A virtuoso joins the dawn chorus

Outdoor Living

WONDER WARBLER The blackcap’s song is one of the most beautiful of all Irish songbirds.


Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Dear Reader,
It was more than 20 years ago that the late Seán Staunton, whom many of you will have known, generously gave a complete novice room for his first nature column in The Mayo News.
Since then it has brought me a great deal of pleasure to write about this fine part of the world in which we live. I look forward to sharing more into the future, but with one difference. For reasons long forgotten, Seán and myself came up with a pen name, a nom-de-plume – that of John Shelley – which would accompany my work. But now it is no longer JS, but Michael Kingdon who’s name will appear, for yes, ‘tis I, though many already knew.
I’d like to thank those responsible for the kind comments that have come my way over the years. They are warmly appreciated.
And now we find ourselves once more in May. It wasn’t even six; although the world was already awake I simply wasn’t ready for it. There was that thrush again, his tune a mixed blessing. I like to hear him, but not at this hour. It carries to my ears on the illuminating rays of the morning sun. These slip through the wreath of leaves and twisting stems of evergreen honeysuckle that hangs on its framework of rowan, and cast rippling shadows around the room. There remains an unwelcome edge to the breeze that steals through the open window.
‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise’. I turned the proverb over in my mind. We’d all like to be healthy, of course. There’s nothing to be gained from worrying about our health though, for stress itself is a killer, causing all kinds of harmful bio-chemical responses in the human body. Therefore, becoming anxious over this matter of early rising is bound to be counterproductive.
As for wealth! Why, if only I could afford to do so, I would stay right here, tucked up against the cold, listening to the thrush repeating that same simple phrase over and again. His song is pretty enough but bordering on tiresome. I think about closing the window. It is out of reach.
And wisdom… another ancient proverb states ‘Better a handful of rest than a double handful of hard work’. King Solomon chose wisdom over wealth and as a result enjoyed both. The answer becomes readily apparent. I closed my eyes for my handful of rest and when I opened them again it was some time after seven.
The thrush was still at it, yelling at the top of his voice. Only it wasn’t a thrush. It was a male blackcap. I should have known, of course, but with my head awhirl with wise words it hadn’t occurred to me that such an unusual visitor would be gracing my garden. Now I could see him, perched just above the fence. He gave what seemed an apologetic look then opened his bill wide to let out another long, trilling crescendo of notes.
“I know,” I told him. “You’re just so full of spring you simply cannot keep it in.”
He let out another blast of song while I went in search of the camera, and when I came back he was gone. I saw him later, pulling threads of last year’s bindweed from the foot of an apple tree. Those tough fibres will form the foundation of a palm-sized nest. I think the patch of bramble behind the blackcurrant bushes will be home. I’m glad, now, that I didn’t remove it along with the rest.
It wasn’t long ago that the blackcap was rarely seen. According to the excellent reference loughcarra.org, less than a century ago prominent ornithologist Robert Ruttledge thought it might possibly have been an annual summer visitor. The authors of that same website, Chris and Lynda Huxley, conducted their own more recent, multi-year survey of breeding birds around Carra and report dozens of breeding blackcap pairs.
The northerly expansion of the normal range of many species has been attributed to our changing climate. Other birds frequently seen in our modern era but not encountered by Ruttledge, who spent many years studying Irish birdlife, include the jay and the little egret, while still more have declined in numbers or even disappeared altogether. The corncrake and the curlew are among those sadly missing.
How we’d welcome them back if only we could!