10 May 2012

A late call

Sitting reading late last night, I heard, briefly in the drizzle, and above the soughing of the pine branches, a whinnying sevenfold call: tititititititit, so soft and fleet that it was barely audible at all, but I fancied its maker was heading north. A passage whimbrel, or whimbrels, high over these chalk Downs, twenty miles from the estuaries of the Sussex and Hampshire coast.

During May whimbrels gather at Pagham, at Chichester and Langstone Harbours. There they feed, far out on the mud with the other waders. The rising tide drives them to congregate on islands and undisturbed places on the shore. They are torn between two urges, to recuperate and to go on. The far north is their magnet; that is where they breed. Sometimes, as day draws to a close, you can almost see the indecision in a flock of six or ten or twenty. At last they will take wing and head inland.

Much of their migration is done at night. The calls keep the birds together, and are unique, just as all the other shorebirds have their unique voices, evolved over millennia of co-existence.

Last night it seemed to me, and seems to me still, that the shorebirds’ calls are one of life’s verities. They are genuine, unpretentious, authentic, and sensible and practical too, unlike most of the doings of men. That faint cry from the wet, cloudy darkness reconnected me for a moment with nature, and my evening was transformed.

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