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The Unbroken Lineage Of Birding (1 Viewer)

Following my perfectly imperfect days out my weekends have slowed somewhat. I had a busy weekend doing other ‘stuff’ followed by the chance of working overtime over the next weekends being too good to resist. Petrol and train fares aren’t exactly cheap, and I’m in that awkward age- bracket where I’m too old and too young to qualify for a bus pass. The chance to work overtime and reduce the drain of my birding on the family finances couldn’t be ignored.

Monday to Friday working was busy, and I’m now so used to the dawn chorus (including Mr Song Thrush) that it no longer wakes me up at silly o’clock. I know better than to take it for granted, as in a few short weeks it will fall silent. Like everything in the natural world, it follows its own rhythm, it’s a transient event, that all too soon will stop, leaving the jarring silence of mid- summer. It has always been so, our awareness of it being inconsequential.

My local area is still a joy of activity, thankfully. Blackcap, chiffchaff still calling and singing, although the chiffchaff seemed to lull for a short while. Noisy sparrows competed with noisy goldfinches in my estate, with random blackcap and willow warbler calling from the fringes of my estate of just outside. If I could do it without the neighbours thinking I’m mad (or, more mad than usual) and if it’d stop raining long enough for the ground to dry out, I’d find an hour to lie back in my garden and just let the noise of spring wash over me.

After working overtime on Saturday the 18th Mrs GreenSand urged me to get out, even for a while. She has a mystical sixth sense for when I need to be out in fresh air to fix my equilibrium- although to be fair, the full 5 ordinary senses aren’t always needed. I headed to Fin Me Oot, a chance for birds, and a chance to relax, and just be there. Willow warbler called from a reasonable distance, with whitethroat calling raucously from near the bench. Swallows swooped over the field on the southern side of the path. Plenty happening to satisfy the ‘birdlife’ requirement of my visit.

I had intended to go down to the Rotten Calder, half- formed ideas of ‘commando birding’ downstream in the hope of house martins over the confluence of Rotten Calder and the Clyde. Plan went awry, in a good way, by stopping for a chat with possibly the chattiest man in the history of chatting. I- and I couldn’t get a word in to ask his name- had spoken to the guy before. Ten years or so older than me, the guy was an angler, but a ‘proper’ angler, a guy who knows nature, whose knowledge is gained from decades spent outside. Not an angling ‘dude’ therefore.

Leaving aside our radically different approaches to the merits of fishing, I was struck by the realisation that this was a guy, whose knowledge and fieldcraft should be harnessed and utilised by the forces of good. I found I had more in common with him than with Dude photographers with their 2 thousand pound cameras and no binoculars. It made me wonder if the angling community has its own version of dudes and twitchers, and whether someone, somewhere should tap into this source of knowledge.

Eventually, the chattiest man ran out of words, and I wandered slowly down to the Rotten Calder. A look upstream under the railways bridge got a dipper feeding and dipping. I watched it until it flew off, presumably to feed its young. I decided to call it a day and wander home. I had gotten what I wanted, gotten what I needed.

Sunday working dragged, as the sun shone well and I couldn’t stop until 5pm. Mrs GS again urged me to get out for a while, that sixth sense serving her and me both well. Given the weather, I assumed that the Clyde would be full of teenagers drinking and probably breeding. Instead, I returned to the Greenoakhill Woods, approaching from the Daldowie Crematorium side again.

The walk through the woods was quieter somehow than before, maybe the motorway noise carried further in the thick summer air, maybe it was late in the day. Maybe birds operate to their own agenda, not mine? The reedbed at the water treatment plant was devoid of sedgies, or any birds really. A bit disappointing, I still believe it has potential. What I believe and what birds decide don’t always coincide, though. We can guess, we can assume, we can make predictions based on fieldcraft, experience and knowledge, but we can never guarantee.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the heat making the air near the treatment plant rather fragrant. My sense of smell has been a bit off since one of my monthly colds earlier this year, and it picked this moment to return. One of the many small things that add together to make a birding trip.

The SUDS ponds that I had seen on my earlier trip called my name. The closer I got, the more bird life there was, and I hoped with all my heart that this special place hadn’t been found by the teenage drinking breeders of the area. Someone somewhere was looking out for me, and the area was free from even ordinary, non- breeding people.

Swallows flew and swooped overhead, and willow warblers called en masse from all around. A wren and blue tit engaged in their own competition with each other. A goldfinch flock was very active flitting between trees all along the riverbank, conveying a sense of urgency that I just couldn’t share. A grey heron flew overhead from the pond, as a black- headed gull swam lazily on the surface. I progressed about 10 feet along the path that divides the 2 ponds and stopped. A mass flock of sand martins erupted from a tree at the far end of the largest, Easternmost Pond.

I sat on my backside, all plans to continue my wandering abandoned. The sand martins- and they were all sand martins- swooped and swirled over the water, splashing as they either drank or picked off a tasty morsel from the surface, then returned to the tree. I sat and watched as though I would never see enough, wishing it would go on forever. Martins and swallows flew low over my head, just going about their business, utterly unbothered by my presence.

Birds which are less obvious than the warblers who visit each year, offering me an all-too brief but equally perfect moment. I love the dawn chorus, I love the noise of a vibrant woodland, and I lack the vocabulary to give this experience a label. An adjective will have to do, then.

Perfection.

My second weekend of overtime was more painful, being my 12th consecutive day of work. Fate and life conspired to stop me even getting some commando birding afterwards. I did, though, have the bank holiday Monday to make up for it. My mate Bill had waxed lyrical about his trip to the woods on the Eastern shore of Loch Lomond, and my trip to the RSPB reserve had been an enjoyable success. Bill’s trip offered all the riches of Inversnaid, without the road of death. My relationship with Loch Lomond, avid readers will recall, is a problematic one, even if I survive the road of death, I’ll be guaranteed to have left some important piece of kit back at home.

Given that this was a big day out, with the car(!!) I had given it due thought and planning. The planning part involved parking at Sallochy campsite, with the Forestry Commission website cheerily offering day parking rates. Somewhere in the depths of my memory Bill was telling me that it was closed for day parking, but I chose to ignore it.

Its all Bill’s fault. His trip reports make the area seem Tolkien- esque. A prehistoric or mythical land, where 21st Century Green Sand is a mere visitor, but where 21st Century BC Green Sand belonged. As much as I spend a lot of time at the coast I feel most at home among trees.

Before you ask, I haven’t hugged any.

Most of the drive there was fine, my sense of excitement building. The last quarter, though, made me wonder whether I’d driven to Inversnaid by mistake. Sheer terror, and it dawned on me that I’d been doing Inversnaid a disservice- suicidal roads were EVERWHERE on Loch Lomond.

Having survived the drive the plan started becoming unravelled when it turned out historical- voice Bill was right. The campsite was closed to day parking- but helpfully explained there was a public car park 5 minutes further along the road. Which makes me afraid for how these folk drive, as it was a good 15 minutes. I vowed again that my Loch Lomond birding, wherever it was to be, will be by boat next time.

I parked in the Ben Lomond overflow car park (free!) a short distance before the main Ben Lomond hub at Rowardennan. I had no interest in walking even part way up Scotland’s busiest Munro, on a bank holiday, and took a brief wander along a very rough path from the car park. Willow warbler called everywhere, to the exclusion it seemed of everything else. A garden warbler called from near the car, but that was the sum total of birdlife. Maybe more would be available in the forestry up the Ben Lomond path, but it was not for me to find out.

Walking back up the road toward Sallochy I spied a rough path leading into the woodland. I ventured forward, gingerly trampling over deadfall branches, ferns and tree roots. A blue tit called with a willow warbler again competing with it. A wren called during the brief lulls in their competition. Moss appeared to cover every inch of tree trunk and branch, with trees so old that their canopies were far, far above my head. This was a primordial place, a place where Green Sand’s ancestors belonged, a place where some part of current year Green Sand hoped beyond hope to see a bear wandering quietly through the woods. One day, maybe.

Above the din, suddenly, came the unmistakable spinning coin of a wood warbler. Target species ticked, and I set about trying to set eyes on it. Leaning against an enormous, mossy tree, the floor damp underfoot, I watched the wood warbler flitting about urgently in the canopy.

The almost dreamlike state was shattered somewhat by the sound of human voices and the crunch of hiking boots on a path. I looked around me and discovered that this patch of primordial heaven was no more than 20 feet away from the West Highland Way. So much for Rivendell…..

I crossed the uneven forest floor to reach the path, and having done so, walked a few hundred yards up and down. It offered nothing other than the chance to discuss migrant warblers with a group of American walkers, which was actually pretty pleasant.

I had the dawning realisation though that my time there was over, that I had achieved all that I was likely to do. I toyed with the idea of going on to Inversnaid, and quickly dismissed it. I remembered though that Bill had had an exceptionally successful (or, by his standards, ordinary) day at RSPB Loch Lomond, and as I literally passed it on the way home, it made perfect sense to stop in.

