A (Red)Start of Spring

Roger and I were recently in the States, joining family and friends, to celebrate my Dad’s 90th birthday. It was a grand old time filled with endless laughter, stories told a hundred times before, and the addition of new tales which will soon be worked into the tapestry of family lore. Before we made our way to the airport to head to this auspicious gathering, we were anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring to Crockern. Sure, we have had a few signs, but what we wanted was something greater and more profound than brave daffodils and hopeful snowdrops popping up through the grass. And yet as we left, the leaf buds on the trees teased and taunted us, displaying no more than tight buds of much anticipated foliage unfurling.

My Dad is 90 and loving it.  We are a big family and don't all fit well in this photo.

My Dad is 90 and loving it. We are a big family and don’t all fit well in this photo.

But what a difference a week makes: spring has finally sprung at Crockern. Everything is verdant with those previously mocking trees finally showing their full and proper leaf along with the rhododendron in a showy bloom. The Swallows and House Martins are busy competing for nest materials, while the Jackdaws seem to be applying the finishing decorating touches to their nests. Recently we saw a pair carry in their beaks some fleece along with flowers to accent their homes. We’ve also spotted nest-building activity between stones around the property: in the dry stone wall fences and the side of the barn and sheds. These well-hidden and newly built nests are home to future broods of Pied Wag-tails and Great Tits. It’s all happening!

While all this activity is exciting, it sadly cannot offset the fatigue brought on by a long trans-Atlantic trip. The best way forward is to indulge in a little nap as nothing else surpasses this effortless way to maintain health and well-being. But as I slipped into my noble and restorative siesta, I heard a “tap, tap, tap” on the window. Roger had warned me about this sound. He and Sam had heard it earlier and thought at first it was a bird or small animal trapped in the house. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tale Tell Heart, the sound grew and grew. I am not suffering “an over-acuteness of the senses” because Roger and Sam had earlier staked out the window and watched a Redstart fly from one of our sheds to the window and commence its tapping. Presumably for insects, but possibly warning off its own reflection assuming it to be a rival male.

Naively, I thought I could sleep through it all, but that wretched Redstart is persistent. He awakens Roger at about 5:30 in the morning. He interrupts my return-from-travels-nap. And he is still tapping as I write!

Redstarts are easily identifiable especially when they shake their bright orange-red tails. The males look dressed up for a night out with their slate grey upper parts, black faces and wings, and an orange chest and bottom. Very smart, indeed. It’s exciting to see a pair at Crockern and know they are nesting so close as they are in decline across much of Europe.

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

The Redstart also has a beautiful song, joining the amplified dawn chorus that greets me each day comprising, among others, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Jackdaws, Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, Stonechats, Great Tits and Blue Tits. I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type. Yet there are a few calls I can distinguish. In and amongst the reeds in the meadow along the river a ratchet-y sound, not dissimilar to a fishing reel spooling out its line, can be heard. A quick assessment confirms there are no anglers making their way in search of trout in the river, so it can only be the most impossible of birds to spot, the Grasshopper Warbler. And there is the call of the Cuckoo, who has returned for the summer to its ancestral home in our valley. Last year, Dartmoor National Park, along with Devon Birds, participated in a national satellite-tagging project conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology. This project tagged four Cuckoos in Dartmoor to study the migratory patterns of these birds and gain an understanding behind their alarming decline. Hearing its call among all the bird song adds to the wonder and privilege of bearing witness to so much singing!

But seeing is believing and Roger spotted the cuckoo in the pine tree near our barn. With its sleek body and long tail, this dove-sized bird is often elusive to spot, despite knowing it is near due to its easily identifiable call. If you visit the Devon Birds Cuckoo Watch Map, you’ll see our blue dot denoting a recent sighting.

Yes, we're the blue dots between the road and Wistman's Wood.

Yes, we’re the blue dots between the road and Wistman’s Wood.

With this arrival of spring and the longer days and longer grass, the chickens are all happy. The asparagus crowns are showing, though we must wait another year before we can harvest. The rhubarb is up. The blueberry bushes are looking healthy and the strawberries are kicking out berries. Our potatoes are in the ground and in a few weeks we’ll plant out the rest of the summer vegetables. Oddly, for the first time ever, I’m excited about the nettles growing all over as it is now time to make some nettle ravioli. It’s somewhat labour intensive, but the payoff in flavour is oh-so-yummy!

Still to come, harkening the arrival of spring will be the return of the newly born lambs and their mothers to the upland moors for a summer of grazing. Their James Brown call and respond sounds will fill the air, not in a melodic dawn chorus I hasten to add, but more likely as an effective means to drown out even the most persistent tapping of our resident Redstart.

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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.