Sunday, 12 July 2020

Loss and partial gain

In all honesty it started three autumns ago. My fellow birders were picking up Tree Pipit calls and I was failing to do so. This was unusual, as I had quite a good ear and had never had any trouble picking Tree Pipits up before. I began to get a little concerned when, whilst standing next to somebody who picked up a couple of birds calling overhead in quick succession, I hadn’t heard a thing.

Last autumn I partook in a lot of vismigging and was surprised that the Redwing flocks were not calling as they passed through. I was even more surprised when they were not calling at night, even at times when others were reporting heavy nocturnal passage with much calling being heard. I wondered why the skies above my house remained silent, but deep down my suspicions were being aroused.

So far this year I have seen plenty of Swifts, enjoying their flocks racing overhead in numbers that have been up on recent years. Funny thing is, none of them have been calling...

This afternoon we visited our good friends Gordon and Mieko Hay. Whilst having a late lunch in their garden, Gordon leapt up as a flock off Swifts scythed overhead, 50+ strong and some sight in the blue sky. They were silent. I had to ask...

“Gordon, can you hear them?”

Needless to say, yes he could, quite clearly. So could Katrina and Mieko. For the next hour, every time a group of Swifts rushed through, I asked if they were audible. And every time that the answer was in the affirmative, I had to concede that I couldn’t hear a thing.

It was a sad afternoon. My fears had been realised. There are certain bird calls off of my register. I had been clinging to the hope that it wasn’t so. I could (and can) still hear a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, calling and singing crests plus Long-tailed Tits, so assumed that the Tree Pipits, Redwings and Swifts must still be in range. Obviously not.

There are worse things happening to many people right now, but it is hard not to feel despondent at not being able to hear these calls any longer - although I ought to temper that by admitting that if these birds are very close, I still can. A Tree Pipit last autumn ‘wheezed’ its way over, directly above me, at Ranmore; tree-flushed Redwings were audible in the garden this spring; and to round this afternoon off, a small group of Swifts, that chased each-other at roof-top height, were loud and clear to me. So, good news and bad news really. Most of these birds will be inaudible to my ear. When I can hear them, I need to appreciate them all the more. I cannot take them for granted any longer.

8 comments:

Alan Tilmouth said...

Steve, absolutely share your pain, I have tinnitus on right side and hearing is shot as a result. it will progress to left side over next decade as it's hereditary and i know one day i'll face a personal silent Spring. All we can do is be here now, make the most of every song for as long as it lasts. If my pension is large enough i may employ a young bird listener to accompany me in my dotage ;)

Steve Gale said...

Alan, wouldn’t young Sexton from Howick suffice as your bird listener?

Gibster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alcalabirder said...

Me too and it's utterly frustrating! It's not just about being unable to hear individual birds but also things like not being aware that that a hedgerow in autumn is alive with calling 'crests. Without being alerted to the fact they're there by hearing them, it's all too easy to miss the lot. Yellow-browed Warblers are doubly tough for me now unless someone else tells me they can hear them. The only positive is that if I can hear a bird reeling (with my right ear at least!) then I know it's a Savi's not a Grasshopper Warbler!

John Cantelo (aka Alcalabirder)

Gavin Haig said...

Sobering, Steve. When playing through the dawn chorus on a nocmig recording I often see very strong traces in the higher frequencies that are clearly very loud to a bird, but totally inaudible to me. This autumn I plan to evaluate my hearing a bit more precisely, but already I know that it's not what it was...

Paul Tout said...

More than 40 years ago I can remember taking my dad out to listen to a heavy passage of Redwings low over the house. He would have been about 46 or 47 at the time but had spent a number of years in the Army & without ear protection. He couldn't hear a thing. Now I struggle with some species including Tree Pipit. Swifts are still OK. I'll be looking at the tech aspects available this autumn I think.

Stewart said...

Devastating Steve. Yes I knew Alan had hearing problems on one side too and have seen him face that in the field. So far I am quite lucky in that the only thing I am missing are Pipistrelles feeding. Yesterday I located several Tree Pipits on the faint buzzing call, before my friend John had noticed their presence and he asked if I located them by call.
Our mortality is a difficult thing to face, but the shock you faced will come to everyone of us sooner or later.

Steve Gale said...

Thank you all for sharing your experiences and thoughts. It is small fry compared to what many will suffer, but a life-long birder having to accept that such wonderful experiences as Redwings calling at night and high-flying chasing flocks of Swifts are to be silent affairs is quite sad. At least I can still hear them when they are very close. Today I heard several crests calling, so it hasn't all been lost yet. And John - I had not considered that Yellow-browed Warbler was a species that might be difficult to hear - that was sobering.