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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Sounds and scents

Posted on April 21 2014 at 1:25:15 0 comments

Sheep and hawthorn

Mary Green describes how we can hear and smell the natural world around us.

April has been quite normal for once – except for those horrible days of pollution when we had less sunlight than usual. Plum, sloe and damson blossom came as normal, and I saw bluebells carpeting the banks near Hanbury quite early in the month.

Various flowering plants are starting to show on the remaining grassy bank by Alvechurch station. I have a promise from London Midland that they won’t mow all the flowers down this summer, so I hope that works out.

This month I am going to find it hard supplying photographs, as I’m going to write about the things you can’t see! So you’ll have to look at them and imagine the sounds – and smells – that go with them.

People ask me all the time if I have watched various wildlife programmes on TV, and I usually have to say no.

One reason is that I am most interested in common local wildlife and not exotic species; another is that I dislike the way they have to pretend the creatures are like humans – talking about their “love lives” and giving them names, for example. Fancy slow motion photography doesn’t do much for me either.

But the main reason I can’t watch them is the ever-present soupy music on the soundtrack, when I want to hear the actual sounds of the animals, birds, and their environment.

In spring, the sounds we hear are just as important as what we can see. For me, early spring begins in mid-February with the chaffinch getting its song back, just as much as with the first snowdrops and daffodils.

Winter is so quiet, with only the lovely tinkling song of the robin reminding you of the birds, sometimes supplemented by the great-tit, collared dove and wood pigeon.

The other first spring marker is the drumming of the spotted woodpecker. I hardly ever see this bird, but I hear it all the time in spring. It makes the noise as it rapidly pecks the tree in search of food.

The green woodpecker also heralds spring. This is the one with the laughing song, often delivered in flight. You can sometimes see it, with its undulating flight and flash of yellow-green, but you’ll all have heard it.

The dawn chorus and the almost-as-good dusk chorus bring together all the birds at this time of year. There is nothing quite like this sound: deep and textured as you hear the birds near and farther away.

Usually the blackbird stands out, a rich, liquid golden song. The thrush is similar, but repeats phrases several times.

Behind this you will hear chaffinches, and also the lesser-known greenfinch. Again, greenfinches are hard to spot, but they have a characteristic wheeze as if they are drawing their breath in, and once you’ve placed this sound you’ll know them.

If you’re near houses you’ll hear the chirruping of sparrows, and in the distance probably the cawing of rooks or crows, and the ubiquitous wood pigeons and collared doves.

Another bird that I would find it hard to recognise by sight is the chiff-chaff. This is a slightly later harbinger of spring, coming later in March or sometimes in April as a summer visitor. This year it came quite early.

You’ll hear it through the summer till the birds go quiet in late July. Its name tells you its song – chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff – in a kind of bouncy sequence using a variety of notes. It is a dull little brown bird, but the song is part of the spring countryside as much as a bluebell wood.

In May, of course, the one bird we all want to hear is the cuckoo. Unfortunately it is now quite rare around here: twenty-five years ago I heard it every year. You can hear it sometimes around Eades Meadow, where it regularly visits.

I have taken to going to the Scottish Highlands in May so I can be sure of hearing it! That’s a sound that spells summer coming.

There are several reasons why cuckoos have almost disappeared from around here. One is the loss of habitat for the birds in whose nests it lays its eggs – reed warbler and meadow pipit. The other is the lack of its own favourite food, the woolly bear caterpillar.

It may also be that the warmer weather drives it further north. In the Highlands you can still hear it all day and most of the night – and see its host birds, and the hairy caterpillars.

Often a sound will draw your attention to something you wouldn’t have noticed. Walking down towards the canal the other day, I heard two loud croaks overhead, and looked up to see two beautiful herons flying over.

I often hear buzzards calling – a mewing sound – and you can look up and see these magnificent birds wheeling overheard. I used to associate this sound with remote wild places, but now it’s quite common here – I recently saw six at once.

Of course, birds aren’t the only sound we hear. We humans make plenty of noise with our motorways and our lawnmowers, and it’s very difficult around here to find anywhere really quiet. This is one reason we like more remote areas, where you can get away from human noise and hear the sounds of birds and animals.

In my younger days when I camped in remote parts of the country, I heard things that are very hard to hear. I remember lying in a tent listening to nightjars – a strange sound which used to be common everywhere.

The same is true of the corncrake, with its croaking call, which now you can only hear in coastal “machairs” of the far north west.

