I’ve always found endings difficult. I find myself with an urge to really be present for the end, an internal exhortation to attend, to experience, to really feel it. I remember vividly that sense of transition at the end of my 3rd year at grammar school, when we all knew the September would find us in different classes according to our subject choices for O’level. I felt such nostalgia for a change that hadn’t even happened yet. I am sure the veracity of this particular memory must be questionable, but I have a vivid recollection of wandering around the empty school on my own, consciously trying to absorb the reality of the school year’s end, and my state as a member of my current class now over. Fast forward four years to my actual very last day of school, my final A’level exam was finished, and I went home stayed up late to avoid taking off my school uniform for the very last time. Elton John’s I guess that’s why they call it the blues was on Top of the Pops, it must have been a Thursday; and I was blue, not for a lost love, but for my lost school years, which had not even been particularly happy, but there I was, missing them already.
So my second fieldwork season, my last fieldwork season, is over. It came to a fairly abrupt conclusion. I had planned for my last morning to be in Tollymore, swooping along those trails that pattern the Mournes’ shoulders, among those mature trees, the breathtaking views down to the sea. Well, it didn’t quite work out like that. Exhaustion and success finally caught up with me. Sleep had become something that teased me every evening prior to an early rise. I had been living in a determined haze of tiredness, just doggedly following the daily activities I had to do to keep going. I was becoming more and more forgetful, so I wrote even the most mundane, inevitable, tasks (‘take reserve keys’) on my To Do list. My throat was getting sore, threatening to emerge into an infection that would finally throttle the fieldwork off. I would go to bed at 7:30 or 8pm and toss and turn in the late evening light. As it got dark, I’d finally drift off for an hour or two, but cursedly, would often wake up just after midnight, and thrash till the alarm finally shrilled at 2:30am. But I was getting there. I was aiming for around 40 recordings of my target species, the blackbird and the chiffchaff. I was creeping close, but every morning was bringing as much failure as success. Last Sunday, I went to Gransha woods near Derry City, a woodland I’d only become familiar with through one of the Dawn Chorus walks I’d led in the last few weeks. I got my first blackbird not without struggle, but with comparative ease. Moving on to a second bird wasted nearly an hour of to-ing and fro-ing as he spooked every time I approached but stayed annoyingly close enough to tempt me to keep trying. The chiffchaffs have really eased off, and I finally gave up on that small woodland, and moved on to another woodland just outside Eglinton, which I’m more familiar with. Here I did manage to record another blackbird. And a final chiffchaff after a bit of a struggle as he flitted back and forth. Then, around 7am, I stood there feeling the tiredness sway me back and forth, three and a half months finally catching up on me. I thought of the two more days I was planning to go out that week. I turned for the car.
As I loaded the boot, I checked my bum-bag. The GPS was missing. Back I trudged to that small clearing where I’d finally nailed that chiffchaff. I thanked the gods for providing me with a decent sense of direction and a good memory. I could so easily have lost it.
Monday and Tuesday, I didn’t go out. Wednesday, I went to Oxford Island just off the M1. I’d planned a late season visit to coincide with the early dawns and less traffic noise from the motorway. It felt a little strange that my planned penultimate visit was to be the only visit to a location I’d spent much time in the previous year. Oxford Island was one of my prime reed bunting sites, and indeed I did record a reasonable number of reed buntings there; but it also has a good deal of deciduous woodland and I was hopeful of netting, as it were, at least one more blackbird. Oxford Island has the further advantage of being a very popular local walking area, and thus the birds are rather tamer than they are in Tollymore. Indeed last year, the great tits astonished me with their boldness, some of them almost flying into my face. Only afterwards did it strike me that they were probably fed by some of those same walkers, and on frosty early-spring mornings, they doubtless saw me as a more promising source of forage than the rimed thickets.
Oxford Island is on the shores of Lough Neagh and the area was wreathed in lake-mist as I approached. It was still dark as I disembarked from the jeep to open the gate that gave me privileged early morning access. There was a strange padlock on it, and even before I extracted the very key I’d gone to so much persuasive effort to procure earlier in the year, I knew it wouldn’t work. Sigh. I wouldn’t mind, but I had emailed to say I was coming. I parked the jeep at the side, shouldered on all the equipment, and started to walk.
I was there early enough for the birds to still be asleep, but as I walked through the thin copses, past the tall reedbeds and scrub, the first stirrings of avian wakefulness were occurring. In the deeper woods, there was the startling croak of a pheasant. Suddenly, the clear assertive whistles of a song thrush. Blackbirds wouldn’t be far behind. And finally there were two, singing initially rather quietly at opposite sides of the path, one in a clump of trees quite close to the reedbeds; his rival, somewhat further off high in a stand relatively close to the road.
I stood for a few seconds, trying to decide between them. The nearer one seemed to be singing rather quietly and I was anxious that he wouldn’t show up all that well on the sonogram. I decided on the other bird, and began to walk in his general direction, trying not to approach him too directly for fear he’d fly off.
