Sunday, 21 April 2013

So what's this dawn chorus then...

Now that it seems that this long cold winter has finally broken with warmer mornings now a feature of the British landscape, many of you will have noticed how the volume and intensity of the dawn chorus has increased in the last 2 weeks. Even if you are not a birdwatcher, waking up at any time between 4am and 6am somewhere away from human noise will reward you with a cacophony of birdsong, even in the most suburban of gardens.  

In the United Kingdom the peak time for the dawn chorus is generally accepted to be around the end of April and into the first week of May.  However during any mild spell of weather after Christmas a dawn chorus can erupt up. Indeed this year if you can remember the first two weeks of January were unseasonably mild before the cold set in. So mild in fact that a chorus of sorts began very early in the season and featured in some newspapers, albeit with a caveat that colder weather was on the way. They weren’t wrong!!

My guess is that for many casual observers (or should that be listeners), and I was one of them until I understood, the dawn chorus is just one thing, the birds sing-a-bit around dawn and then shut up. In simplistic terms well yes that’s probably right although it often begins before dawn and ends well after, depending on season and weather. And of course the birds don’t stop singing; they’re just engaged in other activities so sing a lot less. Indeed a mistle thrush was singing well at 2pm on Friday but only before it flew off to forage.

But by mid April it really is beginning to turn the volume beyond ten and onto 11. The reason why we notice this soundscape of natural song so much at dawn is that that early in the day the countryside is generally quiet in terms of other ambient sound, there’s normally less wind and we are often ourselves attuned to noises as we wake. The birdsong is therefore especially clear at dawn and some studies have calculated that birdsong will carry 20 times as well as at noon.

Many of you with a keen ear will notice the structure of the dawn chorus individual species subtly changes through time. In essence this is related to light levels. Purists will say a dawn chorus begins half an hour before dawn and ends about 45 minutes, after dawn, but in reality it has no defined start and end times, and species do not have a set order when to begin or end. Individual groups do tend to sing in chronological order, but individual birds, the time of year, the weather and the temperature all play a role. Those a lot more informed than me could discuss the science behind this but, for this posting, I’m interested in the changes that take place for the casual listener.


To try and illustrate this I did 3 recordings over a single half hour period last weekend in Wiltshire. These were recorded in the back garden of our house, which is luckily in a very isolated part of the Wessex AONB, but even there I still had a few planes and the odd car to contend with. It’s not easy recording natural sound in Britain these days.

Blackbirds are dominant here with their wonderful fluty calls. The dawn chorus often starts with the thrush family. That’s an awful generalization but in my experience blackbirds and robins are often the first to begin calling, often well before dawn. Blackbirds, song thrush and robin are birds with relatively large eyes and can adjust well to the low light levels, eyes designed for forage in low light areas of scrub and woodlands picking through leaf litter for worms and grubs.

The blackbirds are still there, but as the light levels gradually increase some of the smaller birds begin to call, such as wrens, chiffchaffs, dunnock and later in the season migrant leaf warblers.  The amount of song now increases in density. These birds, the insect feeders, dart about trees and shrubs foraging for insects so tend to have smaller eyes than the thrushes as in the canopy there is more light to find their prey.


By now the more familiar birds of our gardens are beginning to start the day, house sparrow and chaffinches, the seed eaters who are foraging for seed out in the  open and generally have smaller eyes so need more light than say the thrushes before they become fully active. The blackbirds and dunnocks are still calling but certainly if you compare this recording with that made at 05.15 hrs, the sparrows dominate the chorus. Partly it has to be said because I was by the house and we have a healthy sparrow population.


These recordings above were sourced from a garden surrounded by farmland and woodland, the species therefore were those of that type of habitat. Different species would be heard in wetlands, moorlands and even open farmland (we’re surrounded by ancient woods). Again to illustrate this, this morning at 05.30hrs I recorded another dawn chorus near the Bristol Channel in Somerset. Being this close to the coast, gulls are competing with the more open farmland birds.

I hope this helped and you enjoyed this brief resume of the structure of the dawn chorus. But let us not forget that the dawn chorus - or even as  some call it the birds' "hymn to the dawn" is in fact no more than a battle cry. It sounds lovely to our ears as we wallow and bathe in that emulsion of sound, but out there in our garden or field, it’s bird eat bird. Males are defending territory, looking for new territory, attracting a mate, squabbling, confronting each other and in doing so their song is their weapon of choice. Nature is tough and brutal; those with the best song, the loudest song will win and by winning the next generation is born. No room for shy violets out there, now get of my land…..!


Eventually though all that posturing and singing has to end and like a drunken man who having been thrown out of the pub finds himself at the kebab house, the birds that sang so beautifully for our ears begin to feed and have breakfast. They’ll do it all again tomorrow. Or later today! Because let’s not forget the dusk-chorus. This is audibly a lesser event but well worth listening for because much as thrushes began the day, they often end the day. I just love the blackbird’s tink tink tink alarm call as they jostle for prime roost sites. Well worth a listen in your back garden, ideally with something grape based in the hand.   

In a couple of weeks it is InternationalDawn Chorus Day, on 5th May 2013 organised by Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust. http://www.idcd.info/   So if you love birds, love natural sound, or just want an early walk in your local park, have a peek at this link there may be something near to you.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

John Moore of Tewkesbury

Last weekend I was in the lovely Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury on what was almost a warm spring day. I'm not complaining as the sky was blue and even the odd bumblebee flitted about the town.

I was there however for 2 unconnected reasons other than the location. Planning to be in the town's Roses Theatre that evening to see a concert of top folk fiddlers, in a rare moment of rash forward planning, I instead arrived at the town with the nearest and dearest to  make a pilgrimage to a place I've wanted to visit for a long time; the John Moore Museum. 


I can see heads being scratched and furrowed brows in place. John who? Well yes, you may well ask that, so I shall elucidate, all in good time; as like you until a few years back I'd not heard of this wonderful author, who like Edward Thomas in a previous posting was ahead of his time.

But before I chat about John Moore, let me roll back time to my 15th birthday. I've always been fascinated by agricultural history, how people worked the land long before I was born. And so it was (unlike I suspect many 15 year old boys craving pop music and their first taste of beer) that on that April day in 1979 my parents bought me a book by someone called Fred Archer, entitled By Hook and By Crook. It was an inspired choice; chosen by my mother purely because of the title, as she welcomed and nurtured my developing interest in agricultural and rural history even as a schoolboy.

In 1979, neither she nor I knew who Fred Archer (1915-1999) was.

I suspect for many the name Fred Archer means just one thing, the top Victorian jockey, but for this 15 year old boy about to leave school and begin full time work in farming this book by this unknown author was a perfect gift. I devoured this agri-historical book and immediately became fascinated by the Vale of Evesham where all of Fred Archers books are based, centred on that Cotswold outlier near Tewkesbury, Bredon Hill. It is no coincidence our next family holiday in the summer of 1979 was to Evesham. I was a child of iron willed persuasion.

And there is my connection, Bredon Hill, and my reason for mentioning Fred Archer in a commentary about John Moore. Aged 15 I had no idea who Fred Archer was but immediately became a devotee of his quasi-fiction-documentary writing. Similarly at the age of 45 I had no idea who John Moore was until I ventured into a second hand bookshop and purchased Seasons of the Year. And I was once again gripped by his observation of the English countryside through the seasons.

I then discovered both authors lived on Bredon Hill at the same time.


John Moore (1907-1967) was a different writer to Archer, as he not only wrote nature essays but war stories and fiction. He also broadcast on the radio and had a very eclectic professional life. My developing interest in him however is mostly that he was a very early campaigner for the preservation of the rural landscape he knew. Writing after World War Two he could see the effect that the post war need to feed the nation was having on the countryside and more importantly its wildlife.

But today how many conservationists or devotees of nature writers like Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies or W.H.Hudson have heard of John Moore? Very few; and I suspect this is because Moore was writing at a time of media change when the radio and then the television dominated our leisure-time activities. His observations and writings were possibly seen as old fashioned and harked back to a Halcyon World, at a time when British Society as a whole was looking forward, not back, to that bright new world of consumerism, we are now so enmeshed in.

I hope the John Moore Trust will forgive me copying this quote I read on Saturday on their flier, but it perfectly encapsulates his way of writing.

‘It is not entirely out of the question that despite man's ingenuity the insects might beat us in the end. If they do it will be because we haven't used our biological knowledge, but instead have employed chemists as our hired assassins to kill our fellow creatures in their cave-man fashion, ignorantly, wantonly, wastefully.'(The Year of the Pigeons 1963)

That was written 50 years ago, yet we are still in a perilous state and today there is real concern that diminishing bee and insect populations in our countryside will ultimately bring about the decline in plant productivity, and yes, may one day have a serious effect on our ability to feed the World. I was reliably told a few years ago by a close friend of mine working in the Global agri-chemical business that in 2005, the European (not British, European) stockpile of milling wheat was estimated to be just 3 weeks at the time the Russian harvests began. It was touch and go and Governments across Europe discussed rationing cereal based products if the weather prevented those harvests coming in. Add in the effect that a decline in pollinators may further affect productivity of our arable farmland and you can see where this can lead.


My visit to the museum on Saturday met with all my expectations. Although the sun shone,being outside the tourist season the town and museum were quiet. We were the only visitors to the Museum in the afternoon which was perfect as it gave us time to wander around this countryside emporium in peace and quiet. It is a small museum, on a couple of floors, but what I loved about it was they use stuffed animals to represent wildlife in cases. These animals in case you are wondering are from natural deaths but chatting to the lady on the reception desk she said school visits love coming here because it allows children access to these animals close up. Something many don’t have a chance to experience in normal life. The museum also has a topical wildlife display section which on my visit was “What to see in the countryside in April”

Having wandered around the rooms for 20 minutes a chance remark about Fred Archer to the lady volunteer (behind John Moore’s own desk) led me to be introduced to the Museum’s curator, Simon Lawton, who had been working away unseen in his office. What a lovely knowledgeable guy, completely unruffled that I’d dragged him away from his work. We must have chatted for over an hour about John Moore, Fred Archer, countryside, writing and the sad knowledge that someone as important as John Moore is almost forgotten now. I came away from my visit feeling elated and that there really are people who passionately care about the state of our rural landscape and are running a gold-mine of a museum to do their bit.

And so, in a very small way, as a follow-on from my previous posts about nature writers who have influenced the next generation, I’d like to publicise the writing of John Moore and Tewkesbury’s wonderful little museum dedicated to him and the nature he loved. It’s easy to find it, it is right next to Tewkesbury Abbey.

I also learnt something from Simon Lawton I didn’t know of whilst making the Edward Thomas programme for Radio 4 recently, that John Moore had written a biography of his nature mentor, Edward Thomas (The Life and Letters of Edward Thomas, Heinemann 1939). Had I known that I think I’d have made a pilgrimage there with the microphone to include John Moore in the programme, he deserves to be known by a wider audience, and audience who also appreciate Thomas.


And so I leave you with this thought.

Much as Richard Jefferies influenced Edward Thomas, so did Thomas influence John Moore. Moore himself is now almost forgotten, but dare I predict that in a few years his legacy will rise again for the next generation to be inspired and guided, much as I have recently been guided? Maybe we need a television programme about John Moore…… now where are my programme commissioning notes of whom to send an idea to in London?

Fred Archer – Farmer and author: http://www.fredarcher.co.uk/

The John Moore Museum: http://www.johnmooremuseum.org/

In Pursuit of Spring – Radio 4: Easter 2013:


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Richard Jefferies Essay : The Dawn

Some of you will have been aware that this Easter, on Radio 4 there was a 3 part programme of mine called In Pursuit of Spring, an account of Edward Thomas's 1913 ride across southern England. But Thomas himself was influenced by many other writers, especially Richard Jefferies. Jefferies is hugely overlooked in nature writing these days, and I don't know why.

One of Jefferies best books in my mind is The Hills and the Vale, which is in essence is a collection of his essays. When recording the programme with Jefferies scholar, Rebecca Welshman of Exeter University brought along an original copy of this book. Time didn't allow me to look at it for long, but embedded in those pages is an essay called "the Dawn". By coincidence while doing some e-mail housecleaning I came across an e-mail I'd sent myself 3 years ago with a note "remember how good this is". And it is, this for me encapsulates what is important in all nature writing, observation, historical context and a sense the writer is beside you guiding your senses to the experience.

So here, below, is The Dawn in its entirety. Enjoy!

There came to my bedside this morning a visitant that has been present at the bedside of everyone who has lived for ten thousand years. In the darkness I was conscious of a faint light not visible if I looked deliberately to find it, but seen sideways, and where I was not gazing. It slipped from direct glance as a shadow may slip from a hand-grasp, but it was there floating in the atmosphere of the room. I could not say that it shone on the wall or lit the distant corner. Light is seen by reflection, but this light was visible of itself like a living thing, a visitant from the unknown. The dawn was in the chamber, and by degrees this intangible and slender existence would enlarge and deepen into day.

Ever since I used to rise early to bathe, or shoot, or see the sunrise, the habit has remained of waking at the same hour, so that I see the dawn morning after morning, though I may sleep again immediately. Sometimes the change of the seasons makes it broad sunlight, sometimes it is still dark; then again the faint grey light is there, and I know that the distant hills are becoming defined along the sky. But though so familiar, that spectral light in the silence has never lost its meaning, the violets are sweet year by year though never so many summers pass away; indeed, its meaning grows wider and more difficult as the time goes on. For think, this spectre of the light--light's double-ganger--has stood by the couch of every human being for thousands and thousands of years.

Sleeping or waking, happily dreaming, or wrenched with pain, whether they have noticed it or not, the finger of this light has pointed towards them. When they were building the pyramids, five thousand years ago, straight the arrow of light shot from the sun, lit their dusky forms, and glowed on the endless sand. Endless as that desert sand may be, innumerable in multitude its grains, there was and is a ray of light for each. A ray for every invisible atom that dances in the air--for the million million changing facets of the million ocean waves. Immense as these numbers may be, they are not incomprehensible. The priestess at Delphi in her moment of inspiration declared that she knew the number of the sands. Such number falls into insignificance before the mere thought of light, its speed, its quantity, its existence over space, and yet the idea of light is easy to the mind.

The mind is the priestess of the Delphic temple of our bodies, and sees and understands things for which language is imperfect, and notation deficient. There is a secret alphabet in it to every letter of which we unconsciously assign a value, just as the mathematician may represent a thousand by the letter A. In my own mind the idea of light is associated with the colour yellow, not the yellow of the painters, or of flowers, but a quick flash. This quick bright flash of palest yellow in the thousandth of an instant reminds me, or rather conveys in itself, the whole idea of light--the accumulated idea of study and thought. I suppose it to be a memory of looking at the sun--a quick glance at the sun leaves something such an impression on the retina. With that physical impression all the calculations that I have read, and all the ideas that have occurred to me, are bound up. It is the sign--the letter--the expression of light. To the builders of the pyramids came the arrow from the sun, tinting their dusky forms, and glowing in the sand. To me it comes white and spectral in the silence, a finger pointed, a voice saying, 'Even now you know nothing.' Five thousand years since they were fully persuaded that they understood the universe, the course of the stars, and the secrets of life and death. What did they know of the beam of light that shone on the sonorous lap of their statue Memnon?

