Tuesday, June 22, 2010


The weather today has been superb – the summer we are so frequently promised has arrived.

Moving around with unaccustomed freedom without a coat or jacket, my wallet tucked into a shirt pocket, taking in the sparkling views as I plied my way back and forth across the city, exchanging words with disappointed football fans ("there'll be a revolution") and greeting an old friend off soon to Africa. Making my rounds, doing chores ... But in weather such as this it's a pleasure.

I looped back towards home carrying shopping just as parents fetched tiny children from nursery school, pushchairs rattling as they passed under the railway bridge in deep shade. School is out so boys on thick wheeled bicycles appeared. Students in shorts earnestly discussing something hurried by. The trees, so recently bare, hung low down under the weight of their own foliage, holding to themselves deep pools of darkness. Then I heard it.

Somewhere ahead high up in a tree beside the railway a bird was calling. Not the beautiful run of trills and pauses of a true 'song bird', more a persistent call sign. It might be saying "pick me up, pick me up" – indeed probably is if one thinks about why birds sing at all. What drew me towards it in the grove of trees which is so much more than a single specimen, more a self enclosed world, was the possibility it might be a Chiff chaff ...

The Chiff chaff is a migrant bird about the size of a sparrow but less bulky, sleek and has a slender bill. It spends the summer here in the north and in the autumn flies south to Africa for the winter months. A bird which weighs less than a few coins and is of a size to fit into a cigarette packet flies thousands of miles.  It took centuries for people to believe that fact.

Where was it? I entered into the wood. At once one is plunged into a world of softness, contrasts and fleeting light. I could see the sky, bluer than even outside and the pattern of leaves against it far above. I craned my head back. It was hardly enough; I had to bend my back as well. The sound was coming from somewhere overhead. By turning on the spot I could try to find the direction, narrow the search.

There is in my book, no certain way to distinguish the call of the Chiff chaff from that of the native Great Tit than by sight. Other people with better hearing can 'pick' them. I cannot. At least, I don't trust myself to do so.

This was beginning to hurt. Dizziness crept in. I inched forward hoping no one would come along the path and see me like this ... Then it moved and I saw a shape against a branch. I moved and lost it. Had it flown off? The song restarted. It was ignoring this animal far below thankfully.  I located it again, lost it again trying to get into a better position. Then I thought I saw a dark head. So it was a Great Tit. But hang on, in that case where was the yellow breast with its highly visible central black marking? I edged forward. My neck and head were getting uncomfortable and I was in danger of falling over. Then I was there, right under the perch and watched as the bird preened and straightened up and sang its brief ring tone call. A Chiff chaff!

By the Ouseburn Community Centre the parents, dad's displaying tattoos were supervising a children's play time, people walked purposefully off along the pathway towards the city centre and a couple of sunbathers took proud possession of the City Stadium. All's well with world, Financial crises come and go. Somethings are still free.

The Chiff chaff. bbc.co.uk

No comments: