Dear Readers, the grasshopper warblers will soon be arriving in the UK (if they’re not here already), but it’s likely that you’ve never seen one unless you are a very dedicated birdwatcher – these are extremely shy, cryptically coloured birds, quintessential ‘little brown jobs’. You might well have heard one, though, without realising it, because this bird isn’t named after a susurrating insect for nothing. This recording is from the Netherlands, by Michel Veldt.
Listening to the song makes me wonder just how much energy this small bird must use to call at this intensity for such a long time. It’s astonishing. The bird can keep up this call for two to three minutes without so much as pausing for breath. My Crossley Guide describes it as a ‘fast reeling trill (actually 26 double notes per second) on constant pitch – it also sounds like a cyclist freewheeling‘. It’s all the more surprising that the bird can keep this up when you consider that grasshopper warblers have already flown all the way from north and west Africa.
Furthermore, the male displays by running along twigs with his wings and tail spread, often carrying a twig or leaf in his beak as an added incentive. The nest is built low to the ground in reedbeds or other dense foliage, and herein lies one reason for their drastic decline over the past few decades – wetlands are drained, water is polluted, and as the birds are insectivorous there is also the decline in insect populations to consider. Both parents incubate and rear the nestlings here in the UK before the whole family flies south again for the winter, and fortunately overall the species is doing well, with a range that encompasses much of temperate Europe and Central Asia. As we’ve seen time and time again, it is the UK that is losing (and has lost) much of its wildlife. In the words of beloved David Attenborough, we are the most nature-depleted country in Europe.
The song of the grasshopper warbler is at exactly the frequency of sound that we tend to lose the ability to hear as we get older. And so, here’s a second excerpt for those of us who still can hear it. How sad it would be if even those with young ears weren’t able to hear this strange summer sound, because the bird that makes it no longer visits us? This excerpt was recorded by Irish Wildlife Sounds on Cahore Marsh in Ireland.
Dear Readers, this bird doesn’t breed in the UK, but it is a winter visitor, and it’s Red listed because the numbers that visit are declining. So, what is going on? There are two distinct populations of white-fronted goose who visit us: in Ireland and western Scotland, the winter sees the arrival of ‘Greenland’ white-fronts, while in the east and south of England, we are visited by birds from the steppes of Russia. Both these populations have been affected by climate change, but in very different ways.
The Greenland birds visit us in the winter, spend time in Iceland in autumn and spring, and then head to Greenland to lay their eggs and raise their young, a window of only three months. However, the rising temperature of the North Atlantic means that these birds now sometimes arrive in Greenland to heavy snow – previously, the snow wouldn’t come until the birds had laid their eggs and were incubating them, before melting away when the goslings were old enough to start foraging. The earlier snow means that, just when the birds should start feeding up so that they had energy stores to take them through the exhausting business of egg-laying, their food was buried. Many birds are too skinny to reproduce, and the overall effect is that there aren’t enough young birds to replace the old ones. The Greenland population is therefore out of sync with the climate cycle of the region, which doesn’t bode well for the future of these birds.
For the Russian birds, the story is brighter. Again, there has been a decline in the number of birds reaching the UK but this is largely because the birds are ‘short-stopping’ – the winters are generally milder in Continental Europe now, so the birds stay there instead of using energy to push on to our shores. This is the case with a lot of bird species now, and just adds to our sorry state of ‘nature-depletion’.
White-fronted geese can be found pretty much all over the northern hemisphere, so you can find these birds in North America too. There, they are known as ‘greater white-fronted geese’ to distinguish them from the ‘lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus). I love that the greater white-fronted goose is also known as the ‘specklebelly’ in the USA. The white-fronted goose can be distinguished from the larger and commoner greylag goose because the white-front has that white band at the top of the bill, and also has orange legs, compared to the greylag’s pink ones.
My Crossley ID guide describes the call of the white-fronted goose as ‘disyllabic, with yelping, laughing quality. See what you think. This was recorded by Stanislas Wroza close to Strasbourg in France.
A famous flock of white-fronted geese were part of the inspiration for Sir Peter Scott to found the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust – they used to arrive at Slimbridge, now a reserve in Gloucestershire. Sometimes the white-fronts have one of the much rarer lesser white-fronted geese with them – these geese really are small, barely larger than a mallard. Slimbridge is still a wonderful place to watch waterfowl of all kinds. Lesser white-fronted geese are considered to be an endangered species across their range.
Lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus)
By now, many white-fronted geese will already have departed, en route to their breeding grounds in the east or the west. Let’s hope that conditions in Greenland are good for the western birds, and that the eastern birds arrive without being shot out of the sky. They are relatively mannerly geese, compared to the assertiveness (ahem) of the greylag goose, who will snatch a croissant from your hand without so much as a by-your-leave. And we could all do with a bit more gallantry in our lives, I’m sure.
