Finally after an unusually mild winter we had some Frosts in February. Crisp, clear days with not a breath of wind. These conditions are ideal for recording sound out in the fields. I was particularly inspired by the Birds which is the theme of this blog entry. Below is a link to a Soundcloud track which is a ten minute edit of the recordings I made. Please have a listen.
I made a soundscape a couple of years ago in a particularly wet and windy winter and it captured the sounds of the elements battering our glasshouses and polytunnels. This time I’ve ventured to the other extreme, recording outside on the most calm, serene days and it’s the birds that I’ve focused upon. On all the recordings in the background you can hear the distant hum of human activity, traffic and industry, a constant roar which is inescapable in England nowadays. A reminder of how undeniable our impact upon nature now is.
The calls and songs of birds are an ever present layer in the soundtrack of our days but we often filter this activity out; it’s there but we don’t necessarily concentrate upon it. Having made these recordings and actively listened to them out of context I’m amazed by the sheer amount of bird activity there is up at Barcombe. In the first part of the soundscape you really get a sense of this, a cacophony of countless birds singing their hearts out on a beautiful frosty morning. Since Barcombe Nurseries was converted to an organic farm many local residents have noted the influx of birds to the area. The farm provides them with food and habitat. Many of the birds feed upon seeds at this time of year, some of which will be weed seed which is beneficial to us. Some eat Snails and Slugs and as the year progresses other insects will form part of their diet. They are just one part of a complex ecosystem and their presence is living testament to the fact that the it's a healthy one. Of course some birds are not so helpful, eating our crops, but with a diverse system everything should remain in balance. And so, to the birds………..
We have many of the most common, recognisable birds such as the Robin with its cheerful tune. In the second part of the soundscape you can hear a Robin flap down, perch, sing and then flap off. One occasionally hops into the tea hut at work to peck at the crumbs on the floor. Hop and peck, hop and peck. Acrobatic Blue Tits which can hang upside down on the tips of branches to feed. Great Tits and Coal Tits. I think I saw a trio of Marsh Tits last week, they are less common and harder to identify but apparently they are known to form little foraging groups in winter. We have many Wrens at the farm, tiny little brown birds hopping about in the hedgerows with their distinctive upright tail feathers and explosive song. A song of such amplitude it’s hard to believe it emanates from such a fragile creature. You can hear a Wren just after the Robin on the soundscape.Tinier than the wren and my personal favourite is the Goldcrest. I often see one flitting through the hazel and blackthorn hedges that surround our fields. They are so beautiful. It’s the smallest bird we have here and it’s petite rapid movements reflect its size. Like the Wren it feeds upon insects and harsh winters can be murderous to both. This mild winter will have been kind to these wonderful little beings.
At dusk the urgent beeps and hysterical trills of Blackbirds fill the air. You’ll hear this just after the Wren on the soundscape. It’s the noise the birds make before going to roost but can also be an alarm call. In fact when I made the recording I did see the dark shape of a large bird swoop down the road beneath the arch of trees. It might have been a Sparrowhawk. It’s always exciting to see birds of prey. Pretty much every day I’ll see a Kestrel hovering somewhere but the other day to my surprise and awe a Sparrowhawk was right on the side of the road devouring it’s prey. I’ve never been that close to such a bird and it’s intense piercing eyes looked straight into mine as I cycled past. At work I’ll sometimes hear the cry of a Buzzard and look up to see two or three of these magnificent raptors circling on the thermals. Dive bombing each other, grappling with their powerful talons and tumbling seemingly out of control only to open their wings and soar effortlessly once again, catching the thermals. I always wanted to be a bird of prey as a child, I guess it’s natural to go for these big, impressive beasts. Now as I learn more and appreciate the incredible diversity of nature and how integral each individual part is, I think I’d be a Wren.
The song of Thrushes can be heard every evening and each bird appears to have its favourite tree from which to sing. I’m always amazed by the incredible range of noises the Thrush can produce. The same can be said for all birdsong though really. You can hear a Song Thrush on the last part of the Soundscape.
