The joy of bird-watching

Country Sights and Sounds
The joy of bird-watching

John Shelley

I first started taking an interest in birds at about ten years of age, when a barn owl made nightly visits to the fields around our home. What a bird it was, too. A mysterious, whitened shadow appearing in the dusk, whickering those piercing cries as it passed by on silent wings.
We missed the owl when we moved from our remote and insular moorland abode to a far more cosmopolitan area where we had neighbours within half a mile, whichever direction we cared to travel. In one of those half-mile-houses lived Ian, a boy of my own age who owned a pair of binoculars.
And what marvellous things they were. Barely visible distant specks could be summoned forward through space to be admired and sometimes identified, though to me the birds never needed names. I could watch them a while and move along to the next river pool to catch another trout. Ian, on the other hand, would make notes and gather feathers to measure and store and write about. Always a gifted naturalist, he now runs an environmental tour company from his bolthole in the Derbyshire Peak District.
He learned the Latin names of birds. I learned the folk tales that were connected with them. Both are of equal value. It is essential, of course, that we gain a proper understanding of the creatures with which we share our planet. But it is equally important that we grasp the relationship that exists between people and their environment.
Past generations learned a lot from the birds. For instance, a large influx of thrushes from northern Europe and Scandinavia indicates that cold weather has fallen upon those lands. If many hundreds of these migratory redwings and fieldfares arrive within a short period of time we can be certain that something has forced them to move all at once. Invariably it is bad weather that moves the birds into areas where food is more freely available, and if they start to appear in ever greater numbers we know that weather is not far behind them.
Until quite recently weather has always been of the utmost importance. Indeed, a family’s very survival depended on their being able to meet the challenges that winter might bring. So one eye was kept on the horizon, and the other on the birds.
If a blackbird sings the night through we should watch out for rain. When the song thrush stays at his singing post until mid-morning we can be sure a spell of fine, spring weather is on its way. Suppose the owl should fly by day? Some wait with certainty for misfortune to befall them, while others know the coming night will be one of high wind.
Do the rooks stay close to their roost? Then conditions will deteriorate, with wind and rain before the day’s end. Or do the same birds depart at daybreak for their more distant feeding grounds? If so, we can be sure the sun will shine.
I watched the rooks this very morning, kiting on the wind, soaring on raggy black wings, working hard to make headway just for the sheer pleasure of being carried back on the back of one heavy gust to where they started from. Despite the bright sunshine that lit up the holly they were loath to leave the rookery. Sure enough, by lunchtime the rain was back once more.
Since the early days, when one rook by himself was a crow and several crows together were rooks, I have learned enough about different species to know that I shall never know everything, and that there is room for a little science in my rural mind.
Accurate knowledge about our local birds certainly adds to our enjoyment of them. And so do the old stories. I was outside a short while ago, walking in the hard, cold light of a winter moon. There were few visible stars in the sky, but there was something else. Barely discernable above the whispering of the trees I heard the thin wheezing calls of Turdus iliacus (redwing) multiplied many times over as a large flock descended from the north east. Tomorrow they will be at the holly berries, moving from one bush to the next, stripping the branches as they go.
Now and then a silent, shadowy shape flitters between the cold moon and myself. More Scolopax rusticola (woodcock) moving into the woods down the way. I think we shall see more storms yet, before the song thrush comes to warm the woods with his song.