Nowadays I listen out for skylarks whenever I am in arable farming country and on open moorland. These beautiful rippling songs aren’t common in our pastoral landscape.

In fact, when I hear the combination of peewits and skylarks calling, it takes me back to the Wiltshire Downs near where I used to live.

And once, I had the privilege of hearing a nightingale in a wood there among the wild roses: it’s such a romantic sound but rarely heard these days.

At night in spring I can leave my window open, and often hear foxes barking on the hill. I always hear the sheep, when they return to the field opposite, and sometimes the lovely ghostly call of owls.

Farm noises are important: the sound of cows and sheep and pigs are at the back of my childhood memories, and my neighbours’ chickens make a lovely sound, especially when the hens have laid an egg. And of the human sounds, I love to hear the church bells on the breeze.

Of course, the calls of sea birds immediately takes you to the coast. Herring gulls, our most common kind, are very vociferous, and have a special call that they make at mating time, which I can still recognise.

But seaside noise also includes the sea itself, gently advancing and sucking back, or wildly crashing on rocks. And for me it includes the calls of children playing, too.

On the canal here are black-headed gulls, and though their mews aren’t exactly like the herring gull’s, they still make me think of the sea.

Other water-birds are equally evocative. The curlew has a bubbling call followed by a long rising note: the oyster-catcher a series of shrill peeps. Nearer home, the Canada goose honks differently from the white farmyard goose – you can hear both on the canal at Withybed.

Recently I saw two Canada geese mating, and they made a different noise, a low throaty grunt to go with their nodding-heads display and exuberant mounting.

All the year round you with hear the sudden sharp call of the moorhen. And the mute swan is far from mute: if you ever hear one aroused to protect its young, you’ll know that! Young swans and ducks keep their baby chirping till they are quite grown up, sounding rather incongruous.

So, if you shut your eyes you can still observe wildlife and the countryside. You can do it through your nose, too. If you haven’t recently smelled a bluebell wood, get out now and do it! You need a still, warm day for maximum scent.

You may smell delicious wild garlic as well. Early spring flowers like celandines don’t smell so much, but the later ones do – the white and sweet violets, cowslips, daffodils all smell of spring.

Cherry-plum and blackthorn blossom smell a little sweet and heady, but nothing like the wonderful smell of hawthorn (may) blossom, musky and sexy, sometimes scenting a whole field. As soon as the may-blossom dies down, the June elderflower comes, equally scented and a flavour for food and drinks.

Some plants smell so sweet that they were used to perfume houses and bedding –  like meadowsweet and bedstraw – with names to go with it. Some are identifiable by their smell, such as the fragrant orchid (most orchids don’t smell much).

Poisonous hemlock you can tell from innocuous cow parsley by its foul smell. Most herbs smell characteristic: woundwort has a lovely bitter disinfectant-y smell, suitable for a plant that will help heal wounds. The smells are all part of attracting insects to pollinate them, of course.

And those insects also make a lovely noise in spring. I used to have a grotty old willow in my garden till it fell down, but when its catkins were in pollen, it was noisy with bees.

Most catkin-bearing trees are very early and are wind-pollinated, but willow uses bees. You can also hear the hum of insects if you shut your eyes in a flowering orchard.

Sometimes when I lived in the city, a country visit past a farm brought tears to my eyes – the smell that is! There’s nothing more reminiscent than the smell of cow and horse manure, and the sweet smell of good silage.

In summer, I can still recognise the smell of a barley field in the sun. Nowadays oilseed rape has added a distinctive smell to our countryside. And those seagull noises come with the smell of salt in the air and the taste of it on your lips.

I hope you get some lovely May days to see, hear, smell, feel and taste the world around.

This poem comes from late last summer, but the feeling in it can suit any time of year.

Towpath encounter
I walk along the path, late summer scent of meadowsweet
Glorious purple of loosestrife, sweet flesh of blackberries
Soft grass on my legs and a wood-pigeon calling.
He jogs towards me. In his ears, his iPod music
His eyes shuttered by dark shades, his aftershave
Driving out all the perfumes of the world. I think:
Lovely young man, touch and taste, smell and listen
Look! This is our world, which you have to protect
After I’m gone the way of human flesh.
It smells, it make its own music, it will even feed you.
Don’t run through time without touching its changing green
Without seeing its coming and going birdsong
Without tasting its scent of growth and decay
Without hearing the hard wood falling soft.
You know where you’re going and you have it all
But you may miss life if you run too fast through it.


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