Well, my participation in the RSPB Farmland Bird Surveys are over for this year. Today’s last survey, falling during the current sunny spell, was the day of best weather and felt like applause. I did struggle on some days to be on site for first light, which latterly meant rising before 3am. Not since my PhD fieldwork have I been so consistently a pre-dawn riser. However, during that fieldwork, I was also solely a song-chaser and -recorder, whereas with these surveys the perspective was different; sightings sufficed for a record. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating how much more information can be acquired by sound rather than sight. Easily over 50% of my records are based on birdlistening rather than birdwatching. Hence the need to rise for first light, as the period before and after sunrise is when birds are often more active, and advertise that activity by singing. Most birds are diurnal and therefore largely dependent on vision to find food. Birds wake as light begins to creep across the sky but, in that dimness, males postpone searching for breakfast in favour of re-staking their territorial claim, reminding their mate of the wisdom of their choice, and letting the neighbours know that they’re still here.
Farmland surveys are designed to be of at least a couple of hours duration and they remind me of walking the dog in my Fermanagh childhood; literally rambling through the fields. This time, the ramble had a definite purpose and focus. The RSPB Farmland Bird surveys are important because, with the intensification of agriculture over the last 30 years or so, a lot of formerly common species are declining. We are familiar with the corncrake’s extinction; perhaps less so with the corn bunting’s. The RSPB has identified 6 species of conservation concern, that we need to take strong action on to prevent them going the same way. Species as iconic as the skylark, as delightful as the lapwing; as formerly ubiquitous as the linnet. These species suffer from our need to tidy up, to straighten out, to drain, to drive towards incessant productivity. Many of them have been disadvantaged by the reduction in mixed farming — the modern world requires specialists everywhere — and the loss of a more patchy and pervasive arable farming. There are, it would seem, benefits to being a Jack-of-all trades: more stubble; more spillage; more seeds. As these contract, so do the birds.
Linnet: photograph © Wilbert McIlmoyle
County Down is a stronghold for two of the listed species: the linnet and the yellowhammer. On the farms that I surveyed, I had the pleasure of regular encounters with both species, so these farmers were certainly doing something right. The different farms are geographically close, but agriculturally somewhat different, in that one strives consciously and successfully to attract birds, whereas the other is more focussed on arable production. While the latter has less avian diversity overall, nevertheless it provides a good home for yellowhammers and linnets both. This clearly shows the value of diverse farming strategies in terms of conservation, and highlights again the need for diversity in terms of land management.
The more conservation-oriented farm has retained pockets of woodland and scrub, marsh and sump, which has brought rewards: a total of 41 bird species, including the yellowhammer and linnet, but also reed bunting; and, of less conservation concern, but equally delightful, sightings of the dumpy bullfinch. I also saw heron, buzzard; heard the raw familiarity of a raven-call; the soft drill of grasshopper warbler song; the ecstatic cackling of sedge warbler’s. Many hares reared up to view me with goggle-eyed and lop-eared alarm before departing the scene with a lolloping canter. In the blue-rinse of first light, in the same patch of sky, two worlds overlapped: swallows and pipestrelles sifting the same air.
Like in my rural childhood, I found myself glad of a stick to flail at a posse of over-curious, mostly Friesian, heifers. They escorted me off their territory without regard of my need to listen out for the birds above the soft swish and pound of their hooves and the distraction of their attention. A two-week interval between surveys morphed them from nervous children to stroppy teenagers. However, Fermanagh doesn’t grow wheat, at least not in my experience, and one of heightened experiences of the surveys, if you’ll pardon the pun, was wading through a wheatfield (with permission!) that grew from below my knee to above my waist, stroking the soft hairy ears that thickened from grass-green tightness to a serried fulsomeness of seed. It felt bountiful, munificent.
And of course, finding what one is looking for is always rewarding, and in this case, reassuring. I encountered good numbers of yellowhammer and linnet, especially on the more arable farm. Both species are a delight: linnets with their pink-brown plumage, dangling swerve of a song, and looping flight; and yellowhammers, that tawny body crowned with exotic canary-yellow; the way they throw themselves into song, rearing back that yellow head, widening their mandibles to full gape, so the wheezing ditty, little-bit-of-bread-and-NO-cheese — that is now a permanent download in my head — pours out.
I find the contribution birds make to our aural landscape fascinating: how memories of my Fermanagh childhood are haunted by the rachet of corncrakes; how years living in the Sperrins gave me rooks as a wake-up call as they fro-ed from the nearby rookery in Learmount forest; and where practically every walk was warned of, through the carks and mews of surveilling ravens and buzzards. Now, in the city, mornings open with a more domestic sound, no less welcome, the incessant chat of house sparrows. My PhD research mainly concerned woodland species, and one sound I have missed on the farms was the monotonous onomatopoeia of the chiffchaff. However, when I arrived in the yards, as I got out of the car, I was greeted by blackbirds; closely followed by robin and sometimes song thrush. As I got into my wellies, I was assailed by the flit and twitter of swallows into, out of, through and between barns, byres and stables. Invariably, as I entered the fields, a pheasant coughed.
The aural environment is as unique as the visual, and the voices of birds are a rich source for us to tap into; to locate and recognise where we are. As well as the right of birds simply to exist and get on with their own sweet lives, this is what they give us; incidentally, yes, but freely: a soundscape, the particularity of an aural experience. As I said my goodbyes, for the time being at least, to my last yellowhammer, I was standing on a hill above that yellow-green wheatfield. I did a Google Earth about-turn, panning from Scrabo tower down along Strangford Lough, snagging on the ruckle of the Mournes; following the coastline beyond, its spine of land running south, until it misted into the distance; swung with the Lough’s mouth round the edge of the peninsula, the water always in view, to overlook the folding of fields until they edged the Irish sea. I’ve seen many magnificent views in my time, but this one, with the sun risen for a beautiful day, the wheat and the yellowhammer, will always be golden.