Horny nuthatches. Use your ears.

April 18, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Regular readers (pl?) of my errr… “work” may know that I’m always banging on about “using your eyes” as it never fails to amaze me just how awful most people are at REALLY doing just that.

 

I’m regularly just-as-amazed at just how poorly most people listen to things too. Well… listen to and hear things and at these times I’m reminded that it’s not just our eyes we should use (if we’re fortunate enough to have a pair of half-decent eyes that is) but also our ears.

 

Throughout my life I’ve met (many) people who’ve told me that they’ve never or rarely seen a kingfisher / goldcrest / nuthatch / sparrowhawk / bullfinch (delete where applicable) and why or how do I manage to see so many?

 

It’s often in the hearing first rather than seeing and a recent event has confirmed that to me.

 

My wife, son and I were walking through Windsor a fortnight ago – a few hours showing Ben where our special ruler with her special blood lives in her special castle overlooking her not-so-special subjects below in the town. (You’re correct… I’m certainly no monarchist and one day desperately hope that we as a collection of people will grow up out of our “Dungeons and dragons” obsession and realise that we’re a little more evolved these days than to seriously allow Kings, Queens, Dukes, Princes and Princesses into modern society because what… their special blood? Whilst we are ruled by these poor sods, do the servile Monarchists amongst us still fear dragons and goblins and orcs?!).

I do remember a time before I sprouted secondary sexual characteristics that castles and crowns and bearskins interested me, so I thought I’d give the boy some of that naïve joy of youth too.

 

Annnnnywaaay, we soon realised that it was waaaay too expensive to get in to the castle proper and therefore the boy would NOT actually be getting to meet the Queen (see photo below) who was actually there at the time (said a jovial copper to us as he held his semi-automatic proudly).

The Queen, in Windsor Castle.The Queen, in Windsor Castle.

 

Disappointed, with our pox-scarred chins bowed onto our filthy smocks and followed by a cloud of flies we shuffled away from the castle, like the stinking rag-clad peasants we are and headed into town for some gruel and maybe a crust of bread if our search of the roadside drains proved lucky.

 

On shuffling past the church, outside which a rosy-cheeked, well-fed cleric shooed away the lepers and insane, I heard a strange avian noise coming from a large tree in the church’s graveyard.

 

It sounded like a young bird perhaps, calling for its parents. But not in early April and not in a (still) bare tree?

 

I’m pretty-good with bird calls (see below) but for the life of me I didn’t know what this bird was, so I asked Anna to wait for a second whilst I pushed past the sweaty priest to get into his graveyard to see just what this bird was!

 

About thirty seconds later I had my answer – a nuthatch, bold as you like was re-plastering up an old nest hole in a large branch of a big tree and before she (he?) set off again to grab some more plastering mud, she (he?) would belt out a mating call – and THAT was the sound I had heard from the cobbled streets below the church.

I made a mental note of that sound, what a nuthatch engaged in that behaviour (attracting a mate) sounds like, threw the priest a groat for his time and caught up with my wife and boy.

 

Now… since then, two weeks have passed and I’m hearing nuthatches EVERYWHERE!

 

I was walking to my local accountants (turf accountants that is, of course) to place a wager on the Grand National a week after my Windsor nuthatch moment, heard the same sound, went looking and there we had it – another nuthatch, 200 yards from the house!

 

On opening a bedroom window for some air t’other day I heard the same sound coming from a big ash tree at the end of our garden (just the other side of the fence) – another nuthatch!

 

I’ve stopped following the sound to confirm my identification now as it’s obviously a nuthatch I’m hearing - the sound is that unique!

 

The point of all this wittering I suppose, is that I don’t know if I’d previously learned what a horny nuthatch sounded like (and forgotten what I had heard), but I had now certainly taken the time to learn what a horny nuthatch sounds like and I don’t think I’ll forget this in a hurry.

 

 

I’m now hearing (and therefore seeing, if I wanted to) lots of nuthatches – something I wasn’t doing a month ago or a year ago, or in fact ever before.

 

It’s amazing what you can see, you know, if you know what you’re hearing (or listening to) first.

 

Let’s take a few more of that “kingfisher / goldcrest / nuthatch / sparrowhawk / bullfinch” list above.

 

Lots of people have remarked to me that they rarely see kingfishers, even though they may have spent several decades walking along rivers or canals.

It’s difficult for me to understand this really, as kingfishers, small as they are, actually announce their presence to anyone interested enough to want to see them.  Seeing them is a piece of cake and it’s not as if they sometimes announce their presence either – they ALWAYS do so! Like I green woodpecker that sometimes audibly “yaffles” its way into the sky from a tree trunk, a kingfisher will start one of its rapid, low flights up a river by peeping, very loudly, like a wee intercity 125 – and then, very often continue to peep during its flight. Learn what this kingfisher call sounds like (watch the short video below if you like) and when you hear it, stop and scan the water surface from a foot above the water to about five foot above the water, and within seconds a tiny neon-coloured bird will belt past you.

E V E R Y….. T I M E!

 

 

That’s the kingfisher, what about the goldcrest?

Goldcrests, like their gold cousins, the goldfinches, seem to be becoming more and more common in gardens these days. One could reasonably assume that this is a result of our obsession in the ‘80s and perhaps the ‘90s, for planting leylandii firs in our gardens – goldcrests like mature evergreens!

 

Goldcrests may well be in your gurt-big leylandii, but as they’re only the size of a pin head (or something) and only weigh the same as a mouse’s left testicle (or something), then how can you be sure?


LISTEN TO THE TREE.

 

Bill Oddie once described the sound of a chaffinch singing as similar to a fast bowler taking a run up and delivering a fast ball! Again, rather like the monarchy I fear, I’m no fan of the poison dwarf Oddie, but his description of a chaffinch song is spot on in my opinion!

 

 

Well… the goldcrest, to me, sounds a bit like a fast bowler too, albeit a sort of young, lanky fast bowler with a lolloping run up to the wicket before delivering the googly.

 

 

You may think the chaffinch and the goldcrest sound nothing like each other and certainly nothing like fast bowlers, but they may sound like something else to you. Remember that something else!

 

When you’ve remembered what a male goldcrest singing sounds like, believe me, you’ll hear them everywhere you go. EVERYWHERE there’s a fir tree, a leylandii or anything coniferous to be honest – you’ll hear ‘em, and you’ll be able to point them out to people who say they never see them!

 

We have goldcrests in our three leylandii in our back garden and I suppose I’ve learned what these delightful wee birds sound like because they, like wrens, LOUDLY BELT OUT their song for months and months!  Our three leylandii sit outside our lavatory window (I know you’d want to know that) and each time we ablute, we can listen to our goldcrest singing outside the window and pretend we’re sitting on a throne in paradise. Which… of course we are, grapple fans.

I’ve dealt with nuthatch above, so let’s finish with sparrowhawk.

 

Sparrowhawks, being ambush predators, are very often silent. Sure, they make a pretty distinctive call when they want to (look on YouTube for that – there’s bound to be a clip somewhere) but I’ve seen most of my sparrowhawks by listening to other birds.

 

Before I was old, fat, arthritic, knackered and married with child, I was once living in an HMO (house of mixed occupancy) on the northern side of the valley of High Wycombe. I had the use of a double room facing south, with quite a nice view over the gardens of High Wycombe in the valley below.

 

For many months in my early twenties, I used to while away the hours by my window, write poems of love and play my lute  (cough) whilst watching the birds in the big sky over the sleep hamlet of Wycombe. (I was a baker by trade and worked nights so often had mornings by my window, watching birds before turning in for the day!).

 

It was during these “lost months” that I learned to appreciate the “HAWK!!!!” alarm calls of starlings in particular, but also great and blue tits, sparrows and collared doves.

 

I literally used to watch birds explode out of successive gardens in the valley below, as a hawk powered through each garden like a heat-seeking missile, intent on grabbing any bird slow to react. I didn’t see the hawk itself unless it flew through our HMO garden at the top of the valley, having not nabbed a meal below. But this regularly happened and it was then that I put two and two together and realised the sight of these alarmed birds was joined by very distinct alarm calls made by the same birds.

 

In fact, brave starlings would often mob the hawk if it rose into the sky, all the time shrieking their “HAWK!!!” alarm.

 

So distinctive is the little bird “HAWK!” alarm call (especially from starlings these days – in fact I think I can tell the difference between a starling “HAWK!” alarm and a starling “PEREGRINE!!!” alarm, that I regularly surprise (and bemuse?!) people I’m with on walks or with in the back garden (ours or theirs).

 

We’ll be talking about something or other (perhaps about Bill Oddie or the Monarchy?), I’ll suddenly stop and say “STOP. HAWK! Starrrrrrrt loooooooking……”

Within seconds a hawk will fly by us all and those not used to my weird Doolittle ways will wonder how on earth I’ve managed to do what I’ve just done!

 

The answer is straightforward though. Forty odd years arseing about in the countryside looking at and listening to things.

 

For various reasons (some a blessing, some a real curse) I’m FAR more aware than anyone I know (I’m hyper-aware – always have been) and because of my interest in natural history, I’ve taken the time (LOTS of time!) to learn what some birds sound like so I know what’s around me without actually seeing any of it.

 

I’ve been able to show people hawks and kingfishers for decades now, purely by keeping my ears well and truly pricked whilst outside. Goldcrests have been a relatively recent addition to my repertoire (last 5 years I suppose) and in the last three weeks, I can add horny nuthatches to the compilation album.

 

Yes… it’s important to use your eyes, but in many cases, that only comes after using your lug ‘oles.

 

Use your ears, grapple fans. Then your eyes.


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