Crossley Guide illustration of white-fronted geese – European (Russian) subspecies are the two large birds on the left, the Greenland birds are the two large birds on the right)
Dear Readers, when I used to go to visit my parents in Dorset, I would often take a walk around the fields to reacquaint myself with the farmland birds, much rarer now than they were when I was a girl. I remember that, in my Ladybird Book of Birds, there was a little yellow bird, rather like a canary, that sang a song that was supposed to sound like ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’. I’m not sure that it does, though – see what you think (recording in the Netherlands by Michael Veldt). Apparently in summer a male can repeat the call 3000 times per day.
The song of the yellowhammer has inspired several composers – the first notes of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto was said to be based on the yellowhammer’s song. Messiaen(1908 -1992) used the bird’s song over and over again, most notably for our purposes in Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, which also features many other birds, including the blackbird, ring ouzel, wren, chaffinch, black woodpecker and blackcap. If you have an hour to spare, you can listen to the whole thing here.
Male birds hold territories along lengths of hedgerow, and therein lays one of the problems, what with hedgerows being grubbed out and replaced with wire fencing. About 400 million farm and grassland birds have disappeared in the past thirty years, but many farms are changing their practices to encourage wildlife to come back, and where they are, the results can be impressive – at the RSPBs Hope Farm, yellowhammer numbers have increased by more than 80%. They are still on the Red List, though, so lots more people in the countryside need to resist the urge to tidy up every patch of rough grass and weeds. Sometimes, a scrubby ‘mess’ can be a haven.
The poor old yellowhammer was once thought to carry a drop of blood on his tongue, and his eggs were said to contain strange Satanic messages on their shells – the bird was also known as ‘Scribble Jack’. Those eggs are truly beautiful.
And finally, here’s a poem by John Clare, closely and tenderly observed as always. I love the last few lines…
When shall I see the white thorn leaves agen And yellowhammers gath’ring the dry bents By the dyke side on stilly moor or fen Feathered wi love and natures good intents Rude is the nest this Architect invents Rural the place wi cart ruts by dyke side Dead grass, horse hair and downy headed bents Tied to dead thistles she doth well provide Close to a hill o’ ants where cowslips bloom And shed o’er meadows far their sweet perfume In early Spring when winds blow chilly cold The yellowhammer trailing grass will come To fix a place and choose an early home With yellow breast and head of solid gold.
Dear Readers, after the relatively exotic delights of last week’s corn crake, this week I wanted to feature a bird that we think of as common, but which has seen a breeding decline of almost 50 percent since the 1960s. The mistle thrush is a big, strong, territorial bird – it’s larger than a song thrush, with round spots rather than ‘arrowheads’, but I think one of its most distinctive features is what my Crossley ID guide describes as a ‘beer gut’. The ‘mistle’ part of the name comes from the bird’s liking for berries, particularly those of mistletoe, but I rather like another name, ‘storm-cock’ – the bird can often be seen in wild and woolly weather, singing with what is described as ‘a far-off, melancholy air’. It also has a distinctive rattling flight call.
It rather sounds as if this bird, recorded in Saxony, Germany by David Kuster, was singing in the middle of a downpour.
And here’s that call – it sounds rather like a very small football rattle (if you’re old enough to remember such things). This one was recorded in Galicia by Jacobo Ramil Millarengo.
Unlike song thrushes, you are unlikely to see a mistle thrush in your garden, but they are often found in parks. There are a pair that nest in East Finchley’s Cherry Tree Wood, where they defend their territory against all comers. The ones in the photos today were spotted in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, and very fine they were too, an unexpected delight. At the time, I wrote how Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey recorded how diligently one pair of mistle thrushes defended their nest ‘ ‘driving away sparrowhawk and buzzard, knocking a barn owl off its perch and attacking and killing a jackdaw’. You don’t mess with these guys, for sure.
Mistle thrush in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery
Mistle thrush in Cherry Tree Wood
This is a bird that it’s worth looking out for now – it starts to nest as early as mid February, so if you see any barn owls being beaten up or jackdaws wrestled to the ground, it might be worth checking to see who the aggressors are. The females build big, messy nests in the fork of a tree.
Why mistle thrushes are in decline seems to be at least in part due to the usual suspects – farmland degradation (especially the grubbing-up of hedgerows which provide food in the winter), a decrease in the number of earthworms, drought and other climatic changes, pesticides, herbicides etc etc etc. It makes the sites that we do have all the more valuable – close to me we have two patches of ancient woodland (Cherry Tree Wood and Coldfall Wood) and a huge cemetery with lots of ancient trees. Let’s hope that these patches of wildness continue to punch above their weight in terms of biodiversity. Suburban areas are fast becoming the last refuge of many animals and plants, strange as it seems, and so it’s even more important to protect them than it has been in the past.
And here, just in case you’re still confused, is an illustration from the Crossley ID guide. The little bird second from the left is a song thrush – see how much more compact it is. No beer belly on a song thrush! Two such similar birds, but so different in character.
And finally, a poem. I love this work by Paul Farley from the wonderful ‘Caught by the River‘ website – that evocation of a time long ago, combined with the sense of menace, and of defiance. The feeling of childhood, and of how things change in a moment. Did I say that I loved this? I really do.
