|A fine old oak tree in one of the fields on the far side of the river from the house|
These observations, coupled with the relentless drip-feeding of ghastly statistics on declining farmland and migratory birds, can be a cause almost of despair. Three years without a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) in the village, and you begin to think they'll never come again.
|The fishermen's pond, with scrub behind which used to house an annual calling cuckoo.|
We were lucky with the weather, which allowed us, unlike previous visits, to get out and about and look and listen for the birds for whatever birds might be there. It was well into Spring when we were there - the end of the first week of May - so if I was going to see or hear anything out of the ordinary, now was the time.
|Not out of the ordinary. A Blackbird (Turdus merula) with Cowslips behind.|
Next, the middle ground, namely birds that have generally held their own, again against the overall trend. There was a fine male Pied Wagtail (Motacilla abla yarrellii) holding territory near the remains of the motte-and-bailey castle on 6 May. And there was a gorgeous pair of Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) near the railway crossing on the same day.
And now the surprises. Such is the relentless slough of bad news over migratory birds such as Turtle Doves (Streptopelia turtur), Cuckoos and House Martins, that it comes almost as a shock to find healthy numbers of any long-distance migrant. But at least three Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) were singing around the fishermen's pond on 8 May, and three Whitethroats (Sylvia communis) were holding territory in hedgerows around the village the same day. I heard a single Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) calling, and there were plenty of Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) and Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) as well. There were singing Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) too. This was a soundtrack of my childhood, growing up near Canterbury, and there were at least three pairs holding territory around us on this visit. Far fewer than I would have heard as a boy, but more than I had expected, and far better than none at all.
|A singing Sedge Warbler.|
Best of all were two birds that I feared I'd never see or hear again in the village and which really have suffered huge declines across the country. Spotted Flycarchers (Muscicapa striata) are down by 61% on their numbers of two decades ago. But there was one, against the odds, near a footbridge over the river on 7 May. And, yes, there was a Cuckoo - a bird whose numbers have dropped by 68% over the same period, and whose call had been absent from the village for at least three years - calling over two successive days from the shrub by the fisherman's pond.
Of course all of this may just be the confounding of low expectations but, no, the British countryside has not become a birding desert, and nor is it likely to, despite our unconscious best efforts. Cities provide lesson enough that the worst can't be true all the time. The Cuckoos are still out there; fewer in number, more thinly-spread, struggling against greater odds than they were in the past, but battling through each year nonetheless. Despair is not going to help them.
For a statistical assessment of bird population trends in the UK, without the histrionics, see the British Trust for Ornithology's Breeding Birds Survey results.
|Unsurprisingly, not a desert.|