Friday, 24 July 2020


Covid 19 and the subsequent lockdown has focused everyone’s minds on the very essence of what it is to be a functioning social being in the 21st century. Having to ‘think‘ before we ‘did’ added a novel layer of thought to our daily routine. For many who did not possess a connection to the natural world, this enforced ‘reckoning’ was a wake-up call. Almost overnight the ranks of gardeners, birdwatchers, astronomers and aesthetes were swollen. Never before had the blossoming of trees, the song of birds and the muffling of man-made noise been so keenly observed and appreciated. Those of us who already knew of such things started to settle down into a deeper contentment and realise that we hadn’t really known the world around us as well as we thought we had.

The birders amongst us largely withdrew into a much smaller ornithological domain - a garden, balcony or window became our realm, a place to watch from. Social media allowed us to share our observations, to voice our feelings in what we were doing and to try and make sense of this new world order. Those of us who remained in one place, and one place only, slowly became aware that in all of this awfulness there were crumbs of comfort - the ‘pulse’ of the natural world was one of them.

Pulse. A rhythmic throbbing of nature that, with mundane thoughts having been stripped away, we all were able to see and hear with a new-found clarity. The brick wall of normality had been toppled to reveal these natural pulses that had been hiding in clear sight. For me it was a revelation. Having lived in our house for over 30 years I believed that I had a very good grasp on what happened here bird-wise. I clearly didn’t.

PULSE ONE. The Chaffinches. Late March saw a daily passage for the first hour or two after dawn. On good days these numbers reached several hundred heading eastwards, in flocks of up to 60. That they moved over the garden in early spring wasn’t a surprise, but the numbers and length of the movement was.

PULSE TWO. Blackcaps. We do have a number that winter in the neighbouring gardens, but these had moved on by the start of lockdown. In the last week of March the first spring migrant arrived, a male that sang as it made its way through the neighbourhood. Over the next month a series of birds passed - no, pulsed - through, forming tiny, discrete and short-lived territories. Each could be identified clearly. Just the one remained after the pulse had stopped. These fleeting males could be timed as to their length of stay, the area of their short-term let, and the number of their brethren. It was passage migration played out for the human ear to listen to and understand.

PULSE THREE. Night migrants. In late March, across the country, people sat in their gardens as night fell, spellbound. A combination of a lack of aircraft noise, a reduction in car use and calm weather revealed a host of waterfowl and waders calling as they passed overhead. Here in Banstead I heard Common Scoter (twice), Brent Goose (twice), Teal, Gadwall, Moorhen (multiple), Coot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Golden Plover. Others rejoiced with Water Rails, Wigeon, Dunlin, Oystercatchers, Redshanks.... and more besides. This happens every spring, but is usually difficult to hear and had not been on our radar. But, in 2020, listen we did, in our hundreds. The scales fell from our eyes and ears as this particular pulse played out.

Being in one spot, over several weeks, revealed another dimension to our birding. The unlikely and the unusual were, in fact, more likely and more usual than we gave them credit for. Hidden pulses of migrants were hiding in plain site - they were not really hidden at all. We were all sent a message, and that was that we don’t need to travel to get our ornithological highs. We live with them, if only we are prepared to invest our time and patience. But can this take the place of a contrived trip to see a vulture on northern moorland or a long car-journey to a Cornish headland in the hope of sea-birds?

Not everybody will buy into it, but slowly the tide is turning. Staying local is a real option. It can be hard work and it will, at times, be limiting. Maybe it is easier for those of us who have ‘played the game’ already and had our fill of long-distance travel and twitching. It is a difficult choice to turn away from birding hot-spots to plough some lonely furrow on dry farmland or downland. But when you hit it right the rewards are all the richer, all the more meaningful. I can look back on huge flocks of Hawfinches and Bramblings, large diurnal movements of hirundines and thrushes, plus the unexpected rarity to keep hope burning, such as Cattle Egret and Bee-eater. These can be anybody else’s as well. Had I not been doing what I was doing we would have no knowledge of them. That doesn’t make me anything special, it just goes to illustrate what is out there waiting to be discovered. Patience will bring the pulse. You just need to sit back, recognise when it is happening and observe it.


Stewart said...

Some years ago Steve, I learned to be happy with smaller goals. I hear birders talking of finding a Whites Thrush or what ever in the autumn, when I set my sights at Redstart! I love viz mig when 00s of Meadow Pipits and Hirundines are moving and I listen for a Tree Pipit or Yellow Wag. I can sit in my garden obs and get a great buzz from a few Redpolls or Siskins over, a Woodcock might arrive etc. That way its always easier to achieve something and not to feel disappointed...Its good to be alive!

Steve Gale said...

In full agreement Stewart. It's just taken me a long time to get to this point...

Jonathan Lethbridge said...

The tide needs to stay out, but many are slipping back into their old ways quite quickly from what I can gather.

Steve Gale said...

I always thought that most would Jono, but there will be a few that decide not to rejoin them.