Tag Archives: birds

Summer subtleties

Once we get into summer, the season can feel a bit like a solid block of experience. There have been flowers since the spring, there are flowers now. We may look for early signs of autumn instead for a sense of the seasonal. Those are certainly present – the hawthorn and elder both have small green fruit starting to swell and ripen.

In practice, there’s a lot of nuance in the flowers at this time of year. Seeing it depends on paying attention to the details. There are big swathes of flowers out there, but some flowers come later in the season than the others. The purple loosestrife is at its peak right now, while the meadowsweet is starting to die back. The teasels are flowering, the thistles are producing fluffy seeds. On the ragwort, the cinnabar moth caterpillars are large, and fat, or disappearing as they head for cocoons.

Every day, something is different. Seeing the difference depends on re-visiting and familiarity. Seasonal shifts are subtle processes and the less time a person spends looking for them, the harder it is to read.

There are more teenage birds about, but some birds are into their second and third clutches, so there are young birds around at all different stages of development.

One of the hardest things for me this year has been seeing which trees haven’t come into leaf at all. Some of them were always late, and I kept watching and waiting and hoping. There is a large, ancient hawthorn that stands beside a spring near one of the paths. It was a magical tree, but this summer there have been no signs of life. I don’t know when exactly it died, or how long it may continue to stand in this state. Life goes on within in it and on it – it is still a habitat and still supporting a lot of other life.

Dying away is not just an activity for the autumn. The grass on the commons is already well under way with its own death. Many of the early flowers have already died back. Summer is as much a time of death as it is a time of high energy.


Spring and courting birds

I expect there are a great many birds out there right now establishing territories and seeking mates. I don’t know all of my feathered neighbours well enough to spot the changes in what they do. However, the blackbirds and woodpeckers have been really noticeable over the weekend.

The blackbirds seem – in so far as I can tell – to be squabbling. It doesn’t look much like courtship at this stage, more like figuring out who gets which spot. I’ve stepped outside repeatedly only to find them making a great deal of noise and chasing each other off. It’s not always easy with birds to work out whether chasing is about the desire to catch or the intention to move the other bird on. However, the tone seems irate to me.

The woodpeckers are simply making a lot of noise – often I don’t see the birds themselves. I hear their loud calls even through closed windows, and they’ve been doing this for some days. It’s rare to hear them normally, the intensity of calling has definitely gone up. I am inferring courtship, but this could be about territory. Most of my reason for inferring courtship is that I know they’ve bred round here in previous years. You don’t tend to get as high a population density in woodpeckers as you do in blackbirds so boundaries may be less of an issue. Yesterday I saw a pair of woodpeckers in flight – some distance from home, but possibly the same ones.

What I notice and what I infer may tell me things about what’s on my mind. I do not assume messages from any other source when I notice things in this way. The blackbirds and woodpeckers are busy with their own lives. Any meaning I take from them pertains to me, and I think it’s important to be clear about that. Nature does not exist simply to send us messages and guide us.


Green woodpeckers

This year, green woodpeckers have nested somewhere in the vicinity of my flat, and as a consequence, most days I hear their chuckling call many times over. When it first started, I wasn’t quite sure what I was hearing – although I had my suspicions! Being able to pair bird sightings with the specific call I can now recognise them with confidence, adding to the small selection of birds I know by sound.

Learning bird calls and songs is an interesting process, not least because most birds have a repertoire. They have territorial songs, and songs they use to check in with their mates or family members. They have alarm cries and some have specific noises they make when trying to drive off a perceived threat. Young birds have their own calls – especially ones who are out of the nest and not with their parents all the time. The song of ‘I’m over here and I’m hungry’ that isn’t so very different from what teenage humans do.

Getting to know a bird’s song and their various calls means that you can tell something of what’s going on with the feathery neighbours even when you can’t see them. When the leaves are on the trees, small birds are much harder to spot, so being able to tell who is around and doing what from sound alone can be a great help.

Bird song is so much more than charming background music. It is a constant stream of conversation and information, and being able to listen in to that to any degree, is magical indeed.


Shouting walls and yelling trees

One of the particular pleasures for me at this time of year, is finding bird nests. Many birds are secretive about their nesting – because it keeps them safe – so spotting them is a bit of a thrill. Some birds aren’t subtle – heron nests in trees, rookeries, the nests swans build alongside patches of water – these are easy to see. But many are not.

My recent wanderings brought me in to contact with several shouting walls. Gaps in Cotswold dry stone walls offer safe spaces for small birds. I didn’t see the parents, but given both the size of the available spaces, and the proximity of nests, my guess is sparrows. They like to nest close to each other.

