This isn’t a topic I generally publicise but I am a bit of a bird lover; not a twitcher or even a proper birdwatcher (there are whole groups of birds I’ve yet to distinguish one from t’other) and I make no serious attempts to photograph them – I don’t have the long lenses and neither do I usually have the patience – I simply enjoy the sight and presence of birds; they’re the most readily visible wildlife for many of us, their various habits are intriguing to watch and I do like bird shapes, the arrangement and colours in the feathers, and the patterns they create in the sky when they fly together. There have been occasions when they’ve made a powerful impact in my life, other times when just seeing the sparrows on the bird table will simply make me smile. I’m not sure where the attraction came from but I remember as a child hearing that my Dad as a boy in Oxfordshire rescued a damaged Little Owl. He nursed it back to health although it still couldn’t fly so it would perch on his shoulder as he rode his bike around the village – a story that’s stayed with me.
A personal early memory from when I was 5 or 6 was being shown a Cuckoo in a nest in my grandparents’ garden; learning about its behaviour both fascinated and appalled me. My Mum in more recent years found great pleasure in watching and feeding the birds outside her kitchen window in Somerset while caring for my ailing Dad – they provided her with an entertaining distraction and she would tell me what had come to visit the bird table. For her 90th birthday I made her a minute book of birds I’d photographed that we’d seen together or I knew she’d enjoy.
But I was finally prompted to write about this discreet, low-level ardour for the first time by learning about the campaign to vote for Britain’s national bird (last chance to vote at midnight on 7th May), an initiative being championed by David Lindo, the Urban Birder who compounded my love affair with birds by presenting me with a copy of his book a few years ago. It was first prize for a photograph I’d taken of a swift. I’d entered the picture for a small-scale, social-media based competition run by Avon Wildlife Trust in 2011 to promote a talk that David Lindo was giving in Bristol.
The simple brief was for a photo of a bird in an urban setting and the summer before this event I’d been trying to get a shot of my favourite summer visitors, the swifts, who fill the air above our garden with their exultant screaming. This was one occasion when I did exercise a bit of patience and after days of trying to capture a shot of this incredibly fast flier I’d finally succeeded by waiting for them at the end of my street where I’d noticed they often flew low just above the telephone and power lines in the early evening. I focussed on the cables, selected a small aperture and fast shutter speed and caught the wonderful aerial acrobat against the sky zooming between power lines; not the greatest wildlife photo technically but I was pleased to have frozen that scimitar shape, and the photo seemed to fit the bill – and to my astonishment it won.
Swifts aren’t on the list for Britain’s national bird – after all they’re only here for 3 months (I’m waiting for their return now; there’s is a story right at the end about how I had my heart stolen by a swift) so which would I vote for? Well, my own shortlist, based on thoroughly subjective and anthropomorphic criteria, would include the Song Thrush, Sparrow, and Starling. I’ve always loved that repeated, wistful song of the thrush and when we moved out of central Bristol we had Song Thrushes in the garden for years and I recorded one that took the leading role in our garden dawn chorus in May five years ago. I even tried to capture the song with an invented form of notation. Although they can be heard nearby it’s disappointing they no longer come into the garden. Distressingly, one did throw itself out of hedge into the path of passing car once when we waiting to cross a busy road near our village, so I brought its poor, limp but unblemished body home and photographed its delicately marked feathers – I reckon there were ‘forty fahsand fevvers‘ on it too.
House Sparrows are the humdrum, uncolourful inhabitants of hedges all around our neighbourhood – we’re lucky to have so many I understand – but their social habits and arguments in the bushes and on the birdtable seem cheerful and ultimately optimistic, despite their bad press as the slayer of Cock Robin in the old nursery rhyme.
Starlings are equally gregarious and often overlooked because of their apparent commonness though they too are in decline. I think they’re also perceived as a bit drab but with their iridescent, specked plumage they have their own beauty. We picked up a starling that was lying on the grass by a footpath at the edge of a field decades ago, it could only move partially and wasn’t able to fly. It was winter and we took it home and put it in a cardboard box on the hearth by the Parkray stove, gave it water, fed it with something and after a few hours it began to revive. It hopped about, peered at us inquisitively, made some noises and eventually did some trial flying. We named it Charlie and ‘he’ enjoyed perching on the standard lamp and chattering – we just put up with minor mess as he was such an endearing thing, he seemed to be a real character, so we were heartbroken when after a couple of days we came downstairs one morning to find him dead on the hearth.
But on a more joyful note the dynamic cloud formations they create during their murmurations are breathtaking – I shot this this clip at Westhay on the Somerset Levels several years ago on a very small camera so the quality is poor and there is no sound – a shame because the shushing of their wings as they spin and turn above you is magical – but you can still just about marvel at the shapes these thousands of starlings make.
