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.
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?
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!”
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.