Saturday 20 May 2017

First impressions

I stopped mid-sentence, listened intently for a second or two, then dashed through the doorway and out onto the lawn. It was an unmistakeable sound, the courtship call of a Redshank, usually accompanied by a soaring and gliding flight. Although Redshanks do breed in some of the rough pasture about half a mile from Tense Towers, it was unusual to hear a male setting up a territory right next to our home.

Scanning left and right, then up and down, revealed very little, other than a deeply blue sky of emptiness. There wasn't the slightest sign of a loved-up wader in full-on mating mode, despite the fact that I could still hear the call. At this point, Our Lass, with better sound locating abilities than myself, nodded in the direction of a Starling perched on a fence post at the bottom of the garden. Gah!

Yep, the oldest trick in the book, and I had fallen for it again.

Starlings. They're a bit of an enigma. In some places they're vanishingly rare, in others they're still remarkably abundant. Seen in numbers, they can be a murmuratingly wonderful spectacle or an annoying poop-splattering extravaganza. If we think of Starlings at all, and probably many of us don't, we are most likely to consider their extreme behaviours.

Yet, arguably, a Starling's most amazing attribute is its ability for mimicry.

As a young Tenselet, growing up in rural County Durham, I can recall the ivy-encrusted terrace of houses near to home, which seemed to be a huge audio wall of Starlings and House Sparrows. Aye, those were the days when many species were still abundant and able to provide a spectacle. So whenever I was playing outside, and in those pre-electronic gadgetry days that was a lot, I was surrounded by the sounds of Starlings going through their repertoires. Of course, in an inland rural setting, the source material was very different to the current wader-orientated one. You could say that I learnt a different Starling language. Back then, I was more likely to hear samples of song from garden, hedgerow and farmland birds, but one particular call does link time and place, that of the Curlew. Whilst I doubt that the haunting, bubbling call of a Curlew can still be heard near my boyhood home, it is still in my memory, my waking thoughts in Orkney and the mimicry of both populations of Starlings.

I did have one electronic gadget, now that I think about it, a battery-operated cassette recorder, with which I did occasionally record the sounds of rural 1970s County Durham. But sadly, although bird song was part of those tapes, I think that Starlings would've been too obvious a choice. Who would record those? They're so abundant, we couldn't possibly lose all that cacophony. Sigh. I remember one Spring morning, waking really early, and sneaking out of the house, armed with my trusty cassette machine. Not long after dawn, the air was fresh and cool, the sun was shining and, within a few minutes, I was walking through the dappled light of some mixed woodland. To my young ears, it felt as though every bird in the world was singing its joy at being alive on such a glorious morning. Which, in some way, was exactly what they were doing!

Another auditory escapade was of a very different flavour. For all of my fear of the dark, my over-active imagination and the fact that when it gets dark in rural locations, it is pitch black, I decided to attempt a recording of owls. These would be Tawny owls, which I had heard whilst walking down the shadowy, tree-lined lane between the village and home. They had sounded quite close to the lane, maybe at the opposite side of an adjacent field, so I grabbed my recorder, headed out into the enveloping night, back up the lane and across the field. It was only as suitably owly sounds were being pleasingly committed to magnetic tape that it occurred to me what was actually at the 'opposite side' of the field. Where I was now stood. The local cemetery. A-a-a-a-r-r-r-g-g-h-h!

Happily, I survived the experience and, in the intervening time, in Milton Keynes, I also learnt another handy Starling trick. They have a particular alarm call for raptors, usually a Sparrowhawk, so that once your ear is tuned to it, it is possible to have an early warning of an incoming Sprawk. I have seen so many more of these fabulous birds of prey than I would've done, all thanks to the local Starlings.

And for that alone, I can forgive them everything.


Mark said...

Ha! Tenselet, love it!

Imperfect and Tense said...

Although folk refuse to believe I was ever young...

Spadger said...

Ha! your early tape recording efforts remind of similar. Living near Putney Heath, as a young teenager, armed with a cassette recorder and a parabolic reflector I would go out onto the heath at sparrow o'fart to record bird song! One had to go so early not just because the early bird catches the song but by about 06:00, the background noise of car, bus, lorry and aeroplane heading to or from Heathrow would make capturing the sounds of nature impossible!

It did have its moments. The best bird experience being a record of a passage nightingale. So good was my recording, my YOC leader and curator of the British Wildlife Sound Library, claimed it a fake! But anything he didn't see or hear he dissed - we concluded it was all part of a game he would have with us kids! Although even 25 years or more later if I ever saw him he would always ask if it was a fake!!

The other 'incident on the heath' occurred when unbeknown to me I must have been spotted by some early morning dog walker and reported as a 'suspicious person' on the heath carrying something in a black bin liner (the parabolic reflector). All I know is I was suddenly surrounded by several police cars and being questioned as what I was doing and all about my tape recorder and parabola!

Imperfect and Tense said...

Heat on the heath! Did you continue recording throughout the questioning??

Spadger said...

Nah! they'd disturbed the morning and I went home!

Imperfect and Tense said...

Aha! Throwing caution to the whins!