RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails...Famous Five just a few from many

0
Have your say

The ‘Famous Five’ cuckoos radio-tagged by the BTO which spent their winter in the Congo and possibly passed over Timbuktu on their way back to Britain are only five among tens of thousands of birds arriving back to breed.

I shall be listening out for nightingales, garden warblers, whitethroats, willow warblers, nightjars... the list goes on.

April may have been the cruellest month for TS Eliot, but for birdsong it is the best. Perhaps he just didn’t get out into the countryside enough.

Shakespeare did – in Sonnet No 3 he likened the month to perfect female beauty. Blossom, youth, eagerness, and time to think of a family, perhaps.

None more mischievous than your early riser, John Donne told us, too. For that is when birdsong is at its best indeed.

There is such a vast twittering in the copse as birds tell each other about what they are up to that I have often found it almost impossible to disentangle the messages. And we think we invented Twitter.

April runs into May and the singing continues, especially in damp dawns with high humidity. But will you hear a grasshopper warbler among all the din? Forty years ago you would. But today this odd little bird nicknamed the skulker, also the reeler, is down to about five pairs in Sussex. Skulker because they never show themselves very much, but creep about under the bramble bushes like frightened mice. Reeler because that is the way the male sings. He reels a noise like an old-fashioned sewing machine worked by a tireless seamstress.

Schubert captured that sound of perpetua mobile to perfection in one of his 600 songs about a sewing machine, the left hand humming up and down on the piano as the girl sang her satisfaction of seeing the work achieved.

The only times I ever saw the grasshopper warbler in song were on moonlit nights in May 40 years ago when I used to wander up on the Downs through young fir plantations where these warblers used to nest.

They would sing for hours at a time without ceasing and always sang towards the moon and I could see their wide-open beaks and yellow throats through my binoculars. The weird reeling song heard 100 yards away would be like crickets stridulating.

They used to make their lumpy grass nests almost on the ground, completely hidden to human eye.

About 12 different warblers breed in Sussex, most of them migrating here from Africa with the cuckoos. They bring summer with them as they arrive.