When I got within shouting distance, I realised there was yet another blackbird singing not too far from him and the two voices mingled and overlapped. I knew I’d find it confusing for the analysis. Nevertheless I tried to get my target bird for a few minutes, but he was suspicious of my proximity and moved further back into the trees where I could not follow. I decided to revert to my original bird and trust that the interval had warmed him up a little.
So it turned out. Better, he turned out to be quite curious, and actually moved closer to me for much of the recording. I was relieved when the recording was complete. He alone made the trip worthwhile. I knew I was very close to 40 blackbirds. I was almost there.
It was beginning to get light. From a hillock above the reedbeds I saw the radiant hues of dawn flaring over the horizon. I turned in the direction of the road to pursue either of the two blackbirds I’d chased before. Turned out to be a waste of time. I almost got one of them, but almost just doesn’t cut it. The effort took a good half hour. Now it was bright and the woods were full of birdsong. Thrush, blackcap, willow warbler, various tit species, wren, robin, chaffinch. And more blackbirds. So many blackbirds in fact, their voices were easily confused. I had to be able to identify particular individuals from the sonograms. This medley of voices of the same species was a little frustrating. Finally I managed to pin down yet another individual in a thick grove. And about an hour later, I tracked down another singing in relative isolation.
It was about 6:30am. I hadn’t heard a chiffchaff yet, but I also knew they weren’t as urgent to me. Generally, chiffchaffs had been relatively easy to record. They are not shy birds, and I was pretty sure I already had enough of them. The three blackbirds I’d just recorded would surely bring my raw sample number over forty, which, when I’d trawled through them, would be bound to yield the twenty decent recordings I needed for analysis. I found a novel thought creeping into my brain. While I had dearly wanted to ritualise the end of my fieldwork in the grandeur of Tollymore, it could be, that I was already done. I had enough. Also working in me was the knowledge, that I was so sleep-deprived that every car journey was a risk. I had already paid my final visit to Tollymore. And as is often the case in these situations, I hadn’t known it was the last time.
So, as I gathered up my stuff and prepared for the trudge back to the jeep, I felt tearful. I had done it. I didn’t have to do any more. And while these last few weeks had been hard, gruelling even, I would miss it. Of course I could go out birdwatching any time I pleased. But the exhilaration of the chase, the uncertainty of success, the thrill of capturing an individual avian voice into a digital recording that would surely outlast his own lifespan, had given a spice and a moment to these efforts that no mere personal birding outing could ever live up to. Not to speak of the discovery of places and people that I would never have had the opportunity to encounter without the gravitas, the authority, of carrying out academic research; of representing something bigger than myself, which, nonetheless, was carried my own physical efforts; planning; driving; scouting; walking; carrying; stalking; waiting. And what I especially loved was learning more about generally very common birds, which have given me yet greater respect for them. I was never in any danger of becoming a twitcher, of pursuing the rare and exotic just to add it to some ego-boosting personal list. I have always loved the ordinary, the quotidian, in nature. It’s what I love about birds, that in virtually any habitat, urban or countryside, there are birds to watch, to remind us that we are not the only species with lives of importance. The very ubiquity of birds, their adaptability, the fact that they are the last visible remnant of wildlife, at a scale we can identify with, that we observe on a daily basis, is I think an essential reminder that we are not isolated from the rest of nature, nor can we be. We are not self-sufficient, and the startling way urban birds squeeze bits of the wild into the fissures of the concrete, tar, glass and metal of our towns and cities, fills me with enormous respect and affection for them. A sparrow is not just a sparrow. It is a breathtaking product of evolution, offshoot of the same lineage that gave our planet the dinosaurs. And it is still here, chirping persistently at the edge of our guttering, entirely disregarding of our self-importance while it clings determinedly, and successfully, to the essence and measure of its own scrap of life, its own modest ambitions: hold a territory; attract a mate; rear a family; and keep going as long as it can. And that same modest ambition, modified to the strictures of the ecological niche of the particular species, has filled our green and blue planet with life forms so diverse and populous they are a constant rebuke to our own fallible hubris.
I got back to Belfast before the worst of the rush hour traffic. I left the jeep back, scored off the following day’s booking. When I got into my office, announced that I was indeed finished, that I had completed the fieldwork for my PhD, I was greeted with cheers, which moved me. These young people are twenty years my junior, and yet I’m one of them. And they recognise the achievement of it.
I checked that morning’s recordings. They were fine. I’ve since trawled through the total samples for chiffchaff, blackbird, reed bunting, and I’m please to report, that out of 43 blackbirds, 25 are usable; of 39 chiffchaffs, 23 are usable; and of 18 reed buntings, 13 are usable, to add to the sample I’ve already acquired of that species from last year.
Since finishing, I’ve been sleeping at least 9 hours a night, but last night was a record; 14 hours, which I’m sure I haven’t done since I was about ten years old. The personal issues I referred to in my last post, are not resolved, but a path has become clear, and I’m sure the relief of that is adding to the surrender of my slumber. But mostly my sleep is deep with the dreaming pleasure of having done my very best, and done it well. I have my birds, their songs. I am ready to move on to new territory.