“Look up, see me, here I am, see me”

It’s the end of the third week of May, and songbird migration is pretty well over this year, a week earlier than most Mays. It’s been a month of little rain and clear nights, weather conditions that encourage the birds just to keep moving north. In the Arboretum, I’m finding only resident warblers now: American redstarts and yellow warblers, common yellowthroats and pine warblers. All of these are singing on territories, territories I’m beginning to recognize. I can walk the trails and say with some confidence there will be a redstart singing its buzzy one-two-three-FOUR here, and I’ll see a yellow warbler there.

This morning I stopped to watch a great crested flycatcher attempting to claim a bluebird box as a nesting site. It hovered and circled and clung to the rough wood of the box, repeatedly trying to get its head in the too-small hole. Until that moment, I’d never stopped to think about how or where great crested flycatchers nest; they were just noisy birds of high treetops, easily recognizable by their rasping call. But they are, indeed, cavity nesters, and will use nest boxes if they are provided, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website.

At the edge of a woodland – even in this blog I’m not going to be precise about the location of a raptor nest – I found a Cooper’s hawk nest a couple of weeks ago. Today I could see no adult on the nest, but through the loose weave of sticks, I could see a small shape moving. A fledgling, or a nest-robbing red squirrel or weasel? The nest is too high to tell; I will just have to keep watching. I met the female on a path one day last week, she whipping down between parallel rows of cedars in pursuit of a robin, I walking the other way. She did not veer, but simply changed altitude and flew directly over my head. I did not see the outcome of the chase.

Red-eyed_vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

Four songs dominate: in the woodlands, the persistent ‘look up, see me, here I am, see me’ of the red-eyed vireo; from the taller, woods’ edge trees, the ringing song of the Baltimore oriole. In the scrubby grasslands, the explosive ‘zee-er’ of the eastern kingbird completes with the ‘pres-pres-pres-presbyterian’ of the song sparrow. There are many other birds singing – but they are usually the orchestra to these four soloists, although the catbirds demand time for their improvised show too. A week or two ago I heard the ‘quick-three-beers’ of the olive-sided flycatcher – but it wasn’t quite right, slurred and the wrong pitch. Following the call, I realized it had been mixed up with another three or four songs – and found the catbird in a tangle, living up to its classification in Family Mimidae, the mimic thrushes.

The long trilling call of the chipping sparrow, which was perhaps the most common song I heard earlier in the month, has nearly ceased. I still see them, busy searching for food in short grass, but they now are feeding young, and very possibly not their own. Chipping sparrow nests are favoured by the parasitic brown-headed cowbird, and there are a lot of cowbirds here. While I’ve seen a cowbird chick being fed by a cardinal, I’ve not seen a chipping sparrow taking on that role, yet. I’ll be watching the areas favoured by chipping sparrows, as well as the yellow warbler areas (another preferred host) for this, over the next weeks.

I’ve noticed a shift in my own attitude, or maybe my expectations. I’m no longer thinking ‘what new bird will I see?’; instead, I’m wondering what new behaviour I’ll see, what song variant I can learn, what new nest will I find? And what was that delicate, black-and-white-winged insect that flew across my vision this morning – and what niche does it fill?

 

Featured image:  By William H. Majoros (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

West Norfolk, June 2015

The frothy umbels of cow parsley along the lanes are beginning to fade, to be replaced by the brilliant white of ox-eye daisies . There is less birdsong; instead, fledglings shout from the hedges and trees, demanding food. Pheasant chicks burst from cover as I walk through Bypass Wood on my way to the village fen.

What shapes a landscape begins in its depths: the soils that lie beneath the heath and woodland and arable fields, influencing drainage, fertility, and acidity, affecting plant and animal life, human use, and even ownership. I am just beginning to see this on my walks, both around the village and further afield.

The Drift, which I walked along to reach Bypass Wood, was once access to the western sections of a much-larger Dersingham Common. The western reaches of the common were flatter than the current commons, and drier than the Bog Common. The edges of the old Dersingham Common and the edges of the sand-belt in the base soil map below follow a common line. Walking the Drift, the subtle land contours can be seen, especially at the western end, where the islands of high land rise above what once once marsh. Now only undulations in the wheat show the difference.

