A Walk in the Park: The Ornithologist
One of the fascinating things about this residency is discovery how different people see – or read – the landscape of Bradgate Park. A couple of weeks ago I went for a walk with Sue Graham, one of the Park’s volunteers, and a wildlife expert. Over the course of nearly two hours, she showed me evidence of badger activity, ant’s nests that are a few centuries old, and oak trees that are even older.
What fascinated me most, however, was her ability to hear, and identify bird song. Throughout our walk, she would point at a wall, tree or hedge and name the birds that were singing there. Immediately after we set off from the Deer Barn, she started telling me about the willow warblers that can be heard in the trees around the reservoir. These are summer residents in the UK, and had just arrived from sub-Saharan Africa; they are some of the earliest returners among our migratory birds. Their high-pitched tweeting was impossible for me to pick out, but Sue’s ears located them before her binoculars did. Sue’s enthusiasm spills out into her descriptions: she referred to the sunlight on the reservoir as ‘dancing diamonds’ and talked about the planting of acorns as ‘the rebirth of the wild-wood’.
As we moved towards the Memorial Wood, a new sound greeted us: long, haunting notes piped across the open ground. I recognised it from childhood holidays in Yorkshire: it was the call of a curlew. Sue turned with excitement: the curlew has never been heard at Bradgate Park before. An amazing coincidence for my visit, which had Sue taking notes and making phone-calls. I think there’s a poem in there somewhere….
As we crossed the range of terrain that Bradgate Park has to offer, Sue pointed out likely spots for Little Owls, which are diurnal (they come out in the daytime). Gaps and ledges in the dry stone walls around plantations are the places to look. We stopped to watch the lazy circling of a buzzard in the sky above Dale Spinney. Down by the Lin, we heard a goldcrest – also called a firecrest because of the yellow-orange strip on the head. Despite the high-status name, this is the UK’s smallest bird – I would never have seen it if Sue hadn’t heard it first, and located its perch.
It’s amazing how Sue’s knowledge allowed her to read the landscape in a way that is completely beyond me. As someone who uses words to describe and communicate, I was amazed by Sue’s responses to sounds – and how she was able to interpret them. The volunteers at Bradgate Park know the place in different ways from the rest of us! And of course as I returned her binoculars, she shyly handed me some poems. At Bradgate Park, anyone can be a poet. All that’s left is for me to do is to find my remote-controlled curlew…