Keeping up with the birds in Lockdown Derbyshire: A Guest Bird Blog By Peter

A beautiful winter's day on the moors of Derbyshire in England.

Time has concertina’d during our Covid year. It cannot be, I thought this week, that almost 12 months have passed since a wonderful day’s birding with Alan and Ruth in North Wales in those innocent days before we knew what was about to unravel and to change the way we have lived since. Perhaps it is the sameness of the days in lockdown, but I find myself asking “it’s not time for breakfast again surely?”. The positive side of this compressed time is that the pre-Covid day in Wales seems recent, memories of it becoming refined and sharper as the year has progressed: the peregrine taking on a pair of choughs, the dash in the car to see the rose-coloured starling in an Anglesey garden.

Another great thing about birds they can cross musical divides - Blackbird song provides joy for everyone.

Margaret didn’t come on that trip and hasn’t shared that part of my memory store. Instead, she has invented alternative birding activities for lockdown. First, every morning after breakfast, she carefully turns a page of Birds of the World by Phillipe Dubois, covering the name of the next bird with a serviette, to allow quizzing of that day’s picture. They vary from the easy-but-good-to-look-at to the rather obscure. As the year has gone by, we have gradually moved from pattern recognition (otherwise known as guessing from our limited experience) to analysing bird features and clues in its environment in the picture. We are occasionally, but not inevitably, successful. Despite hours of patient tuition on past trips from Alan on the distinctive features of different gull species, we haven’t progressed beyond “well, it’s a gull” when they pop up in the book. We make up for our variable hit-rate with another of Margaret’s alternative birding experiences – re-creating and re-living holidays through photographs, including travels with Alan and Ruth. Accompanied by cake or biscuits, of course.

But the main birdwatching nourishment for the year has of course come from the real thing. Whilst it has been a joy to discover new walking routes in and around Buxton rarely before explored in our 30 years here, the top pleasure has been treading the same path on many days, meeting the same birds but in different ways, and for the first time concentrating hard on bird behaviour and bird song. Margaret’s hearing is better than mine for high-pitched and softer calls, and she can hear long-tailed tits where I hear only silence. But listening slowly and with concentration has brought us both to recognise the raven and the nuthatch, to the sheer variety of songs and calls from the great and the blue and the coal tits, and to a smiling enjoyment of the laid-back jazz riffing of the robin – always there at the end of the walk - and those classical sonata pieces from the blackbird. When Alan and I have talked at the end of bird-filled days on our trips together, we realised early on that we occupy polar opposite ends of the spectrum of musical appreciation, roughly represented by punk and Pavarotti. But this year I have come to an understanding of Alan’s other musical enthusiasm – listening in rapture when the singers are birds.

Male Stonechat, a bird that breeds on the moors near where Peter and Margaret live.

The magic of migration has been enhanced during this year of being locked in Buxton by knowing that the birds do not share our travel restrictions. One pair of whitethroats were reliably to be heard and seen every morning for many weeks about 50 yards from our front door. The thought that this pair had flown all the way from Africa during the pandemic year to return to precisely this same little bush (assuming they were precisely the same little birds as the previous year) and then to leave to fly back again filled me with hope and optimism. This little creature was carrying on doing these incredible journeys whilst human flights were grounded and human translocation of all sorts temporarily suspended.

Kestrel male 1

How wonderful to have a Kestrel roosting under eaves of the front door.

Our favourite regulars on the regular walking circle that in one hour goes through a wood, onto a grouse moor, to a meadow untouched by the farmer, through a small nature reserve with ponds and trees, and across high open fields with glorious views across Buxton town to the hills beyond, have been the ravens in the wood, the stonechat family and an occasional golden plover on the moor, lapwings and curlews and wheatears among the sheep in the meadow, willow warblers and linnets in the nature reserve, a short-eared owl and buzzards and kestrels on the high fields. One of the kestrels has come to the eaves of our house above the front door for much of the year, the milkman treading carefully each morning around the fresh pellets on the doorstep. In the garden the house sparrows returned after years of absence, and most exciting of all the swifts swooped in to take a look at the new swift boxes that have gone up on our and the neighbours’ houses.

I could not have written those last paragraphs before this pandemic year. Our enforced domicile, only a few miles from Eyam, the Derbyshire village that knew similar pandemic-imposed restrictions all of 300 years ago, has taught me the value of patience, repetition, routine, and the local patch, and the infinite variety to be found in the superficially static and restricted days. I blush at the thought that I set off for the excitement of exotic birds abroad before I had got to properly know the exotic world on my own doorstep. As Ruth has often taught us, the goldfinch and the coal tit are as stunningly beautiful in their colouring and patterns as the most exotic of tropical forest birds.

The Pandemic has certainly made many of us more aware of wildlife on our doorstep and even in our gardens.

And now the snow has fallen, and Margaret’s bird feeders are suddenly life-savers. The birds seem to disappear for a few days – whether because of the snow or because of intense feeding competitiveness between all the houses on the road as the RSPB Gardenwatch weekend approaches, I am not sure. Margaret and I have our usual disagreement about the correct Garden Bird Watch procedures – Margaret thinks that if Saturday is low and slow, then no harm can be done by doing it on the Sunday instead. I go all snooty and say that’s not scientific or random enough; Margaret points out that not many people will be randomly watching at 4 o’clock in the morning and most are likely to be going for the 11am coffee slot, so randomness is not a feature of this exercise anyway.

Seeing a Blue Tit on your bird table, or a Great Tit above, can really lift the spirits.

On the day I get my first vaccination, a heron flies over, the snowdrops appear, someone sees a Dipper up the valley, and Alan and Ruth send details of an October Tour for Two. Optimism and hope for the new year are added big-time to the local brew that has sustained us for the past year.

Words by Peter and photographs by Margaret and a huge thanks to both for taking the time to produce such a lovely blog.

Derbyshire February 2021

The Derbyshire Moors will soon be transfrmed from winter to spring bringing new life and hope.

Of course a wonderful way to see more birds is to join one of our Birdwatching Trips and learn a lot about the birds you are enjoying too. We have tours suitable for all, from beginners to experienced birders who are seeking particular species. Just drop us a line here and we can arrange the perfect custom tour for you!

We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds with you as soon as it is safe to do so.

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