Trading places and changing tunes

Outdoor Living

BLACK MARKET The changing season sees hungry blackbirds from afar join those already resident to load up on whatever food is in stock.

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Changes are afoot around the lake. A mere score of years ago this eastern side of Moore Hall Bay reached uninterrupted as far as Connor’s Island.
Since then, years of weeds and reed have grown and died and drifted in, turning open water first to marsh, then to fen, and finally to dry land. The spawning of tiny islets trimmed sheltered corners as these linked arms. A variety of trees came as pioneers to claim the new ground. Alder, birch and willow were the first – I see them even now, as little thickets, and in my mind’s eye see the woodland they will yet become.
Other changes are more immediate. Last spring this new green had been filled with birdsong. Perhaps it is my own changing perception, but there were more small birds than I ever knew. Warblers thronged about the bushes; the voice of finch and thrush swelled each dawn and dusk. I found nests, not by searching but by watching from afar, and rather than record them, let them keep their secrets.
This morning the bay is silent. Many of those smaller birds have gone to winter elsewhere. The whooper swans have moved on, the raft of goldeneye and tufted duck have dispersed and the manic laughter of a solitary male mallard can be heard only in the distance.
A long and ragged line of rooks flies overhead. They talk among themselves with low words only they can understand. One day, with new trees fully grown, perhaps this will be their home.
There is a certain gentle air about the place, a sense of inevitability, an assurance that no matter the contrivance of man and the changes wrought by artificial means, nature has a way of filling any void.
As the light grows new riches appear. A troop of little finches pass me by, pausing here and there to pick tiny seeds from alder catkins. Yellow-breasted siskin swing from crooked twigs; red-topped redpoll join them in the feast, less agile but still a visual treat. They pass as an undulating wave, a mini-migration along this linear woodland.
Growing cold in other parts has displaced many other birds, pressing them here to the west where they find the climate less cruel. More will arrive in the next week or two – we expect woodcock, lapwing, curlew; new notes almost every day.
This morning it was blackbirds. I have a resident cock blackbird, a friendly, trusting sort of chap called Amsel. I throw him crusts and crumbs of this and that and leave an apple out for him to pick at. His feathers are glossy black, his eye and beak still yellow gold. He knows I wait to hear his voice, but saves it for that first warmer dawn just six weeks off.
There he was and there was I, with crumbs and coffee between us. A new bird arrived, another of his kind but with plumage just a little ragged and rather dull. Amsel looked a little shocked at this intrusion, and was even more taken aback when he was rudely pushed aside to have his breakfast stolen.
I saw his normally placid nature change in a moment as he spread his wings, opened wide his bill and flung himself upon the newcomer. The incoming bird retreated with Amsel at his tail. Then two more arrived, then six or eight together to fall upon the apple and devour every fragment of food they could find.
Poor Amsel was beside himself. He flew into a rage, pitching first into one of the migrants and then another until he finally sat in the crab tree with his beak agape, struggling for breath and looking on with disbelief as the pillaging flock set about turning his leaves and eating whatever could be found beneath them.
The same thing happens every winter. Migrant blackbirds invade the territory normally held by residents. Fierce fights ensue and the migrants prevail by sheer weight of numbers. These new arrivals are invariably less smart in appearance and a good deal more shy than cheeky, normally cheerful Amsel and his Irish-bred cousins.
Perhaps it is the arduous journey these have undertaken that leaves them on edge. Or maybe they simply aren’t used to seeing people. Some will have come from remote parts of northern Scotland, from Scandinavia or the Baltic. Other thrushes, redwing and fieldfare will join them in the days ahead.
Nothing stays the same. ‘All change!’ says the conductor.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.