Fragments of text that I am currently gathering from various sources to form a collaged narrative for The Observers
A man stands on the high sea-wall, solitary like a Roman centurion watching from the last rampart of the land. To the north the wall reaches away, narrowing, flattening. From its vanishing there rises – four miles off but seeming much closer – the grey loaf shape of St Peter’s Chapel. And unseen, lost deep in the mud to the east of the Chapel, lies the last fragments of the Roman fortress of Othona. To the south a similar diminishing hairline of sea-wall winds out to the horizon. Above it, five miles removed, is the faint blur of Foulness Island and the uplifted thorn of its church spire. Foulness. Already the name has a cold and final sound. There is barbed wire in it, and emptiness. It is the future. Quickly the watcher looks away.
The island of Portland is situated at an almost precise mid-point along the English Channel. Obtruding some nine kilometres out from the natural line of the Dorset coast, it is ideally situated for the observation of both land and seabird migration.
Many of the long-disused quarries have developed a rich flora and frequently the sheltered hollows that remain are a haven for tired migrants.
The western cliffs are sheer, rising to about seventy metres, these cliffs supporting colonies of auks, gulls and Fulmars. The eastern cliffs are low, a jumble of quarry remnants and seaweed-covered rock.
A second, more permanent Heligoland trap was erected in the garden of the Old Lower Lighthouse in 1955.
East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark-spired forest, but when I move towards them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me towards them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.
The first bird I searched for was the nightjar, which used to nest in the valley.
Inland, the flat fields fade to the first trees, elm-rows, farm clusters. A mile of empty fields, some still dark, some stippled green with April corn. The farms are far apart. Between them the blue distance is a misty forest. Many skylarks sing above the fields, redshanks call from the endless dyke that runs beside the wall. Seaward, there is no sea yet; only the vast moorland of the slumberous saltings three-quarters of a mile wide, with a long silver creek snaking up into the skyline; nothing but saltmarsh, skylarks, redshanks calling, and the distant horizon voice of a curlew. North-eastward the saltings are narrower. There are mudflats visible beyond, pebbled with feeding waders and the shining white stones of shelduck. Above them floats the thin ethereal cloud line of the waves. And above the remote blue of the sea, shining in sunlight ten miles way, the buildings of Claxton glitter like the towers of Xanadu.
I walk out across the saltings. This is an ancients path, marked out by stakes and withies, there are deep gutters to ford, narrow rills to leap across. Sea aster, sea lavender, glasswort, and samphire grow thickly, matted like heather. There is a sea smell and a mud smell. The saltings are dark green in shadow, tawny in the sun. Man skylarks sing high above in the mauve haze of the mild April afternoon. Gulls circle lazily, and occasionally call. Big white clouds rise slowly from the rim of the sea bt do not come any nearer. The easterly breeze is gentle, without hostility. A kestrel hovers: tremor and pause, floating glide, tremor and pause; hunting hunger balanced by infinite patience. Far back across the saltings, the sea-wall is now only a low ruled line. A few dark specks revolving beyond are rooks above thee hidden elms deep down inland. All is so flat and endless now that one seems to be at the bottom of a steep-sided valley, with land ad sea rising all around. The eye has forgotten perspective. There is solitude here, utter unblemished solitude.
Suddenly, I come to the steep ten-foot escarpment of the saltings. A huge plain of mud reaches out to the horizon, brown, or yellow, or bleached white where there are patches of sand or shining shingle. The sea is nearer now, blue-grey, but still far out, as though it were quite motionless and innocuous. But is is moving in. The tide has turned, and slowly the expanse of mud is narrowing, the sea growing taller and greyer above it. I raise my arms till they rest upon the horizon. Hundreds of waders rise as though conjured up into the sky. Smoothly the sky turns through the bright sphere of my binoculars, articulate with birds. Mallard and teal rise steeply. The voices of the curlew and dunlin and redshank rise and fall over the gleaming mud. A hundred yards off, a ringed plover has not yet flown. But it jerks and bobs uneasily, and its rounded call sounds constantly within its soft plump body, like the melancholy tolling of a distant bellbuoy. The bird is much closer than the sound. Far out, under the line of the sea, some grey plaver are still feeding. Swishing low overhead, the wader flocks hurtle down; they tremble silvery, and rise into twists of golden-brown, like smoke, then rain, fish-scale shimmer, the shapes of fins or curved sails, composing, erasing. Now the ringed plaver has flown. It sweeps low, singing as it flies. The swarms of waders settle on the mud; redshank and skylark sing again.
I seem to be weightless now, suspended in the grains of the dissolving day. The greatness of the sea-nigh closes above me as I kneel in the spring grass of the wall.
More songs of Wild Birds
The skylark’s well-known song is heard on this record in two versions, first on the wing, lasting rather more than a mute and a quarter, and then for a period on the ground. The song is probably the most sustained to be heard in the British Isles, for it frequently goes on a s long as five minutes or more without any pause for breath.
