but don’t overdo it, these were bursting forth from the reeds in ecstatic leaps to emphasis their songs (“unmelodic, but a lively effort” as one of my bird guides perfectly summarises). They were the best views of singing sedge warblers I’ve ever had, and once again, I thanked the gods for the opportunities and gifts this work has brought me.

I returned pre-dawn this morning to record the buntings during the dawn chorus, but unfortunately that open landscape offered no break from the high wind and both the background noise and the distortion that the wind would cause on the sonograms made the trip somewhat of a wasted effort. I moved on to Gransha woods where there’d been some chiffchaff and mistle thrush song the previous day, but by the time I got there, the efforts were half-hearted. Tomorrow’s forecast is poor and I’m unlikely to go out, but I wish I could. March weather in May is a big disappointment.

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