So, birds that are on the shortlist for the accolade of becoming Britain’s National Bird fall into roughly three categories – those that have a relationship with water, raptors and garden birds. Birds of the water include Puffins and they are tempting me to for their vote because of their absurdly charming attire and comical flight, and their habit of burrowing! And who can resist the name of the young puffin – a puffling! Sadly however, with rising ocean temperatures causing a reduction in the supply of their main food source of sand-eels, I don’t know how much longer they’ll be able to stay around the British Isles to represent us. We met some on Skomer Island in the distant past with only black and white film in the camera – hence the hand-coloured bills!
Another colourful favourite is the Kingfisher – a true water sprite! Such a thrill to catch a glimpse of this bolt of electric blue and brilliant orange anywhere, but to see one dart under Bristol Bridge a few years back was astonishing – maybe they’re just a bit showy for a British national Bird though! (Never managed to photograph one but there’s a kingfisher amongst these beautiful rubber stamps made by our sadly missed friend Lindy Clark)
The last water bird on the list, the Mute swan could be a contender for my vote because of a strange role they played in learning about by father’s death – a story for some other time maybe – but the creaking, sighing sound of their wings when they fly always sends a shiver up my spine, you can hear it here. They are very graceful in water and in the air where have a heraldic quality (see photos at top of post taken in Bristol Harbour) but I think in the habitat where they’re often seen – waddling greedily beside park lakes and alongside harbours and canals – they can be a bit over-bearing, and even threatening for a national bird.
Then there are the raptors: the Barn Owl – mysterious and ghostly by night, beautiful close up in the day; Hen Harrier – good to raise awareness of this persecuted hawk, celebrated with such wry wit by Jeremy Deller in his ‘Good Day for Cyclists’ but maybe too scarce for people to feel it’s a good representative for a British bird. Seeing a Red Kite in the days of living in West Wales was a stunning rarity even there, but they’re now common along the M4 corridor and being spotted quite frequently around the Bristol area too, wonderful to watch them soaring and flexing their forked tails and a real success story for conservation but maybe a little sinister?
Garden birds are the last group in this short list. I admire the pert bouncing across the flower beds and the beady eyes and song of the blackbird and one spring we were befriended by a hen blackbird who’d become a regular in our garden. She was fairly daring and would come quite close to us but one day we noticed her behaving differently – no longer bold but flapping and clucking in some distress. As we approached her we could see her beak had been bent – her major survival tool badly damaged. We speculated that it was a result of a fight with another bird but whatever the cause it was a problem for her, she couldn’t eat properly and neither could she preen herself. She could still pick up some food but not small pieces so we spent some weeks preparing blackbird puddings of just the right consistency and though she looked a bit bedraggled she seemed to be doing OK.
We suspected she had a mate and this was confirmed by a treat of a sight a few weeks after the beak-breaking when we found her slightly clumsily feeding a newly fledged baby by our back door. She only had one chick but we think it survived, however by the end of the summer we would often see her and her mate, both looking very elderly and dishevelled, sunbathing on the garden hedge – I think it may have been their last year.
Robins are, of course, a great asset to the garden both for providing encouragement to dig (in order to reveal grubs and worms for their benefit), and for their beautiful trilling through much of the year but they do have the limelight every Christmas! Blue-tits, mmm, they could get my thumbs up, gorgeous colours and a kind of perky demeanour; for the first time in our garden last year a family of blue-tits was raised, a triumph of fending off the neighbourhood cats. At the end of the season the nest I removed from the box was revealed to be a quilted concoction of feathery, mossy softness. Meanwhile in the community orchard in our village I spotted a blue tit pair using a more traditional home in a hole in one of the apple trees.
But I’m going for the wren – they’re tiny, quite secretive but but can be found all over the place, town and country, garden and park; we have a pair in our garden and once saw the hen feeding a ball of fluff on the bird-table, a newly hatched chick – very charming. They’re neat, give the impression of being diligent and are dapper without being showy – a stereotypical British trait perhaps most in keeping with the campaign!
However, they’ve been persecuted in the past with a curious ritual of wren hunting in the Celtic fringes of western Europe around the turn of the year – hunting the wren in Pembrokeshire on Twelfth Night was long a tradition. The wren was seen as the King of Birds and also represented the old year so there’s a suggestion that hunting and killing this tiny bird may be a midwinter ritual sacrifice to welcome in the new. The wren hunted was originally a real bird, caught and caged then either killed or kept alive depending on local customs and paraded around the town with a chanting song, but eventually (and happily), live wrens were replaced with artificial substitutes. Wrens used to feature on the old farthing coin so have had some national recognition in the past but it’s their fearsome attitude and astounding loudness that wins me over and I think it’s their time again.
