Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Part Four - struck dumb

The next instalment of me raiding my old notebooks and adding a bit of embellishment... it is now 1975.

Epsom Common was a sedate place to go bird watching. I would catch a bus from Sutton and alight at the edge of the common on the Ashtead road. I had a set routine. Crossing the railway-line I would work my way through scrub (which often provided close views of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers) until reaching the edge of the woods. A wide ride then took me up through the mature trees – always stopping half way for lunch – until reaching its end that abutted the farmland at Maldon Rushett. A loop back to my starting point was made via a check on the stew pond. I always recorded Willow Tits and I saw my first Little Owl during one memorable late afternoon at the top of the ride. This encouraged a few of us to make, and erect, an owl nest box in the very same area. Whereas a visit to Beddington was one of heightened expectation, these Epsom Common trips were laid back affairs, the time being spent as much as in the company of the habitat as much as its bird life. But the common was about to show me a hidden side, one that I was unaware of and had been blindly wandering through for the past few months.

I was back on the common one early May evening. It was a competition as to whether or not my ears, or my eyes, were being put under the most strain. The light was fighting a losing a battle with the dark, the brightness being gently flushed from the sky, with the blues, exhausted by their daytime ascendency, slowly conceding to a palette of purples, golds and finally to the depths of indigo. There was not a breath of wind and the scene had been set. The house lights had dimmed, the audience had settled into silent expectation and the curtain then started to rise. We stared into a dense and dark undergrowth in a desperate attempt to locate the reported Nightingale. I had neither seen, nor heard, one before. The calling of other birds was a distraction, but in their amplified state the alarming Blackbird and the subsong Robin became part of the avian performance – more stage left and stage right rather than at its centre. And then our quarry started to sing.

I was struck dumb. There is no other way to describe my reaction. This unseen bird emptied its soul into that woodland glade as if its mission in life was to sing itself empty. Like musical mercury the notes flowed as if material form. A slow start, even hesitant, but the Nightingale was soon flooded with a confidence that produced an achingly beautiful series of whistles, warbles and chugging that had purity and depth of note, the reverberations of which coursed through my body. It sounded ethereal and so desperately lonely. The thoughtful song was delivered through a series of abridged phrases with a hint of melancholy. It was singing to me, and me alone. It shook me. Richness so solid that the notes stabbed me, grabbed my guts, flooded my mind. Nothing else existed. It stayed hidden from view but that did not matter. It did not matter at all.

It would have been easy to think that after this audience with such a bird the rest of the evening could only be an anti-climax, but that was not the case. We were able to hunt down several reeling Grasshopper Warblers, more insectivorous than bird-like in sound. And then, as the darkness finally laid its cloak upon us, a strange croaking sound came from above the tree line, interspersed with a thin, high whistle, and my first glimpse of a Woodcock was had, a dumpy woodland wader that patrolled above its domain as if driven by clockwork, a Hans Christian Andersen toy-makers folly. A layer of scales had fallen from my eyes with the realisation that, even in those places where I had birdwatched with some regularity, I knew very little about the birds that haunted them. They were there waiting for me and with more local knowledge and a bit more guile I should be able to find them. And I wanted to find them. Every single one.

A family weekend break, camping close to East Horsley in the west Surrey countryside, saw me creeping away from the tents on a calm, warm, late-May dawn. The fields held both displaying Red-legged and Grey Partridges; purring Turtle Doves gave themselves up in the hedgerows; a scratchy song from a bramble patch was tracked down to a Whitethroat; and after only having previously heard Cuckoos, I finally saw one, perched on top a bush, calling incessantly, an image never forgotten. I was systematically being exposed to wonderful birds, and my devotion to all things ornithological was unquestioned. Any other interests that I had were unceremoniously dumped. Bird watching was it. Nothing else mattered. I walked back to the tent a changed person. I felt as if I had somehow been baptised by the ornithological Gods, given a key to the avian kingdom. As overblown and pompous as that feeling seemed, I couldn’t describe it in any other way. That morning became one that I would regularly return to in the following years, warm memories to bathe in, a time to cherish, of purity. Birding had moved on from being functional to becoming spiritual.


Gibster said...

My first visit to Epsom Common was in September 1986 (4 Shoveler -lifers!) and I was back again in May 1987 with the YOC where we stood close to a Blackthorn thicket from which a Nightingale poured forth an incredible aural display. I later stalked a reeling gropper to within 3ft (whilst it sang on!) and saw my first of many Woodcock roding across the birch and oak canopy. Willow Tits were regular, though only the odd pair near the Wells Estate, but I rarely saw your Lesser-spot after 2000. It's all changed for the worse now, of course. Rose-ringed para-rats and Canada Geese instead of Turtle Doves and Lesser Whitethroats. Thanks for bringing some lovely memories back to this fella way up off the NW Scottish coast, buddy.

Steve Gale said...

My pleasure Seth. You’re right, Epsom Common is not what it once was...

Fleetwood Bird Observatory said...


Cheers, Seumus

Steve Gale said...

Thanks Seumus!