Dear readers, when I walk into Coldfall Wood my head is often full of ‘stuff’. What to cook for dinner? How I should deal with an awkward work situation? How to project manage my parents’ accessible bathroom, where work starts next week? Some days, I think I could walk past a dragon without noticing.
But on Thursday, when I got to the coppiced area of the wood, I finally woke up and noticed that there was something new. The whole area was bursting with song.
The wood was a-thrum with bird-music. If I listened carefully, I could pick out not only the robins and the wrens, singing enthusiastically from the hedges, but the churring call of blue tits, and the ‘teecher, teecher’ call of the great tit. Parakeets flew through at speed, cackling. A magpie was racketing like a machine gun, and a green woodpecker flew past, laughing. The longer I listened, the more I could hear. It was like gently relaxing into a warm, deep bath of sound.
Having enjoyed the ebb and flow of birdsong for half an hour, I wanted to capture something of this experience for you.In the little video below, you can see one robin, but also hear another and a wren in the background.
The wrens, however, were impossible for me to film. They would pop up onto a dead tree stump for twenty seconds and then disappear, only to pop up somewhere else. The photograph below is the best that I could manage, and that after almost an hour of listening, watching and, occasionally, swearing.
But for your delectation, here are some much nicer pictures by my photographer friend John Humble.
I love the way that song seems to explode out of the throat of the wren. If he were an opera-singer, he would be hoarse in no time. There are over eight million pairs of wrens in the UK, making them our commonest breeding bird by far and yet, apart from these brief weeks of boldness they seem to exist on the periphery of our vision, disappearing as soon we become aware of a movement. When not singing, the male makes several ‘cock’s nests’, ‘starter homes’ which are built to impress the females. If a female likes his work, she will mate with him and finish off the nest to her own exacting standards. In this way, the male may be able to have several females within his territory, all looking after his offspring. With so much to gain, it’s no wonder that he’s such an energetic singer.
As I walked on through the wood, I could feel that the pulse of life here had quickened. Two parakeets were mating on a tree branch. The woodpeckers were at it as well. Everything seemed to be in a hurry. There is evidence that more experienced birds of many species mate and breed early in the year – they often already have a partner and a nest site. If the season is bad and their first brood fails, they have time for another. In a very good year, they’ll maybe breed twice. Certainly, considering that it’s only just the beginning of March no-one is hanging around here. Every little feathery body seems to be trembling with lust.
I got to the stream at the middle of the wood, sat down on a damp log, and decided to just record the scene. There are robins and a wren singing in the background, plus the constant roar of the North Circular road and a squirrel nearly falling out of the tree at about ten seconds in. Never let it be said that you don’t get drama on Bugwoman’s Adventures in London.
I so enjoyed my time in the woods that, just before sunset, I popped back to see what else I could find. I walked up by the stream again, to find this robin still staking his territorial claim. I cannot imagine how many calories he must have to eat to keep up this performance from dawn till dusk, and sometimes even beyond it – a bird singing at night in the city is almost certainly a robin.
But what surprised me most, on this return visit, was the behaviour of the crows. Normally they are the most chatty of birds, cawing at one another constantly, as if commenting on everything that happens. But this evening, they were wheeling over the allotments without a sound, as if in stealth mode. I have had a sense of ritual with them before, and here it was again.
I do a lot of research for my pieces here on Bugwoman – it’s very important to me not to misinform my readers. I adore books and appreciate the vast amount of work that goes into them. And yet, sometimes what I read in books doesn’t tally with what I see. Crows, for example, are not meant to be social creatures, and yet in Coldfall they gather in huge groups, and communicate with one another all the time, either by call or by body language or by some other signal. In the end, there is much to be said for not relying solely on received wisdom. The world is endlessly new and full of surprises. All we have to do is put down our ‘stuff’ and notice.