This article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
You might be planning your next overseas birding jaunt, but Hawkeye is not ready to brave the dangers of a post-covid world. Perhaps in Autumn I can tempt her with a few days sanitised self-catering in a part of the UK where the birds differ from our southeastern corner. Meanwhile, we still shun most mingling with other humans. Our double bubble may admit doubly vaccinated family members in due course, but, like a lot of old codgers we are horribly aware of the potentially fatal nature of contagion.
So, when many of my fellow citizens were celebrating the relaxing of the rules, we were still shielding in our garden and birding only where no crowds would gather. But, for all that, even the everyday and commonly assumed to be mundane, can entertain and give this birder the injection of ‘avianity’ he needs.
I sat enjoying the afternoon sunshine on an otherwise cold spring day. A clear blue sky and high sun gave the illusion of mid-summer, only given the lie by the blossom and fresh breaking leaves on the shrubs and trees. But, as my internal musical tinnitus played, it was melded into Stravinsky by my garden visitors; low in variety but massive in character.
Pompous pigeons strutted like upper-class opera goers on their way to their private boxes. One of their number denied he was the villain of the piece, sitting on the shed roof telling me: “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I…”
Sparrows were the crowd of tenors twittering away the chorus inside the bushes four feet from my ears. Busy, bullying baritone starlings, muscled their way into every food corner. One churred like a nightjar and another trilled a snatch of my neighbour’s house phone.
Principle boy Robin Red snatched a spider from the web on the bedroom window then sang his mournful air, startled when a hidden wren burst into song by his side.
The Goldfinch soprano chorus twittered on the telephone wire, too timid to go to the feeders, while the bold sparrows dared to fly by me to the pond, shunning the bird baths to bathe among the lily pads.
Two Gentlemen of Verona, a couple of dunnocks, gave a duet performance of their much-underrated song. It may be quiet and a little hoarse, but still has a charming melody.
Then the headline act, the bird that has auditioned all spring and will give performances from pre-dawn to post dusk through to autumn. Sombre in appearance he may be, but the blackbird sings his own praise: ‘pretty birrrrdee’.
I was once dragged, kicking and screaming to a ‘light’ opera. People unaccountably sang their lines like things possessed. Their actions and dress as foreign as the language they used. It was torture for me, I didn’t understand, or even care to. Then, in an emotional crescendo toward curtains the soprano chorus burst into their massed voices in peels of pure music, no longer voices but a human orchestra. I still understood nothing, but I felt that emotion and the shear, pure beauty of the sound brought tears to my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t turn me into an avid fan of such impenetrable vocalisations. I never tried it again, but I can appreciate that there is a language of music, just like I understand that some people actually understand what ballet is all about. But, the only ballet accessible by me is that in the air of swifts over a summer lake, and the only opera I share and enjoy is nature’s rite of spring.