This article first appeared in the November 2023 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
“Kronk” said the obliging Raven passing overhead. Hawkeye and I watched it into the distance as it seemed to hiccup in flight every time it called. Lovely.
It then struck me that in over sixty years of birding I’d never heard a raven calling in flight. Come to think of it, I’d seen many ravens but heard very few and always distant.
A Cetti’s warbler whispered across seven fields as if in residence in my ear. This was at a site in the UK where they first established a sustained breeding population, by now there are dozens and dozens of pairs in the reedbeds and scrub. Of course I see them occasionally, but hear them hundreds of times. Some birds are like that, great at vocalizing, rubbish at materialising. Nightingales are worse, after that week or so of establishing their dominance over their favoured territory they sink into the hearts of bushes and serenade hidden from view.
I have no idea how many days and hours I’ve spent watching birds, but I do know that I still, frequently, see or hear things I’ve never seen before.
Yesterday a Jay was at our suet feeder. That is a red letter in itself. It flew on to the fence where another sat and began to feed her… another behaviour I have never before witnessed… who knew Jay courtship was like that!
At our local reserve I watched a male Marsh Harrier pass food to his mate in mid-air and I remember the first time I saw that happen… it was back when there were about a dozen pairs in the country, and almost all at Minsmere. On that same visit the then warden also whispered across seven fields. His sonorous voice echoed off the hide walls as he shouted ‘Bittern booming’ loud enough to drown the call and scare the living daylights of every birder in a two-mile radius. Bitterns were then as scarce as hen’s teeth, just like the harriers.
There are four or five places I can go in my county and see or hear bitterns depending on the time of year, and Marsh Harriers are ubiquitous. Last year, a bittern flew over my head at another local reserve calling all the way… a totally weird sound new to me.
On the other hand, I recall driving down to Dorset to see Little Egrets when an amazing five birds took up residence in Poole Harbour. Now, on my way to my local observatory to do the banking (I’m treasurer) I detour briefly to the mudflats where last time I counted twenty-seven Little Egrets and two Spoonbills. On the fields around the observatory it’s not unusual to see a couple of Great Egrets and a number of Cattle Egrets. Six Stilts turned up and nested nearby this year and raised some young.
Fishing my local gravel pit sixty years ago I was privileged to see a rare pair of the once persecuted Great-crested Grebes dance in unison across the water. It’s not just new behaviour I still observe, but species I would have hardly dared to dream about when I started birding.
The sad corollary is that my diaries in the sixties and seventies always listed sightings of Tree Sparrows. Whenever I went fishing, Spotted Flycatchers hawked flies from a dead tree and Willow Tits fed among the wet woodland’s birches. Fifty years ago I could watch Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers on their daily round in the old apple trees in my father-in-law’s country garden. But then, dad recalled Wrynecks nesting in Sussex orchards. Nature’s only constant is change.