The singer is now getting quite high above the microphone, and the song is perceptibly fainter. It goes on retreating into the distance and by 0 45 is rather faint. 1 00 the increasing loudness of the song announces that the lark is on the way down. He continues to get louder ad finally breaks off quite close above the microphone at 1 18.
2 02 With startling clarity a curlew calls, using the rather staccato note which expresses anxiety as the bird flies round and round keeping watch on a human trespasser. The cry is repeated twice at brief intervals.
2 29 Now begins a magnificent series (18 repetitions) of the famous note from which the curlew takes its name, not only in England but in France (Courlis) and in Italy (Churlo).. It lasts nearly fifteen second.
2 45 With scarcely a pause we pass to the remarkable bubbling chorus of “song” uttered as the bird glides slowly through the air. It lasts just under ten seconds.
2 59 We close with three more of the more musical anxiety calls with which the curlew series opened.
0 00 The first two minutes of this record is given up to twenty-three phrases from the extremely musical song of the woodlark. The bird is heard close to the microphone in exceptionally good conditions.
2 00 A distant cuckoo. Almost at the same instant a tree-pipit sings, putting emphasis on the concluding notes.
2 26 The tree-pipit’s fourth song is slightly interrupted. As in the meadow-pipit a high proportion of songs of this species are incomplete in some respect. There is some wind interference here.
The curlew, heard last, has a wide range of loud and melodious notes, the most important of which are all recorded, including the ecstatic ‘song’ or bubbling chorus and the thrilling cry from which the bird is named.
Record 4. (a) Redstart (b) Blue tit. (c) Willow tit. (d) Chiffchaff.
The redstart is quite closely related to the nightingale, robin, and other famous songsters, and has a voice of considerable musical power, but its song is unfortunately very fragmentary and disjointed, and has a habit of being uttered in such a way that the listener is unlikely to form a good impression of it. The present record is typical in finding the redstart continually being interrupted or over whelmed by other more aggressive voices, owing partly to the long and irregular intervals between the short and inclusive snatches or bursts of song. One of these voices is that of the starling, which , as a fellow-inhabitant of hollow trees in the breeding season, is a frequent neighbor of the redstart, and another belongs to the nuthatch also often found in the sae places, as both birds have an attachment to old deciduous trees
0 00 The short musical warble of the redstart is heard, followed by a cuckoo calling.
1 04 A great tit calls
0 09 The crow of a cock pheasant.
0 10 The redstart sings again.
0 17 Third song of the redstart, followed immediately by some rather inward song from a starling.
0 19 The long repeated penetrating whistle of the nuthatch.
P71 The nightjar is about the latest to arrive of our summer migrants, rarely appearing before March and often after the middle of the month. It is an extraordinary and fascinating bird, very slender, with long pointed wings and long tail, a huge gape and eyes, and a soft plumage richly marbled with greys, browns, and various shades of chestnut and buff. The male has conspicuous white spots on the outer feathers of wings and tail. At rest it sits very low, with the underside of its body touching the ground. When on a tree it prefers to sit along rather than across the branch. Unless disturbed it is rarely seen on the wing before dusk. Nightjars are not common birds anywhere , but they are well distributed over the heaths, moors, commons, and open woodlands of the British Isles, and in favorable places the loud, far-carrying, vibrant, jarring note may be heard from several birds at once, from May until July or even later.
The little owl is a Continental species which was only a straggler to the British Isles until the nineteenth century. Successive introductions established a British stock, which by 1900 hasd colonized Kent, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire Rutlandshire, Buckingamshire, Hertfordshere, and Nottinghashire. During the next thirty years the spread went on with apparently increasing rapidity, and the species colonised the greater part of England and Wales. It did not, however, gain a foothold in Scotland, and remained uncommon in man parts of the north and west.
At ten minutes past three, with startling suddenness, a skylark sprang up in full song near the mikes, and then a second, and a third close at hand, so that the van was suddenly filled with intercepted song pouring through the loud-speaker.
Jackdaws nest in holes, either in trees, rocks or buildings, and do not move about very much, their distribution tends to be limited to the neighborhood of cliffs, quarries or crags, large buildings ad ruins, or parks full of decaying trees, or similar places where they can find plenty of nesting holes.
The greater part f a blue tit’s life is spent in collecting and eating insects off the trees and buses, or more rarely the ground. Although the species is so common its very striking courtship behavior is remarkable little known. The most conspicuous performance is the “ghost flight’ in which a bird , presumable the make, glides through the air with the blue primaries so splayed as to give the illusion of a misty veil within which he floats with fairy-like lightness and grace to some tree on which he comes to a rest with wings still partly opened, and displays. This performance should be watched for in March and April.