Walking east along the Drift, back into the village, the land rises infinitesimally, obvious only as the dyke on the southern edge gradually blends into the fields. Woodland and pasture lie on both sides now. These were part of the common land, but these were lands that could be put to the plough, and so, it appears, they were taken as part of the Dersingham Inclosure Act of 1797, when land-owners fenced common land for their own purposes. What was left as commons, for grazing, bracken, and wood for the villagers of Dersingham, was the common land lying on the less fertile, steep, greensand ridges that now make up Open and Shut-up Commons, and, the wet fenland of the Bog Common. This was the pattern repeated over Norfolk: the land left for the villagers was the poorest heath and fenland. (Although, deeper digging shows that some of the uses of Dersingham’s common land includes arable, grazing, and shooting rights…but the land used in this way is effectively not common land, although the revenues fund the management of what is left.)

My father’s memories of the common were of land utilized by the villagers. Pea-sticks were cut from the birches, and bracken gathered for fodder. There was a common-keeper, who slept in a shack on the common on a bed of bracken. Ponies grazed. Rabbits were taken for food. Heathland is a man-made landscape, but one so ancient it it is a valid and valuable ecosystem, habitat to flora and fauna found nowhere else. But changing ways of life changed the use of common land, and heathland was left to revert to birch and nettles, or else became pine plantations. Dersingham’s three public commons now are used primarily for dog-walking.

Heathlands may have sand, greensand, or chalk as the bedrock, but each type of heathland is slightly different. Sand heathlands tend to be acidic; that on chalk may have a thin layer of acidic soils overlying the alkaline chalk. Acidic heathlands, dominated by Erica species, were often planted to pines, especially where rabbits, warrened on the heath as a source of food, reduced the landscape to blowing sand. On the old map Sandringham Warren adjoins and perhaps includes part of Dersingham Common. Walking up the sand ridge that rises into Sandringham Park, the demarcation is a boundary ditch, crossed frequently now by unoffical paths; ‘official’ ones have bridges. This is all plantation, with an understorey of rhododendrons and other shrubs, and home to several species of tits. In early June they are all feeding young, and begging and contact calls fill the woods. Jays flit among the pines. There are no rabbits to be seen.

I feel no affinity for plantation (or most woodland, to be honest) and walk here only occasionally. But just west of here, and below the sand ridge, lies a large expanse of open heath: Dersingham Bog National Nature Reserve.

At dusk, (which is at ten p.m. on this June day) we drive to the Bog and walk out and down onto the reserve. We stand on the track, listening. From the pines edging the heath comes the churring of nightjar, a bird related to North America’s whipporwills and chuck-wills-widows. A night bird, becoming active at dusk to hunt moths and beetles over the heathland; sleeping motionless by day on horizontal branches.

Several birds churr, from both left and right of us. Brief glimpses are all we get as the birds swoop over the heath in the increasing dark. Dersingham Bog is low, a triangular scoop of land surrounded on two sides by the sand ridge and on the third by pine plantation: the birds do not show easily against the dark trees. Higher heaths give better views. As we walk back to the car glow-worms shine from the bracken.

In daylight, stonechat, woodlark, and tree pipit can be found here, and in the acidic bog that lies in the lowest elevation of the heath, a number of specialist acid plants – sundews, bog myrtle – grow. Butterflies and moths flit, and bumblebees (three species, told apart by the colours of their rumps and/or legs) gather nectar and pollen. In August, the heath flowers, brilliantly purple, and it can be very hot in this sheltered, sandy bowl. Like most heaths, it became significantly overgrown in the years following World War I, cleared in part and occasionally by fires generated by the railway that once ran beside it. Significant work was needed to return it to open heathland, maintained now by grazing cattle.

***

The cuckoos have gone. Two weeks ago, out at the Wash, they were calling from the shrubs surrounding the RSPB reserve, and further inland from the woodlands. Now, silence. Reed warblers and other small birds are busy raising huge cuckoo chicks, though.

