I stood at the window for some time when I arrived upstairs this morning. The birds obligingly came in numbers and posed prettily. The dull light seemed to amplify their colours. Quarrelsome chaffinches; fragile long-tailed tits and their slightly larger blue cousins. The smart livery of the great tit, and on the other end of the balcony an especially smart female Woodie fed for long minutes whilst I watched. A peaceful dunnock garnered tidbits from the floor, and several pristine magpies flew in and out of sight: not landing, just keeping an eye for opportunities. Once a large crow arrived, curling its body in readiness to land but changed tack at the last minute and veered away. A pity, for I would have liked to have seen it properly. It may have helped me establish whether indeed it was a crow; I’ve been struggling to decide whether we have rooks or crows nesting below us.
The scraggly collections of sticks balanced so precariously at the very tops of the trees below us are easily viewed whilst the trees remain in a state of undress. And I often see pairs of large black birds tending to these nests. I can’t tell if they are brooding eggs; they don’t seem to be there all the time. And I can’t tell if they are rooks or crows or maybe jackdaws or even choughs. I have learned that rooks have a more genteel call than crows. (I also learned that they build their nests but actually leave them at night to roost in trees. How odd.) Our birds were particularly noisy for a while yesterday and it seemed to me that their cries were indeed very refined. So at the moment I’m going with rooks: civilised, refined, rooks. I need more powerful binoculars, or the telescope we’ve promised ourselves. Hopefully then I can make a definitive identification.
(Illustrations from RSPB.org)
I spotted another bird yesterday that I’m keen to identify but one that is notoriously difficult to name. This bird was traveling along the bank at the back of the house, flitting from twig to twig. Small, pale brown with yellow-green tinges and a white eye-stripe. It is either a warbler or a chiffchaff. A chiffchaff would be good. If it’s a warbler I then have to identify which of the various warblers it might be. Thus far I can’t decide. I’m hoping I’ll spot it again soon.
Gilbert White would have known. A clergyman in the eighteenth century, his book ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne’, has never been out of print. He devoted his free-time to meticulous observation and documentation of the flora and fauna of Selbourne, his Hampshire village. And he was the first to separate chiffchaffs and warblers into separate species by distinguishing between their songs. ‘The Natural History’ has long been on my list of must-reads. I’ve prevaricated in part because I want to find a really special secondhand copy – worthy of his work. But I’ve not made a real effort to find one. Perhaps the times draws near.
I wonder whether Gilbert would have been able to explain the wonderful buzzard activity I witnessed earlier in the month. It was early afternoon; I was sitting where I am now: at the table with the view in front of me. I was distracted from the laptop by movement in the field across the valley. Fast, tumbling, brown – my first guess was hares, racing over the grass. This brown ball was traveling at speed. Perhaps something being chased by a predator?
It was a pair of buzzards. As I watched, scrambling for binoculars, there was a riot of fierce movement and a buzzard flew up, away from the hillside, leaving something on the ground. A failed hunting effort? What remained was in fact a second buzzard. It remained motionless, seemingly hunched, for several long minutes. On the ground, in open view and vulnerable – although what creature would attempt an attack on a buzzard? I assumed it had quarry; perhaps the other buzzard had been an opportunist and had been trying to prise it away for itself? Perhaps the two had been fighting each other? The motionless buzzard did not eat, appeared to have nothing in its talons and seemed unhurt.
The very next day, at just the same time, the scene was repeated. This time I could see the remaining buzzard more clearly: motionless on the ground as before but with her wings held apart from her body creating a distinctive arched shape, rather like a protective cloak. She remained for some time. And looking up I watched three, then five buzzards, wheeling and circling above, higher, then lower… Majestic. Have I witnessed a courtship? Perhaps even a successful mating? Was the tumbling along the hillside an eager male trying his luck with a female? I know so little and I want to know so much. I need to unpack my bird books!