Back to work today and I feel hit by a shovel. I will miss my leisurely two to three hour strolls in the afternoon. But still, I get my hours docked by 10% soon, so there’s that to look forward to.
In continuation of yesterday’s quest to find midsummer’s shyest warblers I headed north at lunch to Tottenham East Marsh, a reliable spot for lesser whitethroat.
I commented yesterday on my embarrassing reluctance in my younger days to explore further north east than Hackney. I’ve been shown up again since lockdown. As I venture further and further affield to add variety, and spice, to life, I discover delightful places that are a shamefully short hop away, but that I had never once visited before.
There’s Gilbert’s Slade Wood in Snaresbrook, maybe three miles away up a pleasantly invigorating incline. There’s the tern colony at Ponder’s End five miles up the canal. But most embarrassingly of all is Tottenham East Marsh, which I can see over a fence from the north end of Lockwood reservoir, but in almost two years hadn’t investigated how to get into this area of meadow and scrub that was clearly open to the public.
This spring the meadow gradually filled with cow parsley as the local populace, at a similar stately pace, evolved their interpretation of what the spirit of lockdown had to say about pausing for a little in this enclave well out of the reach of the sharp eyes of the law. That is until about a month ago when most of the meadow was cordonned off after an abandoned moped was discovered, and police searched for evidence relating to a Tottenham shooting.
I’ve not seen, or heard, a lesser whitethroat here since before then, though I don’t mean to cast aspersions on its good name.
On arrival I hear a pheasant retching — my first of the year in the valley — who live wild here. I once saw one on a patch of grass in Dalston, at around the time that it was a la mode to fill a pub’s interior with stuffed animals and mounted skulls. It’s presence was a mystery to me at the time, but I imagine it would have made its way there from this local stock.
I don’t trouble to look for the bird. This is partly because it’s a pheasant and, despite their impressive looks and regal gait, they are an introduced species, and in most of the country gamekeepers have a hand in maintaining their populations; this “cheating” earns them a lot of opprobium. The same goes for ring-necked parakeets. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.
The other reason I don’t try to find it is that the vegetation is far too dense. The tall stems of cow parsley are dying back and, in collapsing, form a dense weave. Through this the next wave of wildflowers and grasses grow. Between their stems, birds and mammals, and perhaps the odd reptile, are free to worm their way undisturbed.
This is another reason why June and July birding is less rewarding. In April and May most trees and undergrowth are either in bud or have relatively small and translucent foliage. Not only are the summer migrants all newly arrived, excitable and in song, but their hiding places have not yet fully developed. Hearing a bird in full song is, more often than not, followed by good views of it puffing out its throat feathers in time with the bellows inside. But times change.
I stand for a moment in a small clearing with bushes and trees on all sides. Aside from a blackbird — large, loud-mouthed and perched in the open after a belly-flopping flight into the thiner twigs — I see no birds, though I hear a good few. Dunnock and Robin are singing from cover, and a chiffchaff chiffs and chaffs from the top of some tree; earlier in the spring I’d easily have spotted its dinky silhouette among the birch catkins, but today, singing from the exact same position, it’s an enigma.
I loiter for ten or fifteen minutes, hoping the lesser whitethroat — who really do appear to go on the run for a while in midsummer — will pop a silent, hooded head out of the elder trees. I hear some muffled, wheezy cheeps and a couple of small grey blurs dart into the open for a split second before diving back in to cover. I’m not sure what a lesser whitethroat’s calls are like, only having learned to recognise the song, so I optimistically follow in hot pursuit.
After a few minutes peering past the closest layer of leaves and through to the barer branches beyond, I find the source of the wheezes; a podgy juvenile Blackcap, whining for its next meal. With a sandy brown cap — less sharply cut than its mother’s chestnut and father’s black headwear — a soft, pale base to its beak and an endearingly dark eye it squats on the branch, unsure of itself, and then flits off. A moment later I see its neatly tailored father peering at me from a nearby twig. “You ain’t seen nuffink, you ain’t ‘eard nuffink,” it says and then dashes back to the underworld.
Hearing the song of a blackcap from a countryside path is one of the most dependable signs of spring. Although a few continental birds now winter here, those head off to Germany for the summer. A blackcap in full song is a sure sign that the birds from southern Europe and Africa have, using whatever mysterious meterological tools are available to them, deemed our windy but warming isle to be suitable for the purposes of rearing young. They return in their droves.
One of our commonest birds in summer, even small patches of scrub or trees will most likely host one. If you have a garden with a tree or two there’s a fair chance a blackcap will have made its home there.
But so easy to miss. Without a familiarity with their song, that is. When I first started to birdwatch seriously in my teens, the blackcap was one of the first bird songs I learned.
No, that’s not quite accurate; one of the first bird songs I remember trying hard, and repeatedly failng, to learn. It’s more intractable and varied than many of the other common ones, and easy to misidentify. Some refer to the blackcap as the nightingale of the north, which I think is overstating it, but it does have its moments. They will often begin by grinding and churring, like radio static, before tuning in to the beautiful aria they were trying to transmit.
A virtuoso male toyed with me for several days earlier this spring, singing the traditional flutey ballads from an exposed perch in an oriental tree before diving into the undergrowth and letting rip a jarring medley of whines, clicks and whirrs it was putting together for its art-rock side project. Any bird that can sound unlike itself is both a joy to behold and a menace to the obsessively categorising mind of the birdwatcher.
Leaving the clearing I hear a couple of jackdaws — unusual locally — pass by overhead, and listen to two whitethroats, sentinels atop rival bushes, yell uncouth warnings at each other from across their respective half-meadows.
They, at least, have the decency to be seen as well as heard.
🦅 First boring bird
Related boring birds: Pheasant, Dunnock, Robin, Chiffchaff, Jackdaw, Whitethroat
🦚 All boring birds