Sunday, 8 November 2015

Sound in a village church

The drone of the fly first caught my attention. Kamikaze like it flew back and forth across the leaded windows of St Lawrence church in Somerset. As I listened, my eyes closed, the remarkable fact was that I could hear the wing beats at all.
As humans we have evolved to be visual beings. That's a fact, according to the many scientists and neurobiologists who have accounted for many years of study into what makes humans human. By and large I'd agree. Our eyes face forward, they have binocular abilities to focus from pretty close to zero all the way to infinity and we compute colour in a way that is different to other species.  We're agreed here. But we also hear. Hearing is often overlooked in life, but our hearing is amazing.
There's a well used quote I like by the late business guru Peter Ducker
" The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said."
I like this because as someone who is enveloped by the world of sound through my daily life as a radio programme maker I often think, for the purposes of everyday life, his quote can be altered, just a little...
"The most important thing in hearing what isn't being said, is to stop communicating"
We communicate too much, predominantly by the visual senses, but let me put it this way - we could watch an image that isn't quite right technically, it may not be a great experience but its is possible; but who of us can listen to sound that is of poor quality? Hearing and sound are as important and seeing.
This is why I attend the Wick St Lawrence church's monthly Saturday sanctuary morning. It began over a year ago. On the first Saturday of each month between 10.00 and 12.30 the church is open for anyone to pop in and sit quietly. No religion, no preaching, no direction, simply come and sit and do whatever takes the mind out of modern life and into another realm, reading, writing, meditation, or just like me, sitting still. I'm not a religious person, yet in sympathy with the writer Thomas Hardy, I like the fabric of ecclesiastical buildings because they are steeped in history and yes, produce great sound.
I listened to that fly, a single wing beats in a vast religious silent void. Outside the remnants of the first wild autumnal spell of weather crashed around the stonework. I closed my eyes. A spectral howl of wind blowing under the tower door provided a pulse of ethereal music. Now here, now gone. The very inconsistency of the aerial notes provided a wonderful backdrop to the audio scene. A single page turned in a book.
Just half a dozen people today and in front a gentleman reading, The sound of that page turning was audible even 10 pews back where I sat. If we stop communicating, stop being visual, simple non-visual clues to everyday life become enhanced.  My eyes remained closed. To my left the fly continued, ahead the page of a book, and behind, the moan of wind. Rain. The whoosh of sudden rain. Rain began falling heavily on the chancel roof, like a roar from a shy lion cub, not quite wishing to make too much sound but wanting to make its presence felt. I looked over, pulsating bands of rain hit the slates, but that sound receded; reclosing my eyes modulation returned, whoosh......whoosh silence, whoosh, long silence whoosh and so on. A kettle switch.
As part of the sanctuary morning tea, coffee and cakes are provided. Self service. I love this soundscape. In the silence of the church I hear a rustle of clothing as an internee attempts to walk to the back of the church as quietly as possible. A scuffling movement as clothing brushes against the pew, a faint 'clop' as shoes meet the floor then a procession of slow-walk deadened footsteps moves from front to back past me. I wait in anticipation. There it is, the click. Silence for a few seconds. Almost inaudible a rumbling can be heard, the water begins to heat. A muffled plop as a tea bag or loose coffee is put into the cup, maybe a chink from a spoon. A cascade of sound now fills the air as the kettle warms the water to boiling point.... in everyday life this roar is hardly noticed, in a silent church it resembles the waterfall of angels. Filling the entire space in a wall of noise. And then the second click, deeper in tone than the first and just a half second longer.
My senses now heightened, I wait for the most delicious part of the process. Quickly the cacophony of watery boil dies away, there is silence before the pour. A mellifluent torrent of deep notes as the cup is filled, mixing liquid chocolate with gold in its richness. A sound which I find impossible to write as words. As the brewing level rises the pitch alters before the end, a final few hesitant notes as the level is adjusted and the milk added accompanied by a harsh call from a plastic lid returning to position. And then it is all over. I hear the fly again, wing-beats temporarily drowned in the hum of beverage making. The church falls silent once more.
I am refreshed.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The sparrows in August rain

I'm fortunate in having a garden which is frequented by many house sparrows. In the roof I have a number of them nesting and a few neighbours also tolerate their constant activity in the breeding chamber. As a result some mornings recently I have viewed around 50 or so house sparrows coming to the feeder, a true wildlife spectacle to compete with any programme.

At the time of writing in mid August the sexes of the birds are made up of around 15 per cent males and the remainder females and recent fledglings.  The latter are easy to spot as they gather on the wall at the back of the garden and maniacally wing flap to attract a morsel of food from the accompanying adult. 

Today is a very wet Sunday and as my garden plans are on hold I have been entertaining myself by watching their antics from the conservatory. I move the feeders around on a weekly basis as part of a biosecurity measure, helping to prevent disease build up below the feeders. But also it allows me to train, if train is the right term, the sparrows to move about the garden to reach the feeders including being close to the windows in the winter. Which I love.

Yesterday I moved the feeders to near the conifer which grows on the other side of the wall. The sparrows love this conifer anyway for the protection it offers them to the resident female sparrowhawk, but today it is their natural umbrella. It's not just raining today but one of those summer days when the rain is heavy while the air temperature remains in the mid 20's. I lay in bed this morning listening to the rain, a soothing sound to awaken to. Intermingled with the cheerful chirrups of the sparrows.

I looked out. Lined up on the wall were about 20 miniature sentries all jostling for pole position, like attendees at a bingo night, sheltering under the branches patiently waiting their turn on the food pole. The feeders can take 8 birds at a time, which today was exceeded by another two or 3, low level buzzing those on the perches as if to say come on its my turn now. Then as one left its perch and flew the 4 feet back to the wall, another would head out from the wall to take it's place (if not beaten to it by the low level Johnny passing by).

I must have watched this for around half an hour until the numbers began to dwindle around mid morning. It looked chaotic but in fact it wasn't. The males took the lead and if they approached a feeder a female normally would relinquish the space. But not always and a short lived squabble would ensue. Both sexes were feeding the fledglings back on the wall, but from my unscientific observation more males fed the young than females. Those adult birds on the wall all had, it seemed, equal time on the feeder. I observed a regular one-on-one-off routine time and time again. Only a couple of females stayed on there longer than normal, one can only guess to replenish reserves from nesting duties. Once back on the wall under the shelter of the tree, they preened, shook themselves and then poised like a raptor, awaited their next foray.

So many sparrows come to the garden I do not mind the 15kg of seed we get through in a fortnight, more in the winter. Moreover they provide a pest control service to me. All summer I've watched particularly the females foraging for insects, spiders and mites in the garden to take back to the nest. A blackfly infestation in July was quickly removed as these dextrous little predators clung under cardoon plants to systematically pick off this avian feast. They particularly like a climbing rose which is presumably full of spiders and the like. The sparrows glean this plant on a daily basis, leaving no leaf unturned.

Having suffered a 70% decline in numbers since the 1970's I can travel a mile away and not see a single sparrow. As a result of this decline their distribution is still widespread across the country but often very localised. The renowned naturalist Chris Sperring lives 10 miles from me and only this year commented on the sparrows return after more than a decade. Why this should be is not known but he is delighted.

As am I in having this small population of sparrows use the garden as a feeding base.  So used are they to me moving the feeders about that recently I tried an experiment. Moving the feeders to where I have a seat I sat down and waited. At first nothing, but after 5 minutes a female flew by, then again before alighting on the pole looked at me. She then flew off and then returned to look at me again, before deciding I wasn't a threat she dropped onto one of the perches and began to feed. One seed for her, one seed falling on the ground. I sat rigid in my seat, not 3 feet away, as a second and then a third arrived to feed. That female pioneer had opened the floodgates and soon the constant activity could be observed by me at close quarters. Which was as great a wildlife encounter as ever could be witnessed. Just me, my sparrows and no other care in the world.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Last swallows?

I’ve not seen any swallows around the house for a few days now.  Why that should be in August is a mystery to me.

I know they were still quite numerous a week or so back as a walk to the village one Sunday to view a number of open gardens on behalf of the church, became an avenues procession between these glossy-blue winged darts. I did however notice a number of swallows perched on wires by the farm. Their constant twittering along the lines a welcome sound in late summer; maybe discussing flight plans and see you in Africa cheerio’s.

I noticed that the last evening of screaming swifts here was on August 3rd when seven flew around for over an hour as dusk fell.  I watched then not realising that the following day they’d be gone.  Hard as I tried I never did find out where they’d bred, but I believe it was close by. That’s for next year.

It was over the weekend that I noticed the lack of swallows in the lanes near home as I drove along them. For weeks my journey has been accompanied by winged adventurers swooping inches off the road in front of me, close enough for me to see their glorious blue-black sheen as sunlight flickered off them, never close enough to force me to break suddenly; true aerial magicians. Having arrived home slightly earlier than usual last night, as it was still warm and sunny I headed out into the garden for some welcome fresh air and to watch the aerial display as I often do.

Because we have a lot of house martins over the house in the evening I’d not noticed the absence of swallows in the mellee. But as a write in the third week of August there are about 30 or so house martins filling the air above the garden in the evening; until recently amongst them was about half as many swallows.

House martins on the wing chatter constantly, their call to my ears more of a faltering staccato version of the swallows chattering, which with practice it is possible to distinguish easily.  This year sadly the martins tried to nest on the gable end of the house as usual, but for one reason or another they didn’t stay. Luckily houses around me are home to many martin nests, allowing the air to fill with black shapes as they swoop from down low into the nest. In the evening the ensemble seem to congregate over my house which backs onto fields and for an hour or so can be seen in a loose spiral hunting for food.

As far as I know we don’t have swallows nesting nearby but at the farm 2 fields away it is alive with these beautiful birds. If I walk to the farm on a warm summers evening the area around the buildings can have 20 or 30 swallows darting hither and yon over the fly supermarket of a cattle yard floor. Standing hard by the gate they will fly to me at around chest height, yet only a few feet away, pass on by, then on a spiralling turn return by the same route. Time and time again they fly back and forth as I watch them.

I live a mile from the coast and there I can astonish friends my getting them to stand on the opposite side of a sandy path to me. Distance apart could be 3 or 4 feet at most, but because I know these are well used swallow fly-hunting pathways if we stand rock still the swallows will fly between us at about waist height, much to the delight of the unbelieving friend. Something of a marvel to look down on a passing swallow.

Mid-August seems too early for the swallows to be gone permanently; they may have moved elsewhere, or moved to the coast to join other family groups before the big push south in September. I shall venture out and look for them for a last time before they go.

A melancholy moment perhaps; certainly the arrival of the first swallow in late April or early May is one of those moments in the heart of a naturalist that brings unbridled joy. Something the largely forgotten but pioneer romantic poet (admired by Austen, Keats, Wordsworth and others) Charlotte Smith (1749–1806) recalled beautifully in her poem, The First Swallow.

Here the first two stanza’s

The gorse is yellow on the heath,
 The banks with speedwell flowers are gay,
The oaks are budding; and beneath,
The hawthorn soon will bear the wreath,
The silver wreath of May.

The welcome guest of settled Spring,
 The Swallow too is come at last;
Just at sun-set, when thrushes sing,
I saw her dash with rapid wing,
 And hail'd her as she pass'd.

As the sun sets, the thrush sings and the swallow passes me by, such evocative words written by someone who knows what it is to be at one with the seasons of nature. Summer is still clinging onto its grip, but it will not be long before the swallow’s return next spring.