As part of retirement and moving to a smaller house, I looked forward to more birdwatching, – not, as before, sweeping with binoculars the extensive salt scrapes and windy marshes of East Anglia but getting closer to garden birds in a way that wasn’t possible at our last house in Norfolk. Perhaps that change was a metaphor for retirement itself – less wide-scale scope but more opportunities for close-up looking? Here, in our Bridgnorth apartment, the conditions are ideal, – a small crab apple tree hung with different feeders stands only feet away from french windows. Often it is full of little birds, hanging around for their turn at feeding or pendulum-ing downward in little zigzag drops and swings that remind me of a pinball machine, full of colour and movement. Blue tits are our most frequent visitors but, being so zippy and difficult to distinguish as individuals, one is somehow less interested in them. They seem to operate at a higher rev rate than other birds, coming and going so fast that one tires of trying to track them. Goldfinches, which always remind me of the bejewelled missal where I first saw one illustrated, are the most messy feeders; operating in pairs they hog the perches, refusing to budge, dropping much seed litter to the soil (and skulking dunnocks) below. I remember when goldfinches were comparatively rare birds of the open field; drawn by their silvery twittering you might come across a flock in some neglected corner of a field, eating thistle seeds and chucking the fluff over their shoulders. But, for the last twenty or so years, having discovered an easier source of food in our gardens, they are everywhere. On the other hand, house sparrows, which used to be ubiquitous, are infrequent now. I used to associate them with chirpy group behaviour – taking careless dust baths in the sunshine, or gangbanging in unselfconscious polygamy – but here they are notably quick to scare. Is it because a female sparrowhawk, with wonderful blue shoulders and buff apricot chest, has taken to our small garden as part of her patrol-circuit? I’d like to think that she can’t grab “our” birds with those huge yellow talons of hers because of the surrounding thorn and holly bushes, but she sometimes sits prominently in the crab apple tree, in Ted Hughes-like hawkish profile, as if to reassert her predatory rights. Long-tailed tits, which also used to be birds of the countryside, have also come in from the fields; four or five times a day they appear in whistling fidgeting gangs, their tiny badger-striped heads counterbalanced by disproportionately long tails. Unlike the finches, which are gluttons for seeds, they take tiny pecks from the fat and peanuts. Great tits, coal tits, all the various finches and woodpeckers as well as “the common or garden” blackbirds, thrushes and pigeons (one of my favourites is the little ringdove, so much more elegant in its lovat-coloured tailcoat than its waddling wood pigeon cousin)….and of course there is always an aggressively resident robin or two… I could go on about “our” bird neighbours for ever. Perhaps the most striking appearances at the feeders over the past years have been unusual over-wintering visitors. Two years ago it was a pair of blackcaps which should have been thousands of miles away; holidaying in Madeira in December we came across flocks of them. This occasional choice to stay in England after Autumn must surely be one of the many hints at climate change? This past winter we have enjoyed a mixed flock of redcaps and linnets which have stayed with us for three months. I realise that all this bird naming must be beginning to sound like a Twitcher’s list, or just showing off; in reality most of the identifications have not been mine but Vic’s; it is she who, as well as having the sharper eyesight has the superior knowledge.
I do think that there is something quite mystical about birds; after all, they have been denizens of this planet for a much longer time span than have human beings. It is now thought they evolved from small feathered dinosaurs billions of years ago. There is something quite magical about their migratory abilities, for instance; also the synchronistic flock behaviour in which they appear to communicate faster than mere sight or sound might manage…telepathy perhaps? Birds are somehow both more advanced and more primitive than we are. Their little lives act as a kind of fleeting marginalia to our own.