The weather here has turned wintry again. It’s never a smooth gradient through spring to summer. Documentaries about the Arctic, for example, always show the spring thaw as though it is one long process; one day it is frozen solid, the next day there are droplets of water, and the next day the sea-ice is moving and little alpine flowers are scattered across the tundra. I am guessing that there must be bad days when the ice re-freezes and winter comes back? Or maybe this variability is a product of being an island in the Atlantic.
Despite the cold and wet, however, the birds are still singing and trying hard to lift my heart.
Identifying birds by their songs and calls has become a major activity for me. I can’t see them anymore, so, rather than live in a world with no birds in it, I have forced myself to learn about them.
I started with the ones I already knew. All of us know some birds by sound – maybe town pigeons or the song of the blackbird – and just paying attention to these familiar sounds made me feel connected to a wild world I could not see. But I knew they were there and getting on with their lives. My problems were irrelevant to them, which is sometimes a good thing to be reminded of.
Then I concentrated on my local winter birds. Winter birds are easier because fewer of them make a noise and it’s correspondingly easier to distinguish them. For people in the UK I recommend starting in the winter with the crow family (crow, jackdaw, magpie, jay etc), great tits, wrens and robins.
Once I had dropped the paranoia about getting it wrong it was wonderful, because I started to listen. I was aware of the existence of all these birds around me that I couldn’t name but I knew they were there. They didn’t care if I wrongly identified a coal tit as a great tit, so why should I?
Of course, it mattered to me that I got it right, but that would come with practise. And it wouldn’t matter how long it took.
I found it almost impossible to remember a song heard in the woods when I got home, so I try to carry a little recorder with me, and I bought a comprehensive collection of songs and calls. I grouped similar songs together on my computer and worked at distinguishing them. Blackbird and mistle thrush were hard to tell apart for a while, until someone pointed out that the blackbird sounds much lazier, pauses at the end of a phrase for the exact length of time that the phrase took to sing, and that most phrases end with a squeak.
Mistle thrushes are much more anxious and they are always in a bit of a hurry. As they often sing in bad weather (which is why they are also called the stormcock) I suppose they are rushing to get it over with so they can get home!
Just like me in the sleet this morning!