The Herald - The Herald Magazine
Lifting our hearts amid the leaves
Brian Morton enjoys a flurry of bird books that fledged during lockdown
CONFINEMENT changes us, bringing new challenges and interests as well as strictures. It’s a cliché but, since lockdown, we’ve become more attuned to our home environments and to all the things we missed in the whirl of “normal” life. My father and grandfather contracted their passion for birds while stuck – different services, different wars – in military camps in Kent.
An uncle, taken prisoner on the withdrawal to Dunkirk, spent the remainder of his war watching birds beyond the perimeter wire of his POW camp. He was denied binoculars until the day of liberation, when a fleeing guard passed on his. My grandfather, injured in an RFC training accident, lay immobile watching a black redstart, even then a relatively rare bird in Britain, gathering wisps of cotton wool and gauze to line its nest.
Lockdown has made us appreciate our natural surroundings, and the silence has given a boost to the often forgotten twin of birdwatching, which is bird listening. On average, you will hear and with practice identify four times as many birds in a day than you will see. Steven Lovatt’s Birdsong in a Time of Silence takes us from the moment the streets went quiet, when suddenly the blackbirds and great tits lost their competition and started to dominate our various soundscapes.
Ornithology and optical astronomy are now perhaps the only two branches of science still dominated by amateurs. The democratisation of technology means that casual birdwatchers can deploy MP3 tape lures to attract and identify singing birds, and in the damnedest places.
Anyone who thinks that A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square is just pleasing romantic nonsense hasn’t realised that an urban garden or park is precisely where you are likely to encounter our most complex and variable, though not necessarily most beautiful, bird song. Unlike the cuckoo, these birds don’t slow down, give up and stop singing if they don’t find a mate.
Male nightingales simply sing twice as hard and poignantly, the first blues singers, the first bedsit balladeers. David Rothenberg is the doyen of research into nightingale song – he plays clarinet improvisations with them – but Sam Lee’s The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, also written by a musician, is a vivid and often moving account of a bird that has inspired everyone from the ancients to John Keats and Olivier Messiaen.
Professional science is, of course, still a vital locus for ornithological research, and recent findings about bird migration have been astonishing. Anything you have ever heard about a relatively common coastal bird like the Arctic tern – “sea swallies” if you live in certain parts of the west – pales into insignificance when set against recent trackings of their actual migratory movements. Annual journeys, south to north and back, of 5000 miles and upward are not uncommon and some birds greatly exceed that, using Atlantic gyres to travel to and from breeding grounds in great figures of eight.
Scott Weidensaul’s A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds details journeys that defy belief, taking birds to the very limits of physiological tolerance, their bodies to all intents and purposes dead but for the flight and navigation functions. Such birds need to know that their food supply is guaranteed when they make landfall, which means that if Chinese development of the Yellow Sea littoral continues at its present pace, hundreds of species that use the East Asian-Australian Flyway are threatened with extinction.
Weidensaul concentrates somewhat on rare species such as the spoon-billed sandpiper, one of nature’s joke adaptations that won’t be a joke much longer if we destroy its habitat. Other writers, like Lee above, focus on individual species.
EX-SOLDIER Roger Morgan-Grenville, author of a wonderful book on bees called Liquid Gold, has been haunted for much of his life by a small pelagic bird that most of us will only have seen on island ferry routes, scimitaring low over the waves, showing black or white according to its angle of flight, only coming ashore at night on Rum and the Small Isles, on the Irish coast and Bardsey and Skokholm Islands, Wales, to nest in self-made burrows.
Shearwater: A Bird, an Ocean and a Long Way Home is a highly personal account of a love affair that has resurfaced over the decades, now reinforced by research that shows how Manx shearwaters, once fledged, will take to the air and not touch land again for four years, when the urge to
procreate enforces a visit to dry land. We have no easy analogues for a life spent like this, and it shows us clearly that nature is far stranger and “life” far more complex an undertaking than we had ever recognised.
Stephen Moss’s Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring is another lockdown book, its inspiration the rush of birdsong that came in March 2020, when the only travellers whose journeys really were necessary began to arrive back from Africa and beyond: blackcaps, sandpipers, warblers that can only be told apart by song, maybe a high-flying osprey heading even further north. The Rosie in question is a fox-red Labrador.
The skylark, meanwhile, is a “commonplace” presence around the author’s home, whose ascent is accompanied by “an outpouring of song: a rapid jumble of notes that seems to go on forever, even when the bird vanishes into the ether”. Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending is among the favourite desert-island choices of classical music.
Moss is a highly experienced birdwatcher, the kind who notices tiny, giveaway behaviours and diagnostic habits, as he’s done with birds as familiar as the robin and the swallow.
There are two broad approaches to birding. Serious twitchers, armed with pagers and online resources, have been known to hijack (well, bribe) private pilots for frantic hops to outer islands to see a fleeting migrant. It’s a curious world, obsessed by the tick and the list.
Others – and this was the preference enforced by Covid-19 – prefer the stability of a home “patch”, relying on the migrants and the occasional rarity to come to you. Daniel Butler’s The Owl House evokes a life in a remote farmhouse in the Cambrian mountains. Every rural home, every passionate watcher has a totem bird. Lockdown has just sealed that compact more firmly.
Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt (Particular Books, £12.99); The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird by Sam Lee (Century, £14.99); A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul (Picador, £20); Shearwater: A Bird, an Ocean and a Long Way Home by Roger Morgan-Grenville (Icon, £16.99); Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss (Saraband, £12.99); The Owl House by Daniel Butler (Seren, £12.99)