It’s so easy to focus on the look of birds.
So many colours and shades of plumage that change with the seasons; so many different bill shapes from spears to hammers to tweezers. As a photographer, the look of birds had always been of eclipsing importance to me. I learned to distinguish differences in the drabbest plumage, to recognise the movements and flight patterns of different species.
This was fine as an amateur, but in 2004 I began studying for a degree in environmental biology. Knowing how visually biased I was, I began learning the songs and calls of birds: something that is essential for breeding bird surveys. If you don’t know your chiffchaff song from your willow warbler’s, the bird itself is not going to give you any clues however hard you stare at it (providing you can even see it in the dense hedgerows).
Learning the sounds of birds opened up a whole new dimension for me. Working as a Sandwich tern warden in Cemlyn on Anglesey in 2008, I quickly learned the incongruous squeaky-door-hinge call of this otherwise elegant bird, and ever since, I can pick that sound out of a cacophony of other calls.
It was my first job in nature conservation, and it was a complete immersion in the daily and nightly lives of birds. I slept on a camp bed in a renovated building that had been a cow shed not long before, and spent many nights patrolling the shingle ridge near the lagoon islands, using torchlight to keep herons away from the tern colony.
I had been a bookseller before studying biology. Changing career in your mid-30s is no small decision, and working as a Cemlyn warden confirmed that I had made the right choice. My spreadsheets were no longer full of book titles and sales figures, they were full of the names of birds, mammals and reptiles; of moths and butterflies and shingle vegetation. Instead of new title buys and staff hours, I had population counts, predation rates and egg and chick percentages.
In the beginning I worried that now birds had become my job, I might begin to appreciate them less, but the opposite turned out to be true: from Sandwich terns on Anglesey to salt marsh waders and waterfowl in Dorset, to woodland birds in Bristol, the more I worked with and learned about birds, the more I appreciated them.
Feeling a need to get out of the city, I got up early on Christmas Day this year, and drove down to the Somerset Levels for some dawn bird watching. I spent most of 2007 as a monthly volunteer at Ham Wall, so I was familiar with its willows and reed beds and pools. I wanted to be immersed again (in birds, not pools), to watch the different species begin their day as the sun rose.
I expected nothing new from any other dawn bird walk there, but being so familiar with Ham Wall, I decided to walk first onto Shapwick Heath reserve. It was still dark as I walked along the drove. Sunrise was half an hour away.
I became aware of a sound in the gloom, and a vague movement in the area across the rhyne to the right. I thought at first it was a herd of deer running in a thunder of hoofs, but I knew there were not that many deer at Shapwick.
It was starlings, I realised, starlings moving through the tops of the reeds in a black wave, harried by a sparrowhawk and a buzzard. What I had taken for the thunder of deer hoofs was the sound of their wings hitting the reeds as they flowed back and forth beneath the raptors.
On a deep level (smartphones and indoor toilets notwithstanding), people remain primal beings. The sound of thunder or wildfire heightens our senses, sends a spike of adrenalin through us – even though we may know on a conscious level that the sound is just bird wings hitting vegetation or aircraft engines readying for take-off – the sharp intake of breath, the elevated heart rate, the tingling nerve-endings, it’s all the same. It’s elemental, fundamental, ancient and enduring.
As the sky lightened, the raptors left but the starlings still surged restlessly back and forth. I gasped and froze, mouth agape, as a roaring sound preceded the rise of an organic tower in front of me that listed to one side and melted back into the reeds. A moment later there was another rumble and a great column boiled up from the reeds and rose – and rose – and rose: spreading out above me in a net of starlings, a latticework of bird shapes filling the dawn sky. Their wing beats dropped to a whisper as they spread and split up and disappeared.
The few that were left in the reeds moved like gusts of wind, no longer having the numbers to make much noise. Even they rose up and left now. The sun was up and I was alone.
I walked in a daze back to the car park, and crossed the road into Ham Wall.
I was already changed by the experience. I trod softly and listened intently. I heard goldcrests singing their high-pitched fluid song beneath the louder Cetti’s warblers. I heard the whistle of wigeon amongst the incessant peeping of teal. The deep, rasping calls of snipe erupting from the reed beds and the pig squeals of the water rail amongst the warbles of coots and moorhens. Dried reeds rustled as long-tailed tits alighted on them.
And then a lapwing flock passed so low overhead that I could hear the thrum of each wing beat. I was entranced all over again. I didn’t even think of raising the camera, I just stopped and listened, closing my eyes and swaying in time to the beats. The lapwing is a bird I have loved since childhood. Vast winter flocks of them would descend on the West Country farmland where my father worked. I used to watch them every afternoon from the school bus.
I had seen individual lapwings up close at Stanpit Marsh in Dorset, and heard their swanny-whistle calls over the marsh meadows there, but the really big flocks I had only seen from a distance, and all of them twenty five years in the past. I had never been privy to the sound of their wings as they lapped low overhead.
To be close enough to hear a sound like that is a thrilling intimacy, a privileged feeling.
We need this experience: we need to feel thrilled and connected and humbled by another species. We need the thunder of wings. We need to be amazed and awed and it worries me that the flocks are too small now. Lapwings, golden plovers, buntings, yellowhammers – the flocks have dwindled too much to set off that adrenalin spike.
This is why I, and other wardens and rangers like me, live in cowsheds and accept short term, poorly paid contracts. We are scientists who love our subjects unconditionally, and want passionately to conserve the wildness of the countryside.
We do the science to preserve the poetry, and at no moment was I more thankful for it than that Christmas morning, when the starlings were gone and there was just me, rooted to the spot, breathing like a bellows, stoked, invigorated, committing to memory the rushing black waves, the boiling towers and the sound of starling wings like pounding hoofs; like roaring flames; like thunder.
Trudi Clarke, 2013