A Little Bird Told Me

Thirty minutes of looking through binoculars made me feel nauseous, but I couldn’t stop as I watched an elegant bird, cloaked in grey, white and black feathering above unmistakably long legs, hunting for fish.  I can appreciate the Grey Heron’s studied quest in the West Dart River, because each time I spot a small brown trout dashing from cover to cover, I feel happy.

West Dart River, Dartmoor

The West Dart River, where I did not capture a photo of the Grey Heron.

It’s nearly May and I’m still waiting for the leaf buds to open unfurling the new foliage.  While I bide my time, our visiting birds are returning.  Two weeks ago, we put in our asparagus bed and as we buried the root crowns, we noticed light catching the long tail of a small bird diving and swooping overhead.  Once again, this familiar, but long absent bird, was in our sights.  After nearly six months, we welcomed the return of the Swallows.   Miraculously, the Swallows appear to have no loss of energy or grace as they carry on hawking for insects, after their long travels from Africa to navigate back to their ancestral homes, under the guttering of our house.   I can’t help but wonder how do they travel these incredible distances with such ease?

Drawing of a Swallow from the RSPB website.

Drawing of a Swallow from the RSPB website.

The dawn chorus is fully amplified now with Blackbirds and Robins waking up first.  A bit later, the sounds of the Dunnocks, Wrens and Blue Tits layer in additional voices.  Recently, I’ve made a challenge for myself to learn our local birds by their call.  This is no easy task as I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type.  My learning tool is the RSPB website (http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/) with its recorded birdsong library.  When I see a bird I recognize, I look it up on the website to listen to its song.  I then try to commit to memory the birdsong with the bird so that I might one day ID the birds without seeing them.   I may never fully achieve my goal, but that doesn’t stop me reveling in the privilege of bearing witness to all this singing.

There are a few sounds that I comfortably recognize:  The syncopation of the Great Tit or the cheery songs of Skylarks, Robins and Blackbirds.  A distant laughing call from the Green Woodpecker in the trees across the river is easy to identify, though I’ve yet to see this happy bird.  In any community choir there are likely to be found those voices that carry the melody, the counterpoint harmonies, and sadly, the “honker” who lets out a sound that only family can love.  In our bird song chorus, this unpleasant barking noise is incongruent with the striking beauty of the Heron who emits it, one of whom I watched wade up the river in search of food.  Each time I hear them, I am reminded of the cry made when missing a nail and instead accidentally hitting a thumb with a hammer:  “Ow!” (Pause)  “Damn!”

Drawing of a Grey Heron from the RSPB website.

Drawing of a Grey Heron from the RSPB website.

Lately, the air is filled with another easily identified sound, that of the Cuckoo, who returns in spring and summer for a short stay.  This dove-sized bird, with its sleek body and long tail, makes a familiar call and I am instantly taken back to my childhood home, which was filled with clocks.  Over the years my Dad has amassed an impressive collection:  Grandfather, Banjo, Grandson, Regulator, Anniversary and, of course, the Cuckoo clock.

One of the Cuckoo clocks hanging in my Dad’s house has family history.  In 1907, my maternal grandmother, Pauline, her sister Louise, and their parents immigrated to the United States, through Ellis Island, from a small village in South Western Germany near the Black Forest.  Pauline and her mother kept in touch with their extended family in the village, sending care packages of food, clothing and small toys to her cousins who were experiencing food shortages during the war.  As a thank you years later, Pauline was sent a handsome Cuckoo clock made by craftsmen in The Black Forest, near her birthplace.

Pauline’s Cuckoo clock is made of dark brown wood in the shape of a chalet with a peaked roof and is decorated with intricate carvings of leaves and animals.  Its most distinguishing element is the Cuckoo bird that jumps out of a trap door to sing its song on the hour, belting out enough calls to denote the time.  There are two pinecone-shaped weights hanging on chains beneath the clock to wind its cog-driven timing mechanism within the chalet.  An additional decorative touch is a carved oak leaf hiding the regulating pendulum swinging below.

Like the Swallows, House Martins and Cuckoos, we all return to our ancestral homes, those places that gave the initial shape to our way of understanding the world.   It may be a return to the actual place where we can touch the walls, smell the air, and in the case of some of the birds around Crockern, repair nests and hatch young.  Or perhaps, our migration is nothing more than a return journey through memories triggered by a simple sound.  “Cuckoo.  Cuckoo.”  I’ve moved a good distance from my formative years in Ohio, but can quickly be enchanted and transported back to the familiar when I hear the song of the Cuckoo in our valley.  The call of this highly secretive bird declaring its territory and hoping to attract a mate, makes me feel as though I will soon see my Dad, as I did every day when I was a child, winding his clocks and coordinating their chimes as he sets to conduct his own dawn chorus.

Chaffinch at Crockern

A little Chaffinch at Crockern.

24 comments on “A Little Bird Told Me

  1. kiwiskan says:

    You may not have captured that grey heron, but this is a lovely post, and a beautiful shot of the West Dart River

  2. Anja Hemmerich says:

    A lovely read once again! Those Black Forest Cookoo Clocks are worth a fortune these days!

  3. ann dawney says:

    Enchanting…. And the beautiful swallow picture reminded me of Roger’s gentle help when 3 swallows slipped into our top bedroom, and thought about nesting there.
    The wood-pigeons in our garden in Sussex call urgently every morning:’O Delia Smith’ perhaps in the hope that she will not put them in a pie. Others reply:’Tamara Drewe’. Perhaps they enjoyed the film.

  4. Joan Vermeulen says:

    lovely — for the birds and the memories of times gone by

  5. Beth Mullins says:

    I remember hearing those clocks in your house. Reading your update took me right back there–playing the piano in your front room, running around outside with Lola, listening to Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time. Amazing what memories a clock brings back. Thank you for the wonderful memories.

    • And what memories of those youthful days they were! Bohemian Rhapsody and running around with Lola and of course, the entire neighbourhood! Glad you enjoyed the blog and thanks for reminding me of a few fond memories, too!

  6. marthabernie says:

    Hi, I have just nominated you for the Liebster Award. For more info, go to:

  7. If you don’t already know about it, you might like to listen to David Attenborough’s Tweet of the day at 5.58am on Radio 4. Read the review here http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/apr/24/tweet-david-attenborough-bbc-radio-birdsong

    • Thank you. I do listen to it and adore it! My biggest challenge is to focus on the local ones. I marvel at the abilities of others to know a bird by its call.

      • Confession time: I’m hopeless at identifying birds let alone bird song (and I’ve only just started listening to Tweet of the Day, but on the iPlayer at a more civilised time of the day!). But I do applaud your quest to learn more. Learning is so great. Keep us posted on your progress.

      • Will do. That is, of course, assuming progress occurs.

  8. snowgood says:

    Living on Dartmoor you’ll almost certainly start picking out which birds sing which song, soon it’ll be second nature. Have you seen any Wheatear yet? They’ll happily flash their white rumps and flit away from you when you’re on high ground. Regarding the Green Woodpecker, they’re quite shy but fairly easy to pick out with their undulating flight and XL Kingfisher like profile.

  9. Along A Path says:

    We have just had Violet-Green Swallows arrive here. With a nesting box in place, it looks like they plan to stay. Very exciting!

  10. […] Mission bells ring as crowds gather, with all eyes turned toward the skies.  Mariachis play, a parade marches past and a huge fiesta kicks off to celebrate the annual return of the legendary Cliff Swallows at Mission Capistrano in California.  While Roger and I may not greet the ancestral migration of the equally loyal and remarkable Swallows of Crockern with a fete, we find their annual return and summer visit remarkable nonetheless.  (See also, https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/bird-song-dartmoor-cuckoos/). […]

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