There are two edges here. The first are the mudflats, those transient lands ‘between the salt water and the sea strand’, filled with birds; the second is the shingle beach, also but less obviously filled with life. The mudflats, actually silt-covered sand, are both mutable and immutable. Immutable, in that they have kept their basic shapes and properties for untold years, long enough to be both named and mapped. Mutable, in that each tide reveals more or less of them, and each storm changes them slightly. Today at high tide the edges of Peter Black Sand are half a kilometer or more offshore, but with the right conditions of moonphase and water, high tide can lap the edges of the shingle. When this happens, the birds are pushed to the very edge in huge numbers, wheeling in huge clouds above the encroaching tide. But today they move slowly at the edge of the incoming water, only occasionally taking to the air.

The shingle is quiet except for the screaming of gulls, the calls of waders, and the songs of small birds in the gorse. Oystercatchers and ringed plover nest on the beach, and the plant life is specialized and to some extent uncommon. While classified as shingle grassland, there are, apparently, twelve distinct plant communities, reflecting the height above high water mark and the composition of the shingle.

A sea-bank, or dyke, holds the Wash back from the arable fields to the east of it. Most of these embankments are on Faden’s 1797 map, and there are mentions in much older documents of sea-banks failing on the Dersingham marshes in medieval times. The shingle ecosystem exists between the Wash and the embankments, and to some extent on the side of the embankments facing the sea. In the flood of 2013, this whole area was under water. The rising sea destroyed one of the hides, moved another, and introduced salt water into the freshwater ponds. We walked the reserve only a few weeks after the flood: silt and debris covered the site and in some places was nearly to the top of the seawall. Less than two years later, there is almost no visible damage. The vegetation looks as it always has, in my memory.

There are no government plans to protect this coast any further, south of the village of Heacham. No higher sea-walls will be built: if it floods, it floods. (Landowners – mostly Sandringham and Ken Hill Estates – can choose to build privately funded embankments.) Saltmarshes are natural coastal protection, creating a buffer and a transition zone between the sea and the land. I may see the land between the village and the Wash return to saltmarsh, the haunt of waterfowl and curlew, the curls of the roddons below the soil echoed in the channels and ponds of a living marsh.

Watching Warblers

I’m fighting the temptation to bird ‘off-patch’. Like many, maybe most, birders these days, I get regular electronic communication telling me what’s been seen in my area, and regardless of how many times and years I’ve seen the spring migrants, there is part of me that wants to rush off and look for that singing prairie warbler that’s only a few kilometres away from my patch.

So far, I’ve resisted, reminding myself that that’s not why or how I want to bird any longer. The new patch is already giving up a few of its more superficial secrets, the tree that held last year’s Baltimore oriole nest, visible in the bare branches, now hosting a singing male; the tall maples that divide the arboretum from the golf course revealing that they’re a good place to find warbling vireo at this time of year. I know now where to look for porcupine, and white-tailed deer, and the area where the broad-winged hawks might be nesting. Two mornings ago I watched a mink hunting along the logs and roots of the fallen trees in the maple swamp, strongly suggesting that my guess as it as the gosling-killer was correct. None of the paired and probably nesting waterfowl of the maple swamp have babies; I think the mink is very well fed.

Some of what I’ve ‘learned’ comes simply from experience: I can guess at the thickets that will hold catbirds, the white pine stands that pine warblers will trill from, the grassland perches that should (and did, today) provide a vantage point for eastern kingbirds; I understand just enough of the biology and ecological needs of these birds to see what areas of the arboretum should meet those needs. But I have to be careful not to assume, to overlook the factors I don’t see or understand, or I’ll end up missing not just birds, but missing a thread – or many threads – in the woven pattern of life on these four hundred acres.

At the eastern end of Wild Goose Woods an old fence line runs between two fields, one a research and propagation area, one an old-field community of dogwood and grassland for the first half, and then a managed, groomed area of arboretum plantings. A double line of bushes has grown over the old fence, providing good cover. The fence line ends at a small evergreen woodland, under-planted to rhododendrons, and separated from the managed area by a small stream. In that woodland, yesterday morning, a feeding flock of warblers was passing through: two Nashville, three yellow-rumped, and five bay-breasted.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Five bay-breasted! I watched them for a quarter of an hour, listening to their contact calls, following them along the branches and logs where they fed.

