WHISTLING IN THE DARK
In the early morning London darkness the streets I walk on my work to work each day can be quite lively. Today there was The Fox. In this cold season the Red Fox seems to have three layers of fur: the short, dense inner insulation, the usual reddish or pale fur and then the long, filmy hairs that waft about with each movement. This gives the fox almost a halo, or at least a soft edge. This morning The Fox was staring at me as I walked past Waller School. When he decided I wasn't going to turn aside he reluctantly trotted down a driveway to the playground beside the school. As always he silently disappeared into the shadows.
There is nightly fox talk in our backyard. Kate has taken to feeding our back garden fox dinner. Fox doesn't want simply dog food. He seems to crave, even demand a chicken scrap, or at least some cheese. He shows his appreciation with a foxly crap that could be a expression or an excretion of esteem for the Kibble Plus he has trained Kate to leave in the loosely rolled newspaper. We assