A Journey With Blackbirdowl

Monday, May 04, 2009

Saluting the song birds

Sunday May 3, 2009:

ON this year of the birds, it is only right that I mark International Dawn Chorus Day. It’s not so easy to get up this morning. My body has not yet adjusted to the alarmingly early start two days ago. Still, the thought of the birds does the trick.

As we step out of the taxi in a pleasant suburban street in Kilburn, the song thrushes are giving it some welly. Our guide, Dave the conservationist tells us that they are the first birds to sing this morning – which is surprising as the blackbird is famously usually the first bird of the day.

We stand on the street and listen to their song. They find a phrase they like and sing it several times. Then they find another and sing that several more times. There are three birds, we think.

Ah now here comes the blackbird – a deeper richer sound. He sings away and I feel my face crack into a proud smile. That’s my bird, I think as he dominates the air.

WE walk about inside the little nature reserve next to the railway line to Euston. It’s a little haven of meadows and trees. Soon, the robins begin to sing, then the wood pigeon.

The air thins as it always does at dawn. Imperceptibly, it grows warmer. Now comes a great tit, chirruping away. And then, dominating by volume, the little wren begins to sing his heart out.

I stand amongst damp bushes and allow myself to be washed of sleep and sadness. I imagine the silver song flowing over me, feel it creep into my joints and they begin to feel better. Ah, this is the life!

It’s six am. The birds have been singing for two hours. Suddenly, they quieten down. It is our cue to seek out breakfast.

Hunger satisfied, we walk back down the road away from the little nature reserve. Dave hollers after us. We turn and climb down as he has heard the black cap sinning. WE join him and listen as the little bird offers us titbits of its warbling song. Our chorus complete, we make our way home.

Under the silver halo– Hampstead Heath

Friday May 1, 2009:

“Encircled by the blackbird’s song
The golden sun begins to rise.
Beneath the mist, the flower strewn heath,
Proves summer is a-coming in!”
I feel distinctly grumpy this morning. Perhaps it’s the unearthly hour or my irritation that the taxi driver doesn’t know where he is going. My p.a. has lost her house keys and is keeping us waiting. I’m not very good at being late. It makes me nervous. I breathe and ask to leave my anxiety and impatience with winter.

We walk under a soft dark sky circled by birdsong, their fluting and twittering ringing above our heads like silver audio halos of joy! I breathe in the fresh morning and imagine the sound gilding everything around us.

I scoop up the cool dew and wash my face in it, feeling my warm cheeks cool. At the top of the hill, London lies beneath us, a million lights glittering in the greying dawn. WE sing a song, do a little dance, leave a posy and walk on. At the pine grove, we sing another song, leave another posy and walk on.

There is a rolling mist across the heath. WE wade through it and as we do, wild flowers glisten in the dawn light. Two male mallards sit companionably together beside the path watching us as we stride forth. Frivolously, I wonder aloud if they are staking out a new gay cruising ground! I quack cheerfully at them as I pass.

We walk on and I begin to feel distinctly tetchy as I march up the uneven hill. My knees hurt this morning and I am thinking about the climb over the fence into Boudica’s mount.

But we are there to help each other. Despite my swearing, I get over. We gather amongst the trees and make wishes laying our hands upon the head of the prancing ‘Obby ‘Oss, who is proving this morning to be a bit of a handful! I wish to be happy in my heart – a public acknowledgement that, despite the good things that have been happening recently, I’m still sad in my heart. Briefly I wonder what the basis of that sadness is before my mind is drawn back to the problem of getting back over the fence again!

That accomplished, we all walk down through the heath towards the Kenwood Springs. Perhaps it is the abundance of the dawn chorus that has inspired us, but we sing all the way. Some sacred songs, some might musical, a hymn and some silly songs. WE have the heath to ourselves, only the birds are making more racket than we.

The spring bubbles and tinkles. WE circle it and drink tea and eat strawberries. WE sing to the spring and gather may to wear in our hair and as a pre breakfast snack. Here, we give thanks for what is turning out to be a gloriously sunny summer morning and begin to make our way back across the heath, to breakfast.

Dragon fly king – Dunwich

Sunday April 26, 2009:

The threatened rain has not materialised. I shove the thick jumpers and heavy waterproof into my bulging suitcase. It’s tee-shirt weather and I still feel like a schoolgirl on a summer holiday.

We walk west this time, along a circular route. Dunwich village is quiet. The church sits peacefully amongst its grounds. The little lane is flanked by high hedgerows and runs between woods, the occasional nice detached house, and farmland.

From time to time we meet other walkers and I am struck, not for the first time about the walker’s etiquette of always saying “hello”. It all seems rather civilised to me and I “halloo” along with the rest of the party as we pass strangers. But for the most part, we share the lane only with the birds and I suspect, I’m the only one saying “hello” to them!
WE turn and move into open space. The heath is festooned with bright yellow gorse, the air sweet with its soft coconut fragrance. I imagine the vivid yellow against the dark green gorse, backed by the soft sandy soil and the whole, lying serenely under a clear blue sky. I construct the painting in my head, draw hazy white airplane trails and small, swiftly moving dark shapely dots of fast flying birds wheeling overhead, their wings all a-glitter with the noon-day sun.

We’ve been walking for some time now and we search for a place to sit and rest for a while. I set my little green mat down in a patch of sunlight and stretch out beneath the kind and gentle sun. Closing my eyes, I allow the soft sandy soil to support me as I listen to my companions chatter and the call of sky larks high above me. I breathe in the sensual sweetness of the gorse flowers.

Standing against the dark green gorse leaves, the yellow flowers and the blue, blue sky is a strange creature. He is tall and thin, with delicate antennae waving and bobbing on top of his head. Great turquoise chiffon wings spread wide on either side of his body. They flutter in the breeze and the light shines through them like iridescent rainbows on oily water.

I gaze and the image is clearer now. His narrow face is dark, the antennae waving like flexible elegant antlers, his body long and thin, the gorse half concealing his legs. I can’t tell properly but he looks like an enormous dragon fly with a human face and the most beautiful of gauzy wings.

Now I can see his eyes, dark, calm and steady. He stands and silently regards me. I am transfixed, full of wonder. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful and yet so unearthly.

The narrow face is androgynous the body too indistinct to guess further at his gender. He looks ethereal, other worldly yet definitely here in the flesh. I feast my eyes, drinking in every detail about his beauty.

A few feet away, a companion cackles with laughter. My neighbour leans across and prods me. I sit up and he is gone.

On we trudge down a sandy track into the woods. The trees hold their newly greening branches over the path. Warm fingers of sunshine tenderly stroke my cheek. Still the image of the dragon fly shimmers in my minds eye as I walk.

Out of the woods now, we sit down under a hawthorn hedge to eat lunch. I picture the dragon fly and the heath as I eat. I feel a soft sense of calm and peace settle upon me. How fortunate I am to be able to spend time amongst the beauty of this green earth and how good to be able to find this peace again by remembering the beautiful dragon fly.

Between the shining waters - Dunwich to Walberswick

Saturday April 25, 2009:

Today we’re going north, to Walberswick and another nature reserve. The Suffolk coastal walk takes us on a rutted path between thorn edged fields and houses with sweeping drives and hidden lawns. I plod along, for I AM TIRED, HAVING WALKED ALREADY FOR TWO HOURS IN PERSUIT OF MORNING BIRDS. #

Sun shines down from a cloud scudded sky. It feels more like July than April. I feel very much “on holiday” and don’t mind my tiredness.

I am glad though when we sit down for a snack and a rest. I sit on a bank whilst my companion describes the surroundings. Over the hedge, on the edge of the river, for we are now walking beside the River Dunwich, swans go about their business. Suddenly, one rises up into the sky and flies past us, gracefully pooing as he goes!

Our guide, a little fixated by animal bodily functions is intent on allowing us the experience of encountering otter sprint – an oily liquid poo smelling rather of carbolic soap. ON side of the path, the grasses have been flattened by something beating a straight path to and from the water.

Rested, we climb to our feet and trudge on. Now we are shoulder high amongst the reeds on the nature reserve just south of Walberswick. Here, the river Dunwich meets other water courses, pools of shining silvery water ringed by dark reeds are all around us.

Suddenly, I have had enough and I retreat to sit by the river on some steps and wait for the Twitchers of our party to return. Whilst there, my companion spies reed warblers, herons and another high flying bird of prey circling overhead. The second of a group of teenage Duke of Edinburgh Awarders stagger past under their impossibly heavily looking stuffed rucksacks. I raise my face to the sun and breathe the slightly fishy salty air.

Now we scramble over a bank into a wood. Here we will eat lunch and rest before walking on into Walberswick. Here too the wetlands have stretched, the boggy ground under our feet traversed by means of narrow and slippery duckboards. Still, we make it and scramble up to a circle of trees.

The woods are relatively quiet. Only insects and small creeping creatures rustle about in the undergrowth and amongst the dry leaf mould. The wind, sharper now, reaches into the coolness to remind us that indeed, it is still only April.

We edge our way down the steep path, seeking the driest route. Out of the woods, we move towards the sea. Climbing up into a shifting pebble bank, the sea wind smacks at us, making me wobble slightly as I march doggedly forward. My knees are killing me – they hate this unstable terrain. Thinking of tea and cakes, I walk on.

Post dawn chorus - Dunwich

Saturday April 25, 2009:

I can’t persuade anyone to actually get up at dawn and have to be contented with a pre breakfast saunter. AS we walk up the road out of the village, we are encircled by cheerful singing. The garden birds are in fine voice.

Mr Show-off, the blackbird sings from every corner. I imagine him perched up high on a sunlit branch, his head thrown back and his beak open singing to the morning, his song a shower of freshness, heart lifting and courage finding. The wren soon joins in with its elaborate trilling song, surprisingly loud for such a small and humble looking little bird. Not to be outdone, the robins begin quarrelling in the tree tops and then singing as hard as they can.

Here the road is boarded by big houses, set back in their own spacious gardens, backed by a cool coppice. High in the tree canopy the yaffle of a green woodpecker echoes, is punctuated by the snappy “jack, jack” of the jackdaw and the bad-tempered screech of the jay. I swear I hear the gentle hooting of an owl, clearly confused by the time of day.

From behind a barn, a cockerel crows and a dog barks. The chaffinches are duelling the tits with their songs and the black cap occasionally punctuates their noise with his thrilling warble.

We stop still and listen. There amongst the bushes of a bare plot of land, a nightingale begins his distinctive song. Twice in 24 hours. I feel honoured. Dodging out of the way of the milk van, we move on.

“Do you know how to tell the difference between a pidgin and a dove,” says my companion. She goes on to explain that a wood pigeon sings “my feet hurt Betty”, the collar-dove, “My feet hurt” and the stock Dover “feet hurt”. I stop and listen and sure enough, the wood pigeon is importuning the uncomplaining Betty about his poor feet. The Collar dove gets to the point with his simple statement and the stock dove, presumably too exhausted to waste words gets to the nub of the matter.

My stomach growls. A partridge shrieks and a crow caws. Somewhere in the distance, a gull peons. We make our way swiftly back to the Inn in search of breakfast.

Bird song and dance (Dunwich to Minsmeer)

Friday April 24, 2009:

The sun warms our faces as we thread our way along a thorn bounded path hard by the Grey Friars Abby and gardens. The blackthorn froths with blossom, the mustard garlic subtly pungent as we brush against it. Grey Friar’s wood is dappled, cool and sheltered. The songs of the humble garden and wood birds silver the air and the new green leaves uncurl imperceptibly, knowing that summer will soon be here. Laced between the triumphant blackbird’s call, a black cap’s warble is sometimes heard.

Out on the heath, the wind blows the coconut sweet breath of the gorse flowers lovingly into our faces. Willow warblers and sky larks called across the blue sky above the brilliant yellow gorse.

A-top a cliff now, the beach stretches out like a pale crescent to left and right. Below, the breakers crash upon the tumbling stones. WE walk on as the gulls circle above us, shrieking.
Meanwhile on Minsmeer, a pair of Avocet scoop their upturned beaks into the water, stand and gaze around then tuck their heads beneath their wings for an afternoon snooze. On an island nearby, two gulls quarrel with a third who is intent on building a nest. It flies back and forth with twigs longer than its body in a never-ending zigzag of industriousness. A pair of shovellers, with wide Daffy Duck blunt beaks which make them look like they are smiling idiotically; push their beaks into the mud in search of a snack. On the other side, a group of greylag geese rise as one into the air calling to each other like a dozen rusty gate hinges. In front of us, a mallard sticks his bottom into the air. Across the water, the noise is incredible, like feeding-time at the zoo only worse. I imagine them all, sequenced and arranged as though in an indiscipline and disobedient Busby Barkley dance routine.

After tea and fruit cake, just as the sun begins to slide behind the tall trees, from the depth of a thorn bush, I hear a nightingale begin to sing. His melodious song captivates us all; harden Twitchers and fledgling birders alike. We stand in a circle, spell-bound and my heart shivers lightly. “Aaah”, I sigh, allowing tension to slide away.

Night walking – Dunwich in Suffolk

Thursday April 23, 2009:

On Wessleton heath, the night hums, crashing waves and distant traffic bind the quiet dark stillness in which we stand to listen for nightlife. Only a red legged partridge shrieks across the woods. Our ears play tricks on us. Is that a baby crying or a vixen’s love call? And is that rhythmical chuffing, a train, a motorboat out at sea or an unknown creature of the night?

By Fenstreet reservoir, a cluster of tall reeds frames the soft darkness that is the treacherous unseen water. Nothing is stirring. WE move on along the lane.

A church clock strikes ten. The dome of the sky throws its sonorous unhurried chimes back to as. Another red legged partridge shrieks, is silent and then shrieks again. His call echoes against the undulating land upon which we stand.

Silence again. Then softly a tawny owl hoots as it swoops invisibly upon its small scurrying prey. A bush shakes and I feel the gentlest paw or hoof fall in the grass verge behind me. I do not turn –merely stretch out my ears to its silent presence as though to nod “hello”. And then, across the sky, the rasping rough bark of a fox cuts the air.