"The Spring dawn chorus over 55 years"
Sally Elliott - long-term Woodbury Salterton resident, wildlife campaigner,
and former parish Tree Warden,
William Keble Martin had a lifelong interest in birds. Pages from some of his notebooks in the archive at the University of Exeter include records of the birdlife on Christchurch Meadows in Oxford (while he was a student there), complete with very delightful miniature drawings in the margins.
With similar careful attention, local resident Sally Elliott (who has lived in her present house in Woodbury Salterton since 1964) has kept a meticulous set of observations year by year on the natural world, in her garden and in the nearby lanes towards the Common. She writes below about her long record of the dawn chorus each spring, and reflects on what they reveal about the changing make-up of the wild bird population locally. More general observations about birdlife in the parish can be seen here in her article on the reduction in wildlife diversity locally over the same period.
Prof Patrick Dillon gave a talk in May about landscape change over the last 50 years and its effect on wildlife. He believes that "long runs of natural history records like Sally's are of immense value. Most importantly, they are valuable as part of a long-term tradition of recording, which goes back to Gilbert White. But also, in an age where everything is measured in terms of ‘data’, the records provide a means of playing policy-makers at their own game. Through records like the ones Sally has painstakingly collected, we can demonstrate the catastrophic losses inflicted on wildlife over the last 50 years.
"Few people recognise the magnitude of the land-use changes - especially in agriculture - since Keble Martin’s time, because the countryside still looks ‘green’. But there is ‘green' and ‘green’ - and the uniform, sterile green of today’s farming landscape is not one that is conducive to rich biodiversity. Sally's records add local relevance to the general cultural and ecological points in my presentation."
The spring dawn chorus is one of Nature’s most miraculous events. I advise everyone to get out there during April and May to watch and listen. The reward for effort is twofold: experiencing the aesthetic qualities of early morning, and gaining knowledge of the natural world. At that hour there is an other-worldly hush and, as darkness retreats, the effects of the dewy half-light hold a special place in the memory.
Anticipation mounts for the chorus. While still dark, with the stars bright, the sounds to be heard come from owls, barking foxes, the commotion of pheasants and (in earlier days) the song of the skylark, who sees what we below cannot: the creeping return of the light. I term this period as “ pre-chorus.”
Timing is crucial, which implies being outside - with senses poised - at least an hour before sunrise. The main intensity of song lasts about 30-45 minutes, before dwindling down to normal daytime levels. In my experience the robin or blackbird lead the choir of day, while the chaffinch and returning warblers close it. My regular listening posts are my garden and adjacent stretches of lane. In the early years, I sometimes walked on up Dog Lane to Woodbury Castle, where more riches awaited.
Within our family, Dog Lane was, and always will be, called 'Turtle Dove Lane.' Turtle Doves were so commonplace along its whole length that this name became appropriate. I clearly remember seeing a flock of eight on the stretch between the Lyndhayne turn-off and the entrance to Cannonwalls. Now they have become so rare nationally that efforts are being made to save them from extinction.
The following examples, drawn from my written records over the past 55 years, cover each end of the period since Keble Martin's time in Woodbury. They serve as comparisons between the 1960s/early 1970s, and recent years up to the present day, and illustrate changes that have occurred. My conclusions about these changes follow below.
Immediately apparent from my observations is the loss of species diversity. Some of the birds listed in the early records are now in decline, rare, endangered or actually facing extinction. Examples include the skylark, cuckoo, nightingale, and wood warbler. The turtle dove population is down 98% since 1970. Swifts, swallows, and house martins are also increasing rarities as my records unfold.
Loss of richness and volume, reflecting very recent population reduction, is confirmed by comparisons between 2014 and 2018. Rapturous outbursts and lively exchanges, previously heard throughout the day, are replaced by too much silence. I blame the loss and fragmentation of habitat (hedges, trees, scrubby undergrowth) that have taken place generally over the countryside. Birds sing to attract a mate, and to define and defend the enclosing territory of the chosen nest site. Territorial ownership is declared from prominent song posts such as roofs, trees and hedge-tops. If a safe site is not secured, there is no song, no nest and no offspring, and a circle of destruction is formed.
There is an urgent need to reconnect with Nature, to go out and meet her for real, to understand the intricate functioning of her web of life, which is a source of wonderment. As long as Nature is regarded as expendable, a mere commodity, an expedient for financial gain, the avian silence will deepen in an increasingly desolate landscape.
Since publishing this piece, a Woodbury Salterton resident wrote to say, "I can report a cuckoo on the common on Sunday, 12 May 2019, 10.15 am. about 500 meters to the ENE of the castle. But as recently as 15 years ago I would pass 3 or 4 cuckoos en route to the Common."
Please do share any similar memories with us.