On an final election-themed note – immigrants, but sadly not ours! The Urban Birder’s frequently repeated advice during the talk he gave was “remember – look up!” and although my swift shot had been achieved by this simple technique, I did subsequently try to get into the habit more and on a blissful boat trip on the Bosphorus in March the following year, after admiring the Levant Shearwaters skimming across the water like giant swifts, I suddenly remembered his advice (perhaps also triggered by sounds from above) and raised my gaze to be rewarded with the sight of hundreds of White Storks migrating from Asia to Europe for the summer.
I’d seen a TV programme about their hazardous journey just a few weeks before – the Bosphorus is one of the narrowest strips of water they can cross (the straits of Gibraltar are another) to reach their northern European nesting sites. By the time they get to Istanbul they’ve already been flying for weeks, making use of thermals in mountainous areas to help carry their large bodies westwards, but there are no thermals over water so a combination of exhaustion and lack of lift means some just cannot reach the height needed to keep above the water, and with non-waterproof feathers they drown. But many do succeed and it was such a pleasure to see this sight for the first time – I wish they came to nest on our chimneys in England!
Here’s a gallery of a few other birds, enjoy the distraction.
One summer evening in the mid 90s I was filling in time before picking up my son from a sports class in Portishead, a town on the Severn Estuary. It was a warm, humid evening and as I walked around the Lake Grounds – a public park by the coast but in the lee of a sea wall – I was admiring (without a camera sadly) the swifts’ hypnotic low flight to catch insects above the water when the scene suddenly changed as a slightly larger bird swooped from above and snatched a swift out of the air and flew behind a large bush a little way from me.
I was amazed that anything could catch a swift and slightly outraged to have my viewing pleasure disrupted but I had no idea what it was so ran to the bush, then crept round the edge to see what was obviously a bird of prey, smaller than I’d thought (about 1 foot long, dark back lighter underneath, a Hobby I later learned) but it was startled to see me and flew off leaving the swift on the ground. It looked surprisingly undamaged. I picked it up and although it was a bit floppy I was sure I could feel a heartbeat but wasn’t certain what to do with it.
I held it on the palm of my hand and very gently spread its wings out to try to see if there were any wounds, but nothing – it didn’t resist but it didn’t feel lifeless either. I was so surprised by the size and shape of this creature, the softness of the feathers, and the span and curve of it’s wings, it weighs only about 40 grams, and it’s just 16 or so cm long, but the wingspan is around 40 cm, no wonder they can be such aerial acrobats. I spent the 20 minutes before collecting my son just walking around the lake with it lying on the flat of my hand, marvelling at its design, pondering the immense journey it had recently taken and would soon (if it survived) cover the same phenomenal distance back to the Southern Hemisphere, I was spellbound.
Its relatives had resumed their dining after the Hobby intervention (I was now conscious that I’d deprived this – also admirable, and less numerous – creature of its meal) and I hoped my swift would be able to join them. It remained quite still but also warm and though I was tempted to take it home, I felt it was better to leave it with its kin. I knew swifts were unable to take off from the ground so hunted for a suitable location to leave it so if it recovered it might be able to fly off.
I found a weeping willow tree that that had been thinned out leaving a swift-sized flat topped stump about 4 feet off the ground with a few wispy willowy twigs for camouflage that I hoped wouldn’t hinder take-off. I set the bird down, ran my finger once more along the curve of a wing, wished it luck and left with some reluctance. I returned the next morning, a brighter, less humid day, no swifts in sight, the high pressure drawing them up into the blue for their aerial foraging, but there was no sign of my swift either, no limp body on the willow stump or tell-tale feathers on the ground for some distance around. Maybe it had just been stunned, recovered fully and flew off, maybe some stealthy predator had slipped it away leaving no evidence – perhaps the Hobby had returned to claim his meal; whatever became of it I was left with the sense of having been granted a brief insight into a previously unknown realm.
And a final, ‘swift’ tale
On yet another summer evening I’d noticed several screeching swifts flying round and round the end gables of the house opposite ours, in a way that seemed oddly out of character. I fetched my camera in the hope of trying to capture these low fliers, unaware of what they were doing. I took several ineffective photos and gave up but I later learned this behaviour is about luring the fledged youngsters out their nests to make their maiden flight – once launched they will never return to the nest. But when I magnified one of these images recently for the first time I could see, near the airborne bird I was trying to photograph, the head and a wing of a young swift just visible above the gutter, if I’d waited a little longer (more patience needed!) I might have seen it flying for the first time – a sight I hope to see this summer!
For some proper bird photographs have a look at this blog by a remarkably talented 15 year old girl called Katie Horrocks; she’s one of several contributors to the Avon Birds blog – a great place to catch up on avians in the Bristol area. And for stunning video of bird trails in the sky go to Paul Parker’s Vimeo page.