‘Mistle Thrush’ by Paul Farley
3rd November 2019
The first park is always the fastest park,
parked under a cloudless
sky and fastened in memory
with stakes and ropes. The word picnic
is a tablecloth thrown onto the grass
attached to the word green.
The word idyll waits out of earshot.
A faun in the fountain burbles.
There is Sunblest. There is Golden Wonder.
And then, thunder.
Now the park begins bristling under that sky
which has darkened. This is the future.
This is counting towards the sound.
These are the particles rising
like the bead in your cream soda.
This is the mizzy beginning its song
from the top of the highest tree.
This is a drone shot of a thunder god.
This is a dangerous place to be
an I, sings the mizzy—I, a copper crozier.
I, a silver vaulting pole.
I, a suit of platinum armour.
I, a boom of gold.
The mizzy, with its restraining order
on humans, the wariest thrush.
The mizzy, that’s working the park pretty loose.
The day is all coming unstuck.
Where a moment ago you were in a safe place
now there’s distance everywhere you look.
The mizzy will only allow you so close.
The thunder follows the flash.
The words that you’re learning all carry a charge
and attract or repel. Bring it on,
the mizzy sings, holding its nerve,
flying in the face of us.
Dear Readers, if you only paid attention to my garden you probably wouldn’t think that starlings were in trouble – they pop in every day, in spring they bring their fledglings and they provide entertainments for hours at a time. But sadly, I can remember when there were murmurations of starlings over the islands in St James’s Park in central London, and when the trees in Leicester Square were so full of roosting starlings that it was dangerous to the coiffure to stand underneath them. There has been a rapid breeding population decline, which, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, is largely due to intensive agricultural management, and in particular the lack of breeding sites – with old barns being knocked down and with new houses lacking the under roof tile cavities and other spaces where starlings used to nest. Starlings do take happily to nest boxes, however (particularly those with a 45mm diameter cavity if you fancy popping a few up), so both the RSPB and the BTO are keen for people to do so if they have the space.
In the breeding season, the male birds will attempt to guard some nest sites, and encourage several females to lay their eggs in them. Competition is fierce, and the males may end up with only female. The females, however, will cheerfully lay their eggs in the nests of other females if they can get away with it, so that another couple do all the work.The females that do this are usually unpaired females, or ones who haven’t found a nest site yet, but who have mated anyway. They may well settle down later in the season, but nestlings that hatch early in the year have a much better chance of success.
If you’ve listened to a starling at any point, you’ll know what a great range of sounds they can make. In Henry IV, Part One, Hotspur, enraged that the king has called his brother-in-law Mortimer a traitor, states that
“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but Mortimer and give it to him
to keep his anger still in motion”.
In other words, the starling will say ‘Mortimer’ until the King goes mad.
Mozart had a starling too, and he taught it to sing part of one of his piano concertos. The bird died a week after his father’s funeral. He didn’t attend that, but he did give the bird a full memorial service, a tombstone, and a poem.
Have a listen to the starling singing in my whitebeam tree last summer. Apologies for the background rumble!
On the BTO website, they also mention how adaptable starlings are. In the spring they eat mainly insects, especially leatherjackets, but as the year wears on they take to berries and fruit, and their digestive tract lengthens as a result. I’ve seen them hawking for flies, trying to catch tadpoles (though with less success than our local blackbird) and anything on the bird table is up for grabs. Maybe their adaptability will be what saves these spiky birds in the end, as they leave the open fields and the centre of cities to live mostly on the outskirts. I do hope so.
Dear Readers, when we used to go on holiday to Dorset as children, we would often walk around the ramparts of Maiden Castle, an Iron Age fort with row upon row of grassy ramparts and ditches. We would run up and down, and everywhere there was the sound of skylarks, each one erupting from the grass and singing all the way up until it was just a speck in against the hot blue of those eternal summers. A male bird can stay up, hovering and singing, for more than an hour, and this ability is taken by the female birds as evidence of fitness and health, both desirable characteristics in a partner.
Maiden Castle (Photo by Chris Downer)
For those of you who have never heard a skylark, imagine a perfect summer day, with a bit of a breeze, and the hills rolling green before you (recording by W. Agster)
Skylarks are essentially agricultural birds, and this is where they have suffered, like so many of our countryside inhabitants. There is less to eat in the stubble, and the use of herbicides means that there is less available for these seed-eating birds. Then, the sowing of late crops meant that the foliage was too high for the birds to nest in. A lot of farmers with their huge machines only leave ‘nature-friendly’ patches at the side of fields, and skylarks prefer to be better protected from predators. Various measures have been tried, but so far none of them have worked. If you have a few pennies (though who has at the moment), the British Trust for Ornithology is running a Farmland Birds Appeal, which will do research into the best ways to restore the habitat not only the skylark but other birds such as the yellowhammer, corn bunting and turtle dove.
When I went walking around Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, weighed down with worries about my parents, I was often taken out of myself by the flash of yellow that is a yellow hammer, or a flock of linnets. But one day I walked past a barren field and a skylark erupted from the rubble, singing all the way up, and taking my heart with him. Let’s hope that people of goodwill can save this bird yet.