Magnificent skies alive with birdsong

illustration of a song thrush.'John Caffrey.
illustration of a song thrush.'John Caffrey.

THE long summer evenings create some magnificent skies. They are the crowning glory of a beautiful day, when the sun seems reluctant to descend below the horizon.

The golden light of the lowering sky tints all it touches with the most delicate shades, while the long shadows creep slowly across the landscape. These eternal sunsets are so reminiscent of those luminous skies, painted by that master of atmosphere and light, Aelbert Cuyp (1620–1691).

It seems like time has stood still; and walking in such an ambience gives one the impression of a journey through Arcadia.

The sounds of summer, like the weather, can vary from year to year. This year the song thrush could be heard singing more than in previous years.

One such bird set up residence in the Borehole, an agricultural area surrounded by trees and hedgerows. This particular thrush had two favourite localities from where it sang, one of these, an old oak and the other a tall ash. It even sang into the late hours when darkness had set in — like the sunset it was so reluctant to give up the day.

Its voice was strong and clearly expressed in repetitive and varied phrases, each of these were followed by a pause. Any of these phrases could be the beginning of its song; they were answered by other song thrushes from the distant woods and fields.

Each of these songsters was a master in its own right. They were all-weather performers, the rain showers did not stop their song, or the thunder which gave atmosphere to the moment. I do not recall a summer when I have heard so many song thrushes singing. In past summers it has been the flute like notes of the blackbirds that have been predominant in this area. But this summer has been a song thrush summer.

I have fully appreciated this local songster, which gave me time to study its wild liquid notes so vividly expressed on so many occasions. The quality and consistency of its song, delivered with ease and elegance in both the lower and higher register from its sylvan abode, has few equals in the bird world.

There were evenings when I sat painting with the window open listening to its song. So captivating was its prolonged overtures, I would lay down my brush in reverie of its wild notes dispersed into the air with bell like clarity.

On the evening of July 22 three young song thrushes flew onto my window boxes. These were fledglings that had just left the nest and flew in from the cherry trees opposite. They sat for a while then flew off with great effort and uncertainty. All of this confirmed to me it definitely was my song thrush summer.

The natural world provides many interests throughout this season of plenty. This summer, once again, I have come across a butterfly called the speckled wood. My very first sighting of it in this county was last September at the edge of Cottingwood Common. This year I saw one resting on the garden path in late May and this came as a very pleasant surprise.

The orange-tip butterflies have been in good numbers this year and I saw them flying till early June. The small tortoiseshell has been more numerous this summer than in previous years. But I have seen fewer peacock butterflies. I saw a few small coppers flying in June, these tiny butterflies are fast flyers, but their fine markings can be clearly seen while at rest.

Sometimes my walks take me en-route to Shadfen, and then back home through the Chapel woods. On my way I always stop at a beautiful meadow full of flora, which goes by the name of Miller’s Hill. This meadow is part of Shadfen Park Farm. The story of family life on this small farm was written by Benita Tapster in a book called Life’s Rich Pattern, a fine pen portrait of a family in harmony with the land.

On a hot sunny morning at the beginning of July, accompanied by my youngest granddaughter, we stopped at this meadow to admire the scene before us. It was rich in flora, with bees on almost every flower head. The butterflies were plentiful, and mostly ringlets, meadow browns, small tortoiseshells and red admirals flew all around us.

The ringlets were the strongest contingent of butterflies present. They can vary in colour from a very dark brown, to almost black. Their name derives from the black dots circled with white on their under wings. In flight the very pale edging to the wings is visible.

They never came to rest upon the grasses or flowers while we watched them, they are very energetic flyers. Once again their presence is an example of more southern butterflies extending their range north. Other examples are the comma and speckled wood.

While out walking along the banks of the Wansbeck, I looked down from Stobs Ford Bridge into the shallow water. Here the river bed is lined with small pebbles, the surface of the river was a mass of rings. It gave one the impression that a shower had started, but this was a shoal of minnows all coming to the surface at once, then with a quick movement darted towards the shoreline in a dark mass that hid the pebbled bottom of the riverbed.

Their movement gave the appearance of a dark cloud creating a shadow on the water. This illusion was due to their numbers being so dense and tightly packed together. It is a ritual that I look forward to every summer along the water’s edge in this part of the river.

One evening in mid July at this location I watched a female moorhen wading through these shallows. It was followed by two of its young, which looked like two very small balls of black wool floating on the surface of the shallow water. They could have been hatched that day as they were not much larger than the eggs that they emerged from. Their mother moved just a short distance ahead of them, constantly giving off a soft call.

On one occasion she stopped and the two chicks scurried to her feet. She fed each of them a small portion of food she had gleaned among the mossy stones. On completion of this tender moment, this small family moved on downstream under the bridge to shelter among the foliage that lined the riverbank.

Once again nature’s theatre presented a performance by its ever-changing cast along the banks of the Wansbeck.

As the month was drawing to a close, I could see the odd feather cast here and there. The moult had arrived, and for the majority of our songbirds this was the silent season.

The blackbirds had ceased to sing and were busy gorging themselves on my blueberries and gooseberries. But the song of the thrush could still be heard.

The fields of wheat were now gold, and some had been harvested. They stood out in contrast to the red of the rosebay. Groups of swifts circled high overhead against a backdrop of cloud in their preparation for a long journey. At the end of the month my song thrush summer faded along with their song. August was met with silence, and an emptying sky.

John Caffrey