I was wide awake in bed at 5am as the dawn chorus began this morning. Mum used to say that the dawn chorus always begins with a lone blackbird. That was certainly the case this morning. It was joined about ten minutes later by a goldfinch, then greenfinches, a dunnock, chaffinches and a robin.
The dawn chorus up here in the bleak Pennines is nothing like the ones of my childhood in the leafy Wirral, but it’s still pretty spectacular, once it gets going.
First update of 2012. What can I say? I've been busy.
January began with snowdrops. I spotted my first, under the smaller of our two sycamores on 5th—the earliest snowdrop in our garden ever, I believe. Two days later, and it was decapitated in a storm. But it was a welcome reminder that winters don't go on forever.
I have taken several walks on the moor. Ice and mud, mainly—and a few stalwart grouse. I also saw a flock of 48 fieldfares. (Yes, I counted them: sad, I know.)
I had a truly astonishing walk up on the moor on 11th February. The area had been hit by frozen ice, so every heather twiglet and blade of grass had been sheathed in ice. It was so cold that the grouse, which I could hear nearby, had taken to hiding instead of flying away—presumably to save energy. They couldn't have been getting much food, with all the heather frozen.
At home, we had our first siskin in the garden. Well, probably not our first—but certainly the first I recognised as a siskin! And we have had a small number of fieldfares and redwings in the front field, although those seem to have returned to Scandinavia now.
Then, this Tuesday, I was in the kitchen making a brew, when there was a tremendous crash against the window next to the bird-feeder. A sparrowhawk, I guessed. I ran over to the window, but there was no sign of anything, save for a few small feathers stuck to the window. But the blackbirds in the garden were going ballistic: they had clearly seen what had happened. I went back upstairs to work, but, 45 minutes later, I realised that the blackbirds were still going ballistic. I went to investigate, and found a little owl sitting in the thorn tree, getting mobbed by chaffinches. I managed to fire off a single, poorly exposed photo before it flew off.
I later read that little owls do indeed eat small birds. They also seem to have stolen a trick from sparrowhawks, and taken to ambushing small birds at feeders.
There are definite signs that spring is on the way. Our garden robin has taken to singing very vocally before sunrise, and is starting to get a bit bolshy. So I'm hoping I should be able to start giving more regular updates in this journal in the near future.
[W]hile on the one hand the study of Nature today aims to describe a system governed by immutable laws, on the other it delights in drawing our attention to creatures noteworthy for their bizarre physical form or behaviour. Even in Brehm's Thierleben, a popular nineteenth-century zoological compendium, pride of place is given to the crocodile and the kangaroo, the ant-eater and the armadillo, the seahorse and the pelican; and nowadays we are shown on the television screen a colony of penguins, say, standing motionless through the long dark winter of the Antarctic, with its icy storms, on their feet the eggs laid at a milder time of year. In programmes of this kind, which are called Nature Watch or Survival and are considered particularly educational, one is more likely to see some monster coupling at the bottom of Lake Baikal than an ordinary blackbird.
I'm with Sebald: I would much rather watch a documentary about blackbirds than one about monster couplings at the bottom of Lake Baikal. Darwin's remarkable theory describing how life's grandeur came about works for all species. A blackbird is every bit as remarkable as a seahorse or a pelican—and a lot more relevant to me personally.
As young boys, my dad and uncle were evacuated to Harlech in North Wales during the Second World War. They can still sing a particular song in Welsh together, although they have no idea what the words mean. Surprisingly, the woman who looked after them in Harlech was German noblewoman, Amalie (Amy) Elizabeth Sophie Graves, née von Ranke (1857–1951). She also happened to be the mother of the poet and author Robert Graves (1895–1985).
Dad was telling me recently that, although he doesn't remember an awful lot about his life as an evacuee, one of his clearest memories from that time is being allowed to look at a German book full of wonderful engravings of animals. I wonder if it was Brehms Thierleben, as described by Sebald:
North Wales, the Second World War, evacuees, German noblewomen, famous poets, zoological compendiums, unreliable memories…
Woken at Dad's at a little after 04:00 by a phenomenally noisy dawn chorus. It sounded as if hundreds of birds were taking part.
I lay in bed, unable to sleep. It was how I imagine it must sound first thing in the morning in a tropical rainforest. Although, admittedly, I'd be very surprised to hear a blackbird in a tropical rainforest.
Spotted at the bottom of Cragg Vale on my way to work this morning: three blackbirds attacking a magpie. Not just feigned attacks; real pecking was involved. I'm guessing the blackbirds were protecting nests—but the fact that there were three of them seemed odd.
I actually felt quite sorry for the magpie: he definitely ended up the worse from the encounter.
A minute later, I spotted two jays, corvid cousins of the magpie, flitting through the trees. A relatively rare sighting in this part of the world.