The car park was busy again, and while I’m not a people person, I felt this was a good thing. The more people appreciate a place the more they’ll try to protect it from dark forces. It was also heartening to see the number of birders visiting, rather than just folk out for a walk. A brief chat with the volunteers, and a briefer, myopic squint at the sightings board, and I headed off to the pond. I’m a veteran visitor, see, so knew the best places to go.

A willow warbler sang its beautiful song, and somewhere distant a pheasant croaked, as if to give a ying to the willow warbler’s yang. A seat in the sunshine got me a great spotted woodpecker giving its ‘chack’ call from the direction of the boardwalk. The nearby feeders were empty, and there was little to no birdlife. I wandered on toward the tree where I had ticked garden warbler previously, and discovered where the willow warbler was calling from. A buzzard called distantly, back toward the car park.

I had a chat with a birder who had earlier seen a tree pipit and agreed that the weather was great and would be rain- free for the rest of the afternoon, and that I’d made the correct decision not bringing my jacket.

Unsurprisingly, the drizzle then began as I reached the boardwalk, the fen much quieter than before, but sedge warbler still calling. I sat and scanned the reed beds. Lots of sand martins, and the virtue of patience, perseverance, and the ability to ignore rain down the back of my neck eventually paid a dividend with the appearance of a half dozen house martins. Year tick 2 for the day, and a massive relief as I’d been panicking slightly. I mean, its May and I was thinking I’d dipped for the year. All I need to do now is find swift.

Now that the house martin panic was over I was able to just sit and watch and enjoy. The drizzle stopped, the sun fought its way through the cloud, and I treated myself to 15 minutes of doing absolutely nothing but watch birds.

Eventually, I moved onward toward the end of the boardwalk, where the path continued through the woods. A Reed bunting called from the left and was seen on top of a fairly lonely tree, sticking up out of the reeds. Willow warbler and chiffchaff called from beyond the boardwalk. Near the start of the path an opening in the trees gave me a different view across the fen, and a better look at the dozen of so house martins that were now flying.

The reserve is very much path- based, which isn’t something I love. Often, they’re too tame, too sanitised, too planned. A rough, ad hoc path was visible, though, leading into a clearing. I found myself sitting on a fallen tree trunk, the dampness of the moss soaking through my trousers. A nuthatch flew in from behind, landing briefly, before flying off again. I’d been hoping for a tree pipit- the clearing was perfect for it- but no joy sadly. The willow warbler vs chiffchaff war was interrupted suddenly by a new, strange call. A few seconds later, it called again, and against all expectations I realised it was a redstart. Visually, I was restricted to views of it flitting among the high branches, but it was joyful just to be there and soak it in. Year tick 3 for the day, and utterly unexpected.

Eventually, I felt my time there was up, and I walked slowly back to the car park. The circular path was fairly bird- free, but I somehow didn’t mind this. Another chat with the volunteers, and I gave them the good news about the redstart. The drive home had me toying with the idea of stopping off somewhere for some commando birding, but the traffic jams and slow pace of the motorway ended those plans quickly. I’ve had days where bad luck has left me relying on a ‘rescue bird’ to make the day a success. The trip to Loch Lomond RSPB, though, was a visit to a ‘rescue reserve.’ And all the more enjoyable for it.


Thoughts

The best advice I’ve ever read is to listen first, and once you do, you’ll never fail to notice birds again. Building on that to plan days out, and to have your own regular, even special, places are a natural progression, I think. You reach a stage where you “are” birdwatching, not necessarily “going” birdwatching. Each of us gets something different out of it, whether it’s a walk in your local woods, or a massive trip that take weeks to plan (and minutes for those plans to fail.)

I lean toward the romanticism of tapping into our pre- historic selves, the urge to find the “wild” out there, even if its only my imagination running amok as I sit at Fin Me Oot, or with rain- sodden moss on a tree trunk soaking through my trousers, or on a bone- dry path between SUDS ponds watching sand martins.

How many generations of birders have shared this experience? Before birding was a thing, how many people have listened to the first chiffchaff of the year, even without realising what it was, but understanding what its re- appearance meant to the passing of the seasons. I read years ago that, mathematically, its possible to be genetically unconnected to your ancestors. Each generation halves the average genes you share, but you still have a connection, a lineage. The same applies to birders. Us, now, today are carrying on what generations of our forebears have done. My birding experiences over the past few weeks have made me appreciate this all the more, and fear that the crisis in the environment will bring this to a crashing halt.

Stay safe, stay healthy, get outside when and grab a little bit of the wild when you can.

John
 

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