Friday, 9 March 2012

Who needs mead?

I got my wish today - a walk in the sun! It had been raining all morning, and I was resigned to another dour outing. But at lunchtime the clouds melted away, the sun came out, and the mercury hit 14C - the warmest day of the year so far.

And if yesterday was all about shapes and patterns in the air, today was a day of sounds and songs. No geese this time, but perhaps something even more special for being less common. A flock of 32 curlew were feeding in the field across the river when my other half and I took a post-prandial stroll. He spotted them first (I told you he was a better birder than me), then I heard a tell-tale call. The unmistakeable sound of spring.

It was a pre-breeding flock, the birds heading from winter feeding grounds on the coast to the upland moors and grasslands where they will split up into pairs. Each year one or two pairs stay around here to breed, though local farmers have been improving their grassland, and the birds may decide the accommodation is no longer up to scratch. It will be a sad day if they do.

Curlew are flighty birds. That may be because until relatively recently they were hunted for food. They were only taken off the quarry list in 1981. So they soon lifted as we approached, pale underwings flashing as they banked round as one and headed away from us. They disappeared from view, and we couldn't see where they had settled. Their cryptic, mottled grey-brown plumage is a perfect camouflage. But they can't hide that call. It came bubbling out, as if from the earth itself, and we tracked them down to another field to the north.

While we were looking for the curlew I became aware of another, softer, yet equally spirit-lifting sound. A skylark was doing his 'Hey! Look at me! I can fly really high and sing an amazing song at the same time' routine. The male skylarks started singing for a mate around here a few weeks ago, but the sun seems to really get them going. If I'd been a female skylark I'm sure it would have been lust at first sight. As a human, it just made me feel really happy.

The ability of bird songs to evoke an emotional response in their human listeners is apparently a very ancient one. While reading up about curlew in Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey's brilliant book, 'Birds Britannica', I came across this quote from a poem called 'The Seafarer'. It was written down in 1000AD, but was composed even earlier. It says it all really:

'I took my gladness from the cry of the gannet
And the sound of the curlew, instead of the laughter of men.
In the sceaming gull instead of the drink of mead.'

No comments:

Post a Comment