Birds from the Train

Yesterday I took the train to Manchester. I chose to take the slow train from Mouldsworth, our local station. It’s a long, meandering journey through the Cheshire countryside, calling at Delamere Forest, Plumley and Knutsford before finally reaching the suburbs of Manchester. I like this route, you can always get a seat and there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching.

Soon after we passed Delamere, I spotted a heron flying over the mere. They have such a wide wingspan and long, long legs. I often wonder how they stay balanced in the water. During the rest of the journey I ticked off: jackdaws, a lone pheasant, the sudden blue flash of a jay as we passed through Mobberley and the usual assortment of crows, blackbirds and watched a pair of rabbits running through the allotments at Northwich.

But, it was the journey home where I really struck gold. It was just after four o’clock and we were approaching Northwich. I like this bit of the route, which passes the river Weaver and the Trent and Mersey canal. I spotted a large, inky black gathering of birds, forming and reforming in the grey black sky. Starlings. A few hundred – not a huge gathering – but the biggest I’ve seen for a while. A few other passengers had noticed too, and as the train slowed and then stopped to let a fast train pass by, we sat mesmerised as the starlings played out their formation dancing for us. A little girl asked her Mum what they were “I don’t know sweetie, blackbirds maybe”.

I couldn’t help myself, “They’re starlings”, I told her. “It’s called a Murmuration, we’re lucky to see it”. The mother replied that she’d never seen one before and reached for her phone to take a picture. The little girl sat, playing with her thumbs, repeating over and over to herself “Murmination, murmination”, enjoying the sound of the word and spellbound by the birds. I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

It may only have been a couple of minutes, maybe less before the train moved off again, but I tucked away the memory. It’s almost a year since I last saw a murmuration, I always think of them as precious gifts. Any grumbles about the wet weather, the crowds of Manchester were forgotten. Despite the fact that it rained all day, my jeans were wet and I needed of a strong mug of tea to revive me and take the edge off a busy day, the sight of the starlings, dancing and cavorting with such precision and grace was quite magical.

When I was home, I saw a couple of people had photographed the siting from near the canal and posted them on Twitter, apparently sightings are common there. I found this video on Youtube taken by a man called Ian Coventry in 2016 at Neumann’s Flash, which is close to where I spotted my starlings. Our sighting was much, much smaller.

These small glimpses of the natural world, of birds and animals oblivious to humans fill me with joy, whether it’s the chattering delight of the chaffinches in my garden or a lamb calling for its mother. They remind me there is beauty in the ordinary.

The Blackbird

blackbirdThe blackbird (Turdus Merula), is my favourite garden regular (I’m fickle, so that will change, I can easily fall for the charms of a cheeky squirrel, a bold robin or the delightful wren). In the grey half light I can see six today, five males and one bold female who has tired of fighting off their advances and has taken to sitting in my neighbour’s damson tree.

Two males sit like sentinels on the garden fence, facing each other. it’s just after 4pm and soon it will be dark. The garden is quiet, most of the birds have disappeared for the day, the other blackbirds sit in the tangled branches of the silver birch. They don’t call to each other or sing at this time of day, they seem content to sit and keep watch. Unlike other birds that seem to gather in flocks, the blackbirds sit together, but separate. They are aware of each other, but fly and feed independently. There have been skirmishes all day as they seem to be working out their territory. I wonder if any of these are the offspring of last year’s pair. The ones who¬† raised two clutches of eggs. I remember we watched helpless as the second clutch was attacked by magpies. The male and female doing their best to defend their nest, but the bigger birds won out, taking the bodies of the young up to the highest branches and gloating as the blackbird pair cried out and flew angrily at them, jabbing the magpies with their beaks. Nature is a cruel thing sometimes.

I have stepped out to fill the wood basket, which disturbs them a little. They soon settle though, not startled into the air like the smaller birds. The goldfinches and sparrows are skittish, these blackbirds seem calmer, happier to share the garden with us. These are the birds that will follow me as I weed and dig, happily grubbing for worms at my feet. Our neighbour has a “tame” blackbird who will feed from his hand. Ours seem content to follow us around the garden, occasionally coming close, but not too close.

The male blackbird is easily spotted, his dark plumage and yellow beak are easy to spot. The female is smaller, brown feathered and doesn’t have the yellow beak or ring around her eye. The females in our garden are more cautious. We often see more blackbirds in winter, I wonder if they are transient visitors or migrants. Or maybe our garden is just “neutral territory” because there is so much food here that they visit from other gardens and then return to roost or shelter in other gardens.

In autumn, these birds stripped the berries from the elder, then gorged themselves on the bright red jewels of the cotoneaster (the photo above was taken in autumn). Now they scavenge for worms and grubs. In spring, they are the first birds we hear in the dawn chorus, one likes to sit in our neighbours crab apple and serenade us at 5am. On those mornings, the blackbird is no longer my favourite and I wish he would stay silent until a more reasonable hour!

blackbird2

A larger birds swoops low and fast over the garden, a sparrowhawk perhaps or an owl maybe. Whatever it was, it has spooked the blackbirds. They fly away, each in a different direction. I lift a few more logs into the basket and find the dead body of a goldfinch. His body is intact, his plumage perfect, maybe he sheltered here and died of cold (last night was bitter). I pick him up and carry him to the end of the garden, tossing his light body into the fields. As I turn, I see the silhouette of a large bird in the silver birch, maybe the one that spooked the blackbirds. I think that maybe it is an owl. I carry the log basket inside, making a mental note to look up owls in the bird books and see if I can identify it. I pull off my coat, hat, gloves and scarf, kick off my wellies. I clasp my hands around the tea pot, wondering if the contents are warm enough for one last mug before I light the fire. Taking my tea into the living room, I’m drawn to the window. Yes, that’s definitely an owl in the apple tree. I reach for my camera, knowing that it’s too dark, that any photo won’t be worth keeping and as if knowing my plans, a graceful and not identified owl glides away over the fields. It’s properly dark now and another cold winter night begins.