Hazel, willow, beef and storytelling from Bedfordshire

Silent Summer

July in Wassledine's hazel coppics
Under the hazel coppice canopy in July

Suddenly it’s quiet in the woods. It happens sometime in July, and it happens almost overnight. Because for large parts of the year the wood is my office, I’m lucky enough to enjoy the seasonal tide of bird song as the sound track of my working day, so when these dramatic changes happen, even I, with my liking for Radio 4 dramas, take note.

As I make charcoal on hot days in August, for short periods there is no bird song at all which leaves the wood a slightly eerie place. Mostly though, as well as the whirling buzz of flies and bees,  wood pigeons provide a background nagging to my day and the torpor is disturbed by the occasional desperate mewing of a buzzard, the chonk of a crow, a green woodpecker’s yaffle  or quiet chinks from unidentified birds in the deep cover of the hazel coppice. Birds are recovering from the rigours of breeding, replacing feathers and trying to find and avoid becoming lunch. Of course, some have left by August, heading south for the winter.

As I cut coppice through the winter, birds are almost as quiet as in late summer but more visible, because food is scarce and they need more to keep warm. I’m usually tracked by a robin, looking out for likely morsels unearthed as I move around – apparently he thinks I’m a wild boar. His call sounds to me like he’s a bit shy and not certain anyone’s keen to listen.  Most days at some point I’ll be aware of the approaching chatter of a gang of blue, great and long-tailed tits. These compact charmers abandon any feeling of competition during the winter, spending their days searching for food together and roosting overnight in large groups. It’s always a pleasure to have their company.

Winter is a challenging time for many birds. Finding enough food, and in freezing weather, water, keeps them fairly well occupied. Of course, predators can do well now, picking up older birds and last spring’s young that don’t yet know the ropes. It’s a time of endurance but they must do more than just make it through winter safely. To be successful in the coming breeding season, they need to be in peak physical shape by the onset of spring.

I start hearing the stirrings of spring early in the year. A sunny day in January can bring out the occasional optimistic great tit, giving his shouted ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ a dry run.  He starts to have some competition by late February and in March the woods begin to pulsate as blackbirds, wrens, robins, chaffinches and song thrushes join the chorus.

At some point I hear the first chiff-chaff, usually in late March and it’s a great moment. These will be the males, arriving early, after a ridiculously hazardous journey, some from south of the Sahara, to stake out territories before their prospective partners appear. This year, in our woods, the blackcap was next and it wasn’t until well into April that I heard the first willow warbler. By that time, the coppice is alive with bird song and it can be difficult to pick out individual species from the cacophony. I still can’t tell the difference between a blackcap and a garden warbler by their song, and that I fear is something I may just have to accept.

Whilst it’s sad to accept the quiet of the wood in mid-summer with the prospect of autumn only a few weeks away, it’s a pleasure to work there through the year and whilst I know those birds find me at best, an irritation, I enjoy and value their company greatly and would hate to be without it.

1 Comment

  1. adminguy adminguy
    October 21, 2020    

    testing spam filter

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