Monday 27 April 2020

Acros and Locusts 26th April 2020

I do not think it is just me that has found the Spring of this year incredibly beautiful and truly exceptional. The weather has, of course, contributed to this perception but there is more to it than just sunshine and blue skies. Perhaps it is the fact that our enforced incarceration in our homes has granted us the time to think, reflect and regard afresh the natural beauty that is part of a world that we have taken so much for granted and mistreated. 

The self inflicted crisis that man's abuse of nature has brought on itself, pushing humanity to the brink of a very dark precipice has paradoxically resulted in an environmental cleansing and an unprecedented peace and tranquility pervading the land.

In contrast to our current dire situation the natural world is thriving in our absence, an exuberance of life manifesting itself in this most joyous of seasons as the birds seem to sing louder, the lambs bounce ever higher in sunlit fields, the butterflies flicker in unexpected and unheralded profusion along uncut hedgebanks and fieldsides and the may blossom bursts from buds in a profusion of spilling white blossom and sickly scent.

A female Orange Tip
I have lived with anxiety all my life and the current crisis facing humanity world wide is inevitably causing me a heightened level of distress but having lived with the condition for so long I have developed various strategies to cope. One of these is to immerse myself in the natural world. It removes me from a dark place to one of quiet and blessed relief.

My choice of therapeutic location has been a small stretch of the Thames Path that runs for a mile or so alongside the river, here in Oxfordshire, a rural corner of  hawthorn hedgerows and meadows, reed fringed pools and great willow trees towering above the river. A river that runs quiet and smooth hereabouts, its tranquil waters dimpled by mysterious rings as fish kiss the surface from below. A soothing presence, the river's unstoppable permanence a re-assurance that whatever happens to the world, it will continue. I need this certainty of purpose, this sense of order and things unchanged. It helps me to cope.

This year the bushes and hedgerows are full of birdsong as the migrant warblers have arrived in a profusion that is truly exceptional. Blackcaps are here in abundance, the crystal pure notes of the male bird's short, sweet song ringing through the sunlit oaks. They are everywhere this year, providing a constant accompaniment as I pass through the wood. This year, another bird, similar in both form and song has also arrived in larger numbers than usual. The bird in question is the Garden Warbler. Unremarkable to look at, being essentially pale brown all over but confounding its drab appearance by possessing a richly melodic, chortling burst of notes that brings to the woods its own transcending beauty.There are those who claim the Blackcap's purer notes are the superior of the two but for me it is the full and rich vocalisations of the Garden Warbler that stir my soul the more.

I move along, pensive but enjoying this opportunity to allow both body and spirit to freely wander, the river a sinuous, mysterious and constant companion beside me. Reed Warblers endlessly sing their scratchy unmelodic yet rhythmic song from deep in long dead reed stems, a legacy from the  year past. Soon the pointed green leaves of this year's growth will replace the dead stems, revitalising the reed bed and hiding the birds and their deep cupped nests, each nest a basket strung from two reed stems, holding the nest secure above the water. The Cuckoo that now sits crossways on his perch, calling loudly, bowered in the leaves high in the huge willows beside the river, will later watch his mate stealthily lay a single egg in some of the nests.

I come to a  bend in the river and stop to regard a triangular area of unprepossessing flattened sedge, the green shoots of nettles and grass blades slowly asserting their presence through the faded vegetation of last year. A couple of dead branches, discarded like old bones, are jutting up through a tangle of dry grass, strands of which hang like loose hairs from the lifeless brittle twigs. It is warm in the sun, and the volume of birdsong here is so loud it is to be remarked upon. For certain the birds are not singing louder but maybe they sound that much more impressive due to the lack of extraneous noise.There are no planes overhead, no distant sound of traffic, no dogs barking, no river traffic. Nothing at all except that which is natural.

