On the beauty of Norfolk’s songbirds

PUBLISHED: 13:26 20 April 2020

Willow Warbley on gorse (photo: David Tipling)

Willow Warbley on gorse (photo: David Tipling)

David Tipling

Nick Acheson, Norfolk Wildlife Trust evangelist, is lyrical about our songbirds

It occurs to me as I sit to write about April’s wildlife that some of my readers will not have heard the song of the woodlark. It occurs to me, I say; in truth it pains me – a stabbing realisation – that many of you have will not have heard a woodlark.

For the woodlark, caught over the early mist hanging in a Breckland forest clearing, has the loveliest song of any known to human ears. To be sure, even here in the UK, there are other supreme songsters.

Many are drawn to the rich and happy burble of the blackcap, who starts quietly, hesitantly perhaps, before losing himself in a heady, fluting stanza. Indeed the blackcap’s voice is lovely, and is the sound of our woods in April, as honeysuckle leaves swell and orange-tips skip over startling throws of bluebells; but the blackcap is too cheery for melancholy me.

Others praise the nightingale. Yes, the nightingale’s song is magnificent; Beethovian in its seeming respect for rhythm and melody, only to shred the heart by casting them aside a moment later. The nightingale indeed has a claim to being the finest songster, and is one to be heard now, before we lose it altogether as a Norfolk bird.

In recent years all the singers I knew as a child in North Norfolk have gone. The nightingale is now a bird I have to go elsewhere to hear, and this fact scars my heart.

Even the nightingale, with all its sonic mastery, and the tragedy of its decline, is not the finest songster. Nor even is the willow warbler, though its song is the one which most often stops me in my tracks.

Blackcap (photo: Elizabeth Dack)Blackcap (photo: Elizabeth Dack)

Twelve years ago I returned to the UK after 10 years of life on the southern edge of Amazonia. I arrived in January, cold and lost, and finding little comfort in wigeon and the icy wings of gulls.

At the start of April, on the Second World War airfield on which as a child I had taught myself the ways of birds, butterflies and bees, I heard a willow warbler singing from a wind-punished birch. My first in a decade.

All at once my heart stirred with spring, and a knowledge of home. (‘You don’t understand! It’s my home, my old home! I’ve just come across the smell of it, and it’s close by here, really quite close. And I must go to it, I must, I must! O, come back Ratty! Please, please come back!’) But no, not even the willow warbler, melter of 10 years of frost, is the finest singer.

Juliet says, ‘It was the nightingale, and not the lark,’ but I must disagree. The nightingale, yes, is a heavenly singer – the skylark too, to which the star-crossed heroine refers – but it is the woodlark who takes the prize.

The woodlark has none of the brash confidence of the blackcap, nor the strident virtuosity of the nightingale. The woodlark sings with sorrow in his heart. He sobs; sad, clear sound tumbling from his throat into the cool dawn air, lilting between just two sweet notes, faster, ever faster, until his song fades and the dawn is but the throaty croaks of rooks getting ready for their day.

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I am lucky. The natural world means everything to me and everywhere I go there’s fascination, joy. It is a knife-edge luck, this luck of mine, for it is agony to care. Agony to long for wild space, and wild beings, wild place and wild sound to be loved, nurtured, welcomed, saved. An agony which tips giddily from the throat of a lark, dot-like in the still less than blue sky over a Breckland clearing today.

‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop on me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.’

norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk

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