This morning I am asking the questions I should have asked yesterday – why didn’t I keep following the flock? Where did they go, once they moved through the rhododendron wood? Did they disperse, flying over the open ground studded with trees between this wood and Victoria Woods, 300 meters away? Did they follow the line of evergreens that screens the research area and then disperse? I lost a chance to understand better, still in the birding mode of too many years: tick the species, move on.

Next time – if there is another feeding flock – I will follow, if I can.

Bay Breasted Warbler photo: By Dan Pancamo (Flickr: Bay-breasted Warbler) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Terns at Kowloon Harbour

We were crossing Kowloon Harbour on a ferry, coming back from birding one of the islands. Huge dark thunderheads loomed; just a bit later they would drench Hong Kong in what is called black rain, rain heavier than any I’ve ever experienced again.  Terns were fishing in the wake of the fast ferry to Macua; I wrote this poem in response to the experience.

 

Terns at Kowloon Harbour

 

Spare black on white, swift to frothing wake

in pewter waters; silver sweep of wing

bright counterpoint to lightning’s rake

rending the heavy hanging cloud; hovering,

holding; plunging to take the shining glide,

the curve and scale, beating upward against

the drag of wave, watching for the gleaming slide

of fish, awareness stretched and tensed and held

to dancing, diving grace.

Texas, 1987

The world was shades of copper and bronze, the sand of the desert glowing pink in the dawn light. Wisps of clouds over the mesas reflected the glow of the rising sun. It was already hot, the sky as it lightened a clear blue, the only sounds the rasp of ravens. Overhead, a long V of birds crossed the sky: not geese, long necks, long legs, birds the colour of the desert sands. We stood by our car in the Texas dawn and watched them fly south, heading for the Gulf of Mexico and their wintering grounds. Sandhill cranes, birds we’d never seen before, birds that the great American writer Aldo Leopold predicted would disappear: “the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward….” (Marshland Elegy, 1937). In 1987, fifty years later, the populations had just begun to increase. We knew we were watching something special, something that could have been lost to the world forever.

We were there in Texas in November because in ten days, we were both due to be giving graduate student papers at the American Society of Agronomy conference in Atlanta. With our theses supervisors’ blessings, we had taken two weeks holiday prior to the conference, and had driven our Honda Civic, laden with camping gear, south. Two days of steady driving; on the third morning, we left the last green fields behind and drove into the vast deserts of southern Texas, a world completely alien then to us both, and filled with birds we’d never seen.

It seemed that November that we could barely drive a mile without stopping. The fences were full of sparrows; the cactus and sage full of wrens and thrashers. In a little wash along a highway somewhere we stopped to scramble down the side to see what might be found in the green scrub along the side of the tiny creek, and found our first wild turkeys. Bay-winged hawks (Harris’s hawk) or Swainson’s were on every utility pole, it seemed. At dusk of the same day that had started with sandhill cranes in the dawn, we stood at the Rio Grande, where it runs between huge, bare cliffs, and heard for the first time the haunting, sorrowful descent of the canyon wren’s song.

There were so many ‘firsts’. Some stand out without recourse to notes: the Say’s phoebe at the headquarters of Big Bend National Park; the vermilion flycatcher in a stand of cottonwoods in the same park. The “King-Kong-fisher” (the ringed kingfisher) at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, and the tiny green kingfisher on a creek at the Santa Margarita Ranch – a Spanish land-grant ranch, held in the same family from the years when Texas was part of Mexico, not the USA; to enter, you drove in, honked the horn, held up your binoculars, and paid the non-English-speaking old woman who came out from the ranch house two dollars. Green jays and plain chachalaca. Crested cara-cara. And from a boat, where as Canadian visitors we were given the best seats, the last flock of migratory whooping cranes in the world, wintering at Aransis.

Seeds were sown that trip; not just the seeds of birding further afield, but those of a love for cranes. From that first V of sandhills in the dawn, and the fragile tenacity of that flock of whooping cranes began my connection to these birds; birds of grassland and wetland, wanderers of the great plains of the world. The ‘Birds of Heaven’* would take me to the Platte River in March and the muskeg of Manitoba in July; to South Africa, to China, to the Norfolk Broads. Four springs ago, just north of the tiny southern Ontario hamlet we lived in at the time, I stopped the car in wonder and joy: in a field of corn stubble, four sandhill cranes were feeding. I was looking, with tears in my eyes and my hands shaking, at birds not seen in my locale in the best part of a hundred years. Aldo Leopold was wrong, on this. I am thankful beyond words he was, and I believe he would have been, too.

* The Birds of Heaven is the title of Peter Matthiessen’s beautiful book about his travels to see the cranes of the world.

Featured Image picture: By Dori (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Norfolk

Beyond the village, west towards the Wash, flat fields of barley and wheat, latticed with ditches, lie on either side of the paved right-of-way out to the water. Once this was marsh, and from the satellite images on Google Earth, the patterns of waterflow can still be seen, like a ghost, or a memory, held in the soil.

Around the village, around its bungalows and houses, shops and pubs, church and hall, people going about their lives shopping, walking dogs, gardening, working, I see other ghosts, memories not my own underlying the quotidian. My father’s memories, and his parents, and beyond that for unknown years. Memories now at their newest eighty-seven years past, and going back for generations.

I would like to know this place intimately, to understand its ecology and geology, its weather, its landscape, its history. I want to watch the seasons here, the ebb and flow of waders on the Wash, feel the wind off the North Sea in the winter, bringing hard frost and snow; hear the nightjars churring on the Fen at a summer’s dusk; see the hordes of geese returning, and leaving, autumn and spring. I would like, as much as can be in a changed world, to know this place as my forebearers did, the knowledge of foot and sight and smell and feel. I have been making small beginnings, over the last thirty years, coming closer together over these last ten. Now retirement gives us longer periods here: a month in the spring of 2015; the first two months of 2016.

A century ago my great-grandfather built a tiny wooden bungalow, a beach cottage, on the shingle beyond the marshes. I do not know exactly where. Between Dersingham and the Wash were the marshes, and, the first part of the lane which is now the bridleway from Station Road, which is recorded on Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk. There was (and is) also the Drift, a droveway to move sheep on and off the marshes.

What lay between the edge of the village and the Wash I imagine to be much like the shooting marsh beside Titchwell: a mix of rush and sedge and ling, cut with hundreds of channels and small ponds, rich with wildfowl, water vole and waders. Perhaps not, though; perhaps it was grazing marsh, diked and drained, wet meadow. And perhaps it was a mix of the two; I suspect this is the most likely. Some of the drains, or sluices, are on Faden’s map, so drainage had begun in at least the 1700s.

Now the bridleway and some of the side lanes are paved, huge, tilting slabs of concrete pavement. I am not sure when this was done: either before the war, when the shingle from the pits at the Wash’s edge was being removed, or after the floods of 1953. To the south of the bridleway, the land belongs to the Sandringham estate; to the north, to (mostly) another landowner. The land is arable, planted to cereals for the most part, but also managed for wildlife, or at least for shooting. Weedy headlands, broad buffer strips on either side of the waterways and around each field, some fields left to grass fallow, strips and clumps of trees: all give shelter not only to the pheasant and red-legged partidge, but to other wildlife. The first morning we walked out there were hares everywhere. Marsh harriers hunted over the fields and the marshes; whitethroat, dunnock, robins, blackcaps, and reed and sedge warblers sang, along with finches, green and gold, and linnets. Songs I do not know, songs to learn, to become part of the tapestry.

A few greylag geese are raising goslings in the fields near the Wash, along with several Egyptian geese. Oystercatchers and ringed plover nest on the beach. Goldfinches twitter from the tops of the blackthorn. Cuckoos call from the woodlands. A whitethroat sings from every bush or tall reed along the ditches, it seems; some will be raising cuckoo chicks, unwittingly.

But while the land has changed, two things have not: the sky and the sea. The vast Norfolk skies, the ebb and flow of the tide over Ferrier and Peter Black Sands, and the birds that belong to both: in May, oystercatchers, dunlin, knot and grey plover, feeding at the edge of the sands, moving with the tide, or taking to the skies in huge wheeling flocks, sometimes put up by a peregrine, sometimes by seemingly nothing. And along with waders, black-headed gulls, nesting on the rocks and islands of the pits, or out on the remnants of the shingle gantry, a structure that was built in the 1930s to load the beach pebbles onto boats, and has withstood the storms of 1953 and 2013.

I am drawn to this flat and open land. There are several walks through woodland available to me, but my instinct is to go west, out into the fields, or the fen. I explore different routes: there is a permissive path that runs north from the Station Road bridleway, over to the edge of Ingoldisthorpe Common: I try that. It loops around two fields: the part that parallels the A149 is loud with road noise, and a few birdsongs from the belt of woodland between the road and the fields, but the western side is quiet. I watch buzzards hunting, one coming down repeatedly into the uncut hayfield beside me, but I see no evidence of success. But it’s an adult bird, so it knows what it’s doing. A kestrel hovers over the same grasses but does not dive. In the distance a cuckoo calls, and the ubiquitous wood pigeons beat across the fields.

Another time I access the fields a bit further south, from the Drift. The Drift runs, for much of its length, between a thick hedge or woodland on the south and a ditch on the north, edged first with houses and then with fields. West of the A149 the southern side is a mix of field and woodland, but the boundary is still treed. Good songbird habitat; lots of blue tits, robins, dunnocks. Wildflowers grow on both sides: yellow flag iris in the ditch, kingscup and buttercup, all yellow. On the woods’ side a creeping purple mint – heal all? – and a starry white flower colour the grasses. I need a book. Or an app.

Where the Drift ends at a cross lane – a Sandringham estate farm lane, and at least to the north open to walkers to make a connection with the bridleway to the Wash – I stop, and look west, thinking of my grandfather’s walk. To do that walk today, were it possible, there are at least three waterways to be crossed: Boathouse Creek, a drain, and the River Ingol, challenges in themselves. What is gone is the vast web of minor channels between them, and the right to access.

I watch the fields for a while. Gulls circle and scream at the edge of the Wash, a kilometer or so distant. Pheasants call. To the south, in the woodland called Gogg’s Whins and firmly signed as to no public access, there are feeding stations for the gamebirds: these are birds for the shooting.

A gamekeeper and his black lab begin to walk a field north of me, paralleling the Drift. As I turn and walk east again, we keep pace with each other. When he reaches a small woodland, I hear the shotgun. I can’t determine what he’s after – possibly wood pigeon, more likely one of the Corvidae – crow or magpie. I hear half a dozen shots as I continue east.

Back within the village boundaries a gate opens off the Drift and into a woodland marked on the maps as Bypass Wood. (Unless a woodland or other landscape feature is very old, it will tend to have a practical name: Bypass Wood edges the A149 bypass of the villages of Dersingham, Ingoldisthorpe and Snettisham, and does not appear on the 1992 Ordnance Survey map.) I follow the path round and through the woodland, hearing long-tailed tit, and enter the village fen at its western end. The village fen (once known as Bog Common) is one of the three commons of Dersingham, and would have once been grazed, the reeds gathered and the birches cut for fuel and peasticks; now it is managed as a nature reserve.

I watch a family of robins in one clump of birches, and a single female blackcap. The path branches and I cross the Lynn Road and enter Sandringham Woods, immediately turning left and back up the hill (well, small rise, but this is Norfolk, so it’s a hill), crossing at some point onto Shut-Up Common. More long-tailed tits chatter from the birches which dominate the common now: once it was open heath and bracken, kept that way by the large population of rabbits, and the commoner’s right of wood gathering. Myxomatosis reduced the rabbit population, and most villagers don’t gather wood now. I follow the track across to Heath Road and onto Open Common, and come out on the Lynn Road. From here it’s a ten minute walk back to the cottage.

Had I chosen to walk up Heath Road, I would have passed the house my great-grandfather had built, known then as The Retreat. From this house, it’s a twenty-minute or so walk through Shut-Up Common and across what is now Sandringham Country Park to Sandringham House itself, a walk (or perhaps a boy’s run) my father did frequently in the years he lived here, sent to Sandringham with a message for his grandfather. When he and I and my sister came back, he was in his early 80s and had not made that walk in seventy years, but he unerringly took us across the overgrown common with its branching paths, and onto the estate, the memory of the landscape lying deep within the hidden neural networks of his mind.

 

My New Patch

My new ‘patch’ is the Arboretum of the university, 400 acres, more or less: a combination of wild woodland, old field community, mostly at the shrub stage of succession, hedgerows that have grown up along old fence lines, and managed plantings. There are many, many ecotones, which are usually rich birding; there is a small pond, a couple of small streams, and a lot of trails. On an early May day, it takes me between two-and-half to three hours to walk my route.

One hundred and eighty-seven species of birds have been seen here, according to e-Bird. I’ve seen forty-four, so far, this spring, and migration has barely started. Long ago, in another life, my husband and I were young birders with flexible work-weeks: we could take a couple of days off in the week if we worked on the weekends instead, and so for much of May, for several years, that’s what we did. We’d spend those two days mid-week at Ontario’s birding hotspot, Point Pelee.

And I am very glad we did. We learned so much, from some of Ontario’s premier birders – Tom Hince, Alan Wormington, Paul Pratt. We saw the fall of warblers on the trees at the tip, birds almost dripping from the trees, back in the days when that happened, before habitat destruction in the wintering grounds and climate change altered the numbers and timings of migrating passerines. One cold May morning, we walked through the woods surrounded by ruby-throated hummingbirds at ankle-height, exhausted birds feeding on the flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), the only food source available. It felt as if we were wading through hummingbirds.

But then we changed our professions, and could only bird Pelee on the weekends. Birding changed, too: more photographers, unfortunately sometimes too focused on the shot to be careful of habitat or bird; more technology – first it was pagers, to alert the holder to a ‘good bird’; then cell phones. The crowds got larger as the birds became fewer. We stopped enjoying being there, and so we stopped going.

My husband – as in my other blog Two Simple Lives I’m just going to refer to him by his initials, BD – has concentrated his Ontario birding on a local conservation area for the last twenty years. That’s his patch, and he’ll keep going to it. I birded our home province a bit more eclectically, sometimes with BD, sometimes not, sampling a wider range of sites and habitats, locally and a bit further afield, even venturing back to Point Pelee occasionally.

And then we started to spend parts of the winter in England, returning always to the same little Norfolk village and the same cottage. From that cottage, we can walk out our front door to a wide range of habitats: pine plantation, open fields, deciduous woodland, heath and fen, and the sea. I became intrigued by this type of birding: not only is it car-free, but over time, if you are paying attention, you begin to understand the relationships at play, the effect of wind direction, cloud cover, woodland management, elevation, crop rotations, predator species, other birds, vegetation type – all the natural and human influences on a biome – and how what you see (or don’t see) starts to make a pattern.

In his marvellous book A Patch Made in Heaven, author and birder Dominic Couzens says “a patch needs to be local, preferably a few minutes by car or foot….” It takes me five minutes by bicycle, twelve minutes on foot, to reach the start of the first trail in the Arboretum from our new house. It’s why, mostly, we bought the house we did. I’ve seen almost all the land birds of North America, and it makes no difference to me where I’ve seen it – if I’ve seen a golden-crowned sparrow in California, I’m not rushing off to see one in Ontario. What I want now, what I’m ready for, is a detailed and intimate observation, understanding, of one area. To contemplate what brought this morning’s juvenile red-tailed hawk into the maple swamp, where, from the boardwalk, I watched it being harassed and finally driven away by a blue jay. To consider how the nesting Canada Geese, who yesterday had five goslings, had apparently lost them all by this morning. (Mink is the probable suspect, out in the swamp.) To wonder what the black-capped chickadees were mobbing, high in the trees: nothing I could see, but possibly a small owl that had retreated into a hole. To finally see the white-tailed deer whose tracks in the mud I have noticed for days. To feel the rhythms of this piece of southern Ontario in a way I haven’t felt them since childhood, wandering unsupervised in the fields and woods with my dog, watching, listening, learning.