Four or five  lustily singing Sedge Warblers have set up home here in this herbaceous cul de sac by the river, all the birds within tens of yards of each other. Singing Sedge Warblers radiate an impression of irrepressible, cheery energy. The halting jerkiness of their song starts as a low scratchy warble, a jumble of notes often incorporating mimicry of other birds.  The alarm call of a swallow is a favourite of the birds here. Quickly the warbler gets into its stride and the hesitant warble becomes a rapid outpouring of notes, at its zenith delivered with such a haphazard speed it is as if the notes are produced too rapidly and they spill over each other in the bird's eagerness to pour out its passion. An exuberant expression of Spring and its eternal promise of renewal. As the volume and intensity of song increases so the tiny bird ascends from concealment low down in the tangle of vegetation to the top of the branch, there to sing its loudest as if it feels that only here can its song be best delivered and heard. Sometimes even this is not enough and the songster flies a short way up into the air still singing, there to describe a tight circle before planing back down to earth.

Sedge Warbler
Silent for a moment it turns its head to listen to the other Sedge Warblers nearby and responds with another muttering of notes as if talking to itself and then increases the volume until it is singing as loudly as its neighbours, its head turning, displaying a deep orange gape as its lower mandible jerks in rapid effort, up and down, to deliver its song, its throat meanwhile swelling and distending the creamy white feathers that cover it. 

In the benign light of early morning  the warblers are an intricate combination of shades of brown and cream, the colours of their favourite habitat. The sound  generated by their singing is incredible from such a small bird, so much so it insists that you stop here and marvel at this force of nature. It is just us in this secluded corner, the transient beauty made all the more poignant by the ever present fear of a lurking, unseen danger that has come to haunt us all. I enjoy it as best I can as, when the crisis we are experiencing is over, it will never be the same as today. I begin to feel more positive about life and the future and I will remember this morning and use it as inspiration to surmount the occasional dark times that are bound to come.

Then came a final surprise. Unexpected, exciting and thrilling. A buzzing, clicking, reeling sound produced at high speed, not birdlike at all but more the sound of an insect. An endless thin trill, rhythmic and fast, going on for minutes on end. A Grasshopper Warbler right here just metres from me! 

Totally unsuspected the sound came in waves of varying intensity, as I knew the hidden bird would be turning its head to broadcast the sound all around, imparting a ventriloquial quality to its song, making it hard to pinpoint the location of the singer. I stood transfixed. It was so close but for now invisible.

A small movement caught my eye, a brown inconsequential shadow at the base of the fallen branch, obscured to a greater degree in the depths of the tangled sedge. Mouse like the indeterminate form moved position and the whirring trill of the warbler's song came once more. rising and falling. This was no mouse but the Grasshopper Warbler itself. The bird behaves almost like a mouse. A bird that loves the deep recesses and earthy alleys that run below the dead sedge and tangle that is to be its summer home. It will only reveal itself at times like these, when it is singing for a mate and to advertise its presence will rise a few feet from the ground to a perch, from which to better deliver its extraordinary song

Grasshopper Warbler
Gradually,  ever so gradually it gained confidence and moved, as would a mouse, in halting creeping steps along and then up the branch until it was almost at the top. It stopped and looked around, listening.  Re-assured it opened its bill wide and moving its head from side to side poured forth the rapid sequence of notes that forms its song. 

Unlike the Sedge Warbler, its mandibles hardly moved but remained wide open, its song seeming to come from deep within its throat. Its rich brown plumage, the colour of the earth it runs over, was streaked with black but then bright plumage is not required by a bird that spends most of its life scuttling along the ground below the herbage, just like the mice that its behaviour so resembles. Unlike the bold and assertive Sedge Warblers it also possesses the timidity of a mouse and at the slightest intimation of threat descends to the ground, there to hide below the security of the blanketing sedge. A bird displaying an anxiety that is all too familiar to me.

For an hour or so my mind was diverted from my human predicament and the distress and worries that engulf me at particularly bad times. I felt a renewed optimism about my situation. I will survive this, both mentally and physically. There is too much to lose and too much to look forward to.

Take care everyone and here's to happier times to come.


  1. Wonderful post Ewan with some great Sedge photos. Brilliant to get a reeling Gropper too.
    Keep well and hope to see you down here sometime in the future.

  2. Beautiful words & beautiful pics, EU. x