Sadly for me, I am a mediocre bird-watcher. I’m not particularly short-sighted; perhaps I lack the power of concentration and the patience to keep looking, to spot movement and focus on it. And then the memory to recall the different liveries of birds and their distinctive songs. Besides I’m getting deaf. When I wear my hearing aid (not all day, every day) I am amazed at the racket around me. A tiny wren shouting can be almost alarming, breaking in on silence.
Perhaps these are the reasons why I love a little book called Deep Country. The author, Neil Ansell, spent five whole years living alone in a farm cottage, isolated far from roads, in the mountains of Wales. Once a week he walked to a shop to buy tea and sugar; the rest of the time he had only the creatures of the country for company. In fact he became one of them. They got used to him: he could watch them without worrying them. Sometimes they seemed to be communicating with him. Certainly he learned so much about the habits and rituals and social life of birds, in particular, that I was
astonished on almost every page. Their patterns of flight, their modes of congregation, their return (or even the next generation’s return) to the same spot every spring – or sometimes to a different spot, and their apparent reasons for moving house. Which birds take fright at which other birds, how they signal alarm, warnings – keep off my patch – or of course the desire to date.
Here is a snatch of his vivid, limpid writing (here, about ravens), ‘The male would come sailing in across the valley, calling repeatedly. He was so big that his arrival seemed to make the hillside shrink around him. He would settle in a tree and the sitting female would fly up to him. And then he would sing to her, a gentle trilling song you would never expect from a member of the crow family, and they would touch beaks tenderly. After that they would launch themselves from the trees and circle together, each flipping over in turn, their calls ringing out across the valley. The pair raised their five young successfully that year. Once they were on the wing, they spread themselves over the hillside trees, calling for food, but soon they began to follow their parents everywhere in a long line, a crocodile in the sky… trying to copy their every move, discovering their domain’.
He enjoys the company of the mammals too: the foxes and badgers, rabbits and pine martens and squirrels, and sheep. But it is what Chaucer called the Parlement of Fowles that draws me in, to a discourse constantly going on around us, from which I am normally excluded.
And then the winding road by St Harmon and Llanidloes and Staylittle, up over high sheep walks and finally over the Mawddwy pass to Cader Idris, the rocky spine of the mountain like a colossal reptile under a brilliant sun. When we reach our woods, the streams are running quietly. Primroses and anemones and violets are fresh under the impossible-to-name green of the larches’ first leaves. Bluebells only hint they are coming with specks of violet blue in their rich green carpet. There is a summer’s work in the forest to plan.