Highlights of a locked-down year

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) in flight.

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) in flight. - Credit: Henk Bogaard, Shutterstock

A year of being forced to concentrate almost entirely on the wildlife on my doorstep has taken its toll on me, but in a good way I believe.

Spending protracted periods of time before breakfast, during lunch or at the end of the day, just sitting in the garden to ‘see what happens’ is now part and parcel of my week.

Sometimes not much happens, sometimes the same thing as yesterday happens but every now and then, something extraordinary happens and never, does nothing happen.

Just the other day, as I sat sipping tea outside, a bird came over the fence to my left, tore past my head and dived over the next fence continuing on over the neighbouring gardens.

In what has become a reflex action, I got my binoculars to my eyes just before it vanished revealing it to be not the woodpigeon I had thought, but a woodcock!  A first for my garden and totally unexpected.

Another quirky habit I have developed over the last year is to sit out in the garden after dark and listen – maybe for a couple of hours before bed. As a result, I have learned quite a few things!

One is simply that we, as humans, make an incredible amount of noise and that noise is of a very dominating quality. Unlike the broken stanzas of robin song or the many different calls of birds as they fly around, our noise – mostly cars and trains - tends to be continuous and unbroken.

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It leaves me wondering how this affects wildlife that would normally be able to listen without the background roar. 

I have also learned that another world awakes as ours goes to sleep. Birds that would never be seen or heard over the garden during daylight hours take their chances in the dark.

Moorhens and coots from the nearby golf course lake take up nightly patrol flights, their plaintive and repetitive calls tracking their circuits. This last weekend I heard the strangled squeal of their cousin, the water rail, accompanied by a moorhen as they flew, presumably quite close together, overhead.

It is a world I cannot see but at times can be quite busy.  Of course, there are plenty of unidentified squeaks and calls and maybe in time I will learn what those are but for now just simply recognising a bird call in the dark is exciting.

Without the benefit of sight, the calls are always unexpected and sometimes so loud they make you jump!  One such bird recently was a flyover oystercatcher, heading over the garden, and its loud “pleep” calls subsequently heard by a friend further north in St Albans.

This unseen world has prompted me to invest in a recording device so that I can review the night’s sounds the next day using audio software on my computer.  It has been fascinating to see the calls of various birds (not to mention police sirens and car horns) translated onto a spectrogram in full colour.

The highest frequencies are the domain of our local pipistrelle bats, creating sharp little spikes on the graph while migrating redwings thin “tseep” calls appear as bolder vertical streaks further down the frequency range.

I take great delight in the fact that, though I cannot see them, the birds and bats are there and visible on the spectrograms with their own unique spectrum of frequencies.

For me, the spectrograms provide a fitting picture for the past year, for although we have not been physically in the dark, we have nonetheless been greatly limited – unable to go and see the wider world we’re used to. Instead, our graph has been coloured by the activities of our local wildlife – the rhythms of nature on our doorstep and the comings and goings of all its inhabitants. 

The joy of these local discoveries has provided little spikes of colour and life, as bold and bright as any spectrogram, and given vital windows out to the wider world.

As this spring brings hope of renewed freedoms, for me, the call of the oystercatcher over the garden in the dark and the brief explosion of a woodcock over the fences will stay with me as treasured moments, wherever I go.