The telescope, the microscope, and the prism have parted light and divided it, till it seems as if further discovery were impossible. This beam of light brings an account of the sun, clear as if written in actual letters, for example stating that certain minerals are as certainly there as they are here. But when in the silence I see the pale visitant at my bedside, and the mind rushes in one spring back to the builders of the pyramids who were equally sure with us, the thought will come to me that even now there may be messages in that beam undeciphered. With a turn of the heliograph, a mere turn of the wrist, a message is easily flashed twenty miles to the observer. You cannot tell what knowledge may not be pouring down in every ray; messages that are constant and perpetual, the same from age to age. These are physical messages.

There is beyond this just a possibility that beings in distant earths possessed of greater knowledge than ourselves may be able to transmit their thoughts along, or by the ray, as we do along wires. In the days to come, when a deeper insight shall have been gained into the motions and properties of those unseen agents we call forces, such as magnetism, electricity, gravitation, perhaps a method will be devised to use them for communication. If so, communication with distant earths is quite within reasonable hypothesis. At this hour it is not more impossible than the transmission of a message to the antipodes in a few minutes would have been to those who lived a century since. The inhabitants of distant earths may have endeavoured to communicate with us in this way for ought we know time after time. Such a message is possibly contained sometimes in the pale beam which comes to my bedside. That beam always impresses me with a profound, an intense and distressful sense of ignorance, of being outside the intelligence of the universe, as if there were a vast civilization in view and yet not entered. Mere villagers and rustics creeping about a sullen earth, we know nothing of the grandeur and intellectual brilliance of that civilization. This beam fills me with unutterable dissatisfaction. Discontent, restless longing, anger at the denseness of the perception, the stupidity with which we go round and round in the old groove till accident shows us a fresh field.

Consider, all that has been wrested from light has been gained by mere bits of glass. Mere bits of glass in curious shapes--poor feeble glass, quickly broken, made of flint, of the flint that mends the road. To this almost our highest conceptions are due. Could we employ the ocean as a lens we might tear truth from the sky. Could the greater intelligences that dwell on the planets and stars communicate with us, they might enable us to conquer the disease and misery which bear down the masses of the world. Perhaps they do not die. The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then? At present we cannot conceive a universe without a central solar orb for it to gather about and swing around. But that is only because hitherto our positive, physical knowledge has gone no farther. It can as yet only travel as far as this, as analogous beams of light.

Light comes from the uttermost bounds of our star system--to that rim we can extend a positive thought. Beyond, and around it, whether it is solid, or fluid, or ether, or whether, as is most probable, there exist things absolutely different to any that have come under eyesight yet is not known. May there not be light we cannot see? Gravitation is an unseen light; so too magnetism; electricity or its effect is sometimes visible, sometimes not. Besides these there may be more delicate forces not instrumentally demonstrable. A force, or a wave, or a motion--an unseen light--may at this moment be flowing in upon us from that unknown space without and beyond the stellar system. It may contain messages from thence as this pale visitant does from the sun. It may outstrip light in speed as light outstrips an arrow. The more delicate, the more ethereal, then the fuller and more varied the knowledge it holds.

There may be other things beside matter and motion, or force. All natural things known to us as yet may be referred to those two conditions: One, Force; Two, Matter. A third, a fourth, a fifth--no one can say how many conditions--may exist in the ultra-stellar space, beyond the most distant stars. Such a condition may even be about us now unsuspected. Something which is neither force nor matter is difficult to conceive; the mind cannot give it tangible shape even as a thought. Yet I think it more than doubtful if the entire universe, visible and invisible, is composed of these two. To me it seems almost demonstrable by rational induction that the entire universe must consist of more than two conditions. The grey dawn every morning warns me not to be certain that all is known. Analysis by the prism alone has quite doubled the knowledge that was previously available. In the light itself there may still exist as much more to be learnt, and then there may be other forces and other conditions to be first found out and next to tell their story. As at present known the whole system is so easy and simple, one body revolving round another, and so on; it is as easy to understand as the motion of a stone that has been thrown. This simplicity makes me misdoubt. Is it all? Space--immeasurable space--offers such possibilities that the mind is forced to the conclusion that it is not, that there must be more. I cannot think that the universe can be so very very easy as this.

Richard Jefferies's essay: Dawn