I was blessed with a sighting of two parent nuthatches visiting a hole in a tree, and also a parent woodpecker coming in to a tree hole.  I’ve seen a jackdaw with a nest under the roof tiles of an old house. When the parent bird turns up with food, the nestlings go berserk and for a while it’s all rather loud. This is something I will never get tired of.

A bird with a beak full of food is a pretty good indicator of a nest. However, it is important not to upset the parents or the young. Watch from a distance. If the parent isn’t going to the nest, move along. Let them get on with feeding their young. Don’t approach nests if you think you’ve identified them – watch and listen from a distance that doesn’t trouble the birds. They are exciting and wonderful and a bit magical, and their comfort and wellbeing must always come ahead of our curiosity and enthusiasm.


Early Spring

This is a small film I made a few week ago – the season has moved on so this is out of date, but I’m sharing it anyway!

 

I made this film for my Patreon channel – they got it the week it was filmed. I’m interested in what I can do combining basic camera footage, words, natural soundscapes… the physical relationship between my body and the technology and the differences between how the technology experiences my moving through a space, and how I do.


Bird song and signs of spring

Over the last few weeks (pausing for snow) there’s been a notable increase in bird song. This is because birds are establishing and asserting territories and looking for mates, or pair bonding in established relationships. Any time I’ve been outside in the daylight, the increased sun has been apparent. It’s a reminder that, while it is still cold out there, the wheel of the year turns towards spring.

Much of winter is not spent sleeping and waiting. What the birds are doing now is part of the preparation for the nesting to come. Spring does not happen magically out of nowhere.

One of the surprise consequences of being alert to bird song, was stepping outside a few days ago and hearing a call I was pretty sure I’d never heard before. The light conditions were poor, and although I could see the three birds making the sounds, I could pick out no identifying features. Tom went online and described what we’d head ‘as if angry insects were making a dial tone’.

They were corncrakes. We’ve since listened to recordings online, and confirmed it. They aren’t supposed to be here this early in the year, but the friend who identified them has had multiple encounters with what are likely the same birds, just a few miles further away.

My first thought is that climate change is shifting patterns of weather and behaviour. A few years ago I had a very clear sighting of a flock of waxwings, only to be told on Twitter that it was far too late in the year and I couldn’t possibly have seen them… My second thought is that I doubt the research into the precise habits of birds is as detailed as it could be. Any pattern of behaviour will produce a set of averages, but how much we know about the less-average behaviour, I’m not sure.

There are also biases in how we collect data. For example, most of the material I’ve read on otters describes a large territory and a roaming pattern of feeding within it. This is actually the pattern for dog otters and it turns out we don’t know so much about what females, and females with cubs actually do.

This is one of the reasons it is so important to engage personally and directly with what’s around you. The notions about what a species does are general, not specific, and what happens where you live may buck the trend.

More about corncrakes – including a video of the insect telephone noise here – https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/corncrake/


Dabchicks

Little grebes are easily overlooked. They’re small, brown and as likely to be under the water as on the surface. Unlike the larger and more dramatic great crested grebe, they have sleek heads. If you see one without knowing what it is and don’t look closely, you are most likely to assume it is some sort of small, brown, diving duck.

However, the little grebe, or dabchick, is a charming water bird, and watching them drop below the surface and waiting to see where they will pop up, is delightful. I’ve seen them doing this in open deep water on the larger canal near us, and I’ve seen them in the shallow pools of the canal very near us, where it’s too silted up for boats. Most recently, I saw a group of three foraging together, which inclines me to think that they bred locally this year.

One of the great blessings of the internet is that you can look up what you’ve seen to check it is what you thought it was. I’ve identified birds of prey by searching for the cries of different birds until I found the right one, for example. There’s an absolute wealth of information on the internet to help a person learn about the world.

For anyone in the UK who isn’t confident about identifying a little grebe, here’s a video. (not my video)

For anyone outside the UK, you may well have grebe species where you live, but you’ll need to look them up if you aren’t familiar with them.


The flight of birds

Ancient Druids could read the future from the flight of birds. For the modern Druid, I think there’s a lot to be said for learning how to recognise the flight of birds. It is possible to identify a great many birds by seeing them in flight, even if they are just silhouettes. How a bird flies is a combination of its body shape, what kind of bird it is, how it relates to other birds and what’s going on in its environment.

Water birds for example tend to carry more fat to keep warm. They are heavier, more awkward in the air. Birds that fly longer distances fly higher than those who are foraging. Journeying birds form V shaped flight groups for efficiency, while foraging birds have rounder flock shapes and aren’t obviously organised. Large groups of birds fearing predation will rise up in deliberately confusing swirls in order to try and put sparrowhawks off. The black and white wings of lapwings seem to sparkle in the air and you can tell them as a flock from a great distance because of this.

Courting birds can have very different ways of flying from birds involved in other activities. Crows and ravens fly in pairs and sometimes roll, and sometimes roll so that one bird is flying upside down under the other bird. Knowing this kind of thing can stop a person from inferring strange omens when in fact what’s happening is normal courtship.

Birds who feed on insects in the air fly in curves and swoops – swifts, swallows, and housemartins particularly. Ground feeding birds like blackbirds and pheasants are more likely to explode out of the bushes in front of you. Buzzards are masters of the wind – if you can see a tiny speck circling so far above you that you can barely make out the bird shape, that’s likely a buzzard.

Some birds gather together as they come in to roost for the evening, and may set out together at first light. Big flocks can form around roosting, with large numbers of birds rising up and resettling repeatedly. Twilight behaviour is not always the same as what happens in the rest of the day. Flocks of pigeons in woods look and act differently from urban pigeons because they are affected by the context.

Birds have their own patterns for hunting and foraging. A grebe may work in one direction along a stretch of canal, a kingfisher will do the same on a body of water, or may take several dives from a preferred spot. Water birds may be affected by tides, going out to the mud flats when the tide is out and returning inland at high tide.

You may not be able to identify a bird by its flight, but you can tell a lot about what it’s doing. Is it going somewhere? Is it a high flier on a long journey or just off to the next tree, or making a short mid-height journey to the next pond? Is it hovering or circling to hunt for something on the ground or is it flitting to hunt in the air? Is it acting defensively as part of a flock, or is it the predator the flock fears? Is it showing off to a mate or hanging out with friends?

Winds aren’t the same at all heights. Sometimes, you can only see there’s a faster wind further up because there are a bunch of lunatic seagulls playing in the gusts.

If you want to work magically with the flight of birds, it helps to get to know what they normally do, first.


Inktober

Inktober is an online October event, the rules are simple – draw something in ink every day and post it. As I’d never drawn in ink, I took the alternative of pencilling first – which isn’t cheating. I didn’t manage every day either because I was ill towards the end of the month, but I got enough inks to feel like I did something, and it has had an impact on my drawing. The groups I drew at the end of the month I would never have considered trying at the beginning.

I picked birds as my theme because I wanted to work on my nature drawing, and I wasn’t very confident about birds, and capturing feathers on paper when I started.

Here’s a little video of all the birds.

The tunes in the background are also bird related and traditional. All of them are the tunes for songs – Lark in the clear air, The Nightingale (which my grandmother used to sing) and Twa Corbies (crows). All played by me, on a descant recorder. That was my first instrument, I lied about my age to get into recorder club – for five year olds and up. Start as you mean to go on….


Staring at birds

One of the things I like about art, is how it makes you look at things. This is why my other half – artist Tom Brown – runs art sessions in a meditative context sometimes. Most of the time our looking can be fairly superficial, with much of what’s around us reduced to little more than backdrop and scenery. It’s god to change that.

Taking up colouring in the last year, I’ve had to pay much more attention to what things look like. How colour, and light and shape interact. What things look like, and what I can do with a pencil that might represent and suggest what things look like.

As I mentioned last weekend, I’m having a go at Inktober over on twitter. Every day I stick up an ink drawing. I’ve chosen birds as my theme. It’s already being a serious learning experience.

I sit down with a nature book, a pencil and a pad and I try to draw a bird from its photo. Something specific, and something striking enough to be recognisable – heron, avocet, kingfisher, curlew was where I started. They have shapes and colours that help them stand out from other birds. Of course every type of bird is unique, and there will be things that make it especially itself, but some of those are easier to represent than others. Some birds – like the kingfisher – can be expressed by their colours.

However, I’ve been pushing into the ink work more, and all my ink is black. Could I make a Canada goose look like itself without putting some brown pencil in the mix? Maybe.

Fractions of a millimetre in the length or curve of a line can turn one bird into another. I found it recently where working on a bear image that the differences between bear, dog and badger weren’t that big. A slight mistake on the face and the wrong animal would look back at me. And yet, we can look at these images and say dog, badger, bear where only a tiny fraction of difference exists.

For me it raises all kinds of questions about how we perceive and remember, how we sort shapes and use abstracts. How many lines do I need on the page to clarify which one is a duck, and which one a crane? Not many.