Monday, 30 April 2012

Too much to tell

All the beauty and the birds of spring were poured into this one bright morning. I woke before five and the sky said it would be blue for just one day. So I forsook my desk, my accounts, my computer and my words and thrust myself into the source of it all. I went to look for nightingales.

There are several nightingale territories on the heath and as I stopped at the first there came a blast of heart-melt song; only a blast, mind, and then a silence, softly studded with the chack of blackcaps. Strong chacks, insistent, what was going on? Aha, a tawny owl, cocoa-blotched, slept in unwonted view on the branch of a hawthorn peeking into jagged leaf.

At a second territory there was no nightingale, but a garden warbler burbled in the lovely free-wheeling way of his species. Behind him, for contrast’s sake, a blackcap burst into happy song. I love garden warblers. I love their kind faces and their subtle mushroominess. I love it that they’re a challenge to hear among the everywhere of blackcaps. I love it that they come each spring to the same quiet places; places that have written themselves into my story and will be written into the stories of naturalists yet unborn.

The third territory had no nightingale, nor the fourth. But here was a lesser whitethroat. Sometimes I amuse myself thinking that if you laid a chaffinch’s descending clatter on its side you’d have a lesser whitethroat’s hollow rattle. Years ago, as I conducted a birdsong workshop – actually conducted, with my hands – I was asked whether I saw birdsong in shapes and I realised that I did. A chaffinch’s song, as any right-thinking naturalist will agree, is shaped \_ and a lesser whitethroat’s is shaped --- (though it’s often introduced with a little under-his-breath scratchiness borrowed from his common whitethroat cousin).

At Cley, house martins were again in their busy cloud around Watcher’s Cottage and all about the grazing marshes were swifts, desperate for a mouthful of midge after days and days of rain. From Daukes’ I watched a posse of pochard in display, a sight I’ve never seen before. Three drakes stretched their necks and swelled their throats and pointed in towards a single duck, each in turn giving two so-soft quacks then a wheezy croon like a distant eider.

A lone fieldfare flapped west, wondering no doubt where winter had gone, but the reed-bed had surrendered to the spring. Sedge warblers trilled and dived, reed warblers (all five of them unseen) scratched and stalled, and Cetti’s warblers shouted. At the south end of the East Bank a newly green elder, poking from the reed, purred dryly with the song of a grasshopper warbler.

All along the East Bank the pungent alexanders quivered with birds. Wheatears bobbed and willow warblers whispered here; and for a moment a cock whinchat, bound for some bleak grouse moor to the north, perched in a wisp of reed. A whimbrel, last seen in the great salty gloop of the Sunderbans in February, gargled overhead and the sea was noisy with the scrapy three-note calls of Sandwich terns.

Back on the heath, hoping to see my nightingale, instead I saw a moth. My friendship with moths is many years old but has sadly faded to occasional encounters. Only a few stand out in my memory, like this one, Adela reaumurella, a tiny, day-flying speck of bronze-green brightness with tremendous antennae tipped in white.

At my mother’s a male orange-tip skipped under a blousy beige Yukon cherry, only my second of the year, thanks to the Noye’s Fludde weather we’ve been having. At Alethorpe a kestrel plunged to the verge and surged up carrying a vole (perhaps a field vole, which I still need for my list). And at home, over the pond, are swallows, swifts and house martins. All nature is alive to the spring and, after days of grey, I too.

New this morning


garden warbler
Sylvia borin
lesser whitethroat
Sylvia curruca
grasshopper warbler
Locustella naevia
Saxicola rubetra

2012 Totals
Mammals: 55
Birds: 455
Reptiles: 12
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 3


  1. Nick - I've often stumbled for idea's when trying to describe the much understated Garden Warbler! But i think the word 'mushroominess' best sums them up.

  2. Thanks Tony. They've certainly always looked mushroomy to me and absolutely love them.