Members of the Finch family flock together in winter to forage for food. When I arrive at the farm in the morning sometimes there’s a group of Goldfinches up in the Oak Tree by the pack shed. These groups, my Mum told me, are know as Charms. Goldfinch populations are now increasing after a decline caused by the capture of these colourful birds for the caged bird market. Thankfully that trade was made illegal some years ago. Finch numbers also increase here at this time of year due to an influx of birds from Northern Europe. Another colourful Finch and a new one to me is the Siskin. Lately whenever I walk up by our Rhubarb patch I startle a rabble of Siskins who fly up to the top of the Leylandii trees, pipping to each other as they go. There they hop from branch to branch until I’ve gone when they’ll come back down to feed on the seed within the straw with which I’ve mulched the Rhubarb. I know they’re Siskins because one got into a Glasshouse and stunned itself by flying repeatedly into the glass. This meant that I could identify it before it came round and thankfully flapped out of the open door. I saw a lonesome Bullfinch the other day.
More shy and secretive than the other finches and in Britain and France their numbers have decreased by over 75% since the 70s. Reassuringly they remain stable in rest of Europe and Russia population decline is sadly a common theme and is often due to human activities impacting upon birds food supply and habitat. On my cycle to work I’m serenaded by the recognizable “Little piece of bread and no cheese” song of the Yellowhammer.
Another member of the Finch family. You can hear a distant Yellowhammer mixed in with the other birdsong in the first part of the soundscape. Dotted along my route they perch on the hedges singing their song in the morning sunlight. I also see huge flocks of Corn Bunting feeding on crop stubble at this time of year. Gleaning the fields of what’s left behind
Last but by no means least, the Rooks. The cawing of rooks is a constant in the soundtrack of a day at Barcombe. There are many Rookeries right by the farm. Their untidy sprawling nests perch precariously in the tops of tall Scots Pine and big old Oak Trees. Each year they add to the previous construction until eventually it will topple and they’ll start again. They are such social creatures and their behaviour is not so dissimilar to ours. Their calls form a varied palette. Roger Deakin in his book “Wildwood” compares the sound of a Raucous Rookery at full throttle to a late night Somerset pub at cider pressing time. I like this analogy as I’ve often thought there’s little difference between a rowdy Friday night pub and a Rookery in full swing which you can hear right after the Blackbirds on the soundscape. At calmer moments there is great subtlety and range to their sounds. Communication evolved from living as a close knit community. Sounds of reassurance and contentment just like we as humans have between close friends and family where it’s not the meaning of words that is important but more the familiarity of the sound and the comfort it brings. On windy days I’ve watched the Rooks playing, flinging themselves into the wind, racing upwards and then tumbling back down to the Tree tops. It reminds me of windy walks up on the downs, putting our coats up above our heads and leaning into the wind. Then turning and running, the wind catching the coat like a sail propelling you forward at what feels like immense speed. It’s exhilarating and I’m sure this is how the Rooks experience it too. Other members of the Crow family such as the Jay are present at the farm.
By collecting and hoarding Acorns, birds such as the Jay help with the dispersal, maintenance and survival of Oak woodland. Another of these countless symbiotic relationships at play in the natural world that never fail to fill me with a sense of wonder. Nan Shepherd in her book “The Living Mountain” says, when observing water springing from the mountainside, “It does nothing, absolutely nothing but be itself”. I love this and I feel it sums up nature altogether really. It’s just getting on and doing its thing in a wholly unselfconscious way.
In Robert Macfarlane's book “Landmarks” he sadly states that the word “Acorn” has recently been omitted from the Oxford Junior English Dictionary. Apparently this word is not seen as important for children to know as they spend less and less time experiencing nature and watching the seasons change. I find it shocking that something so fundamental to our existence should be viewed with such disregard. I feel it's so important that we allow children to explore and equip them with the language needed to describe the natural world so as to somehow counteract our ever increasing disconnection with it. As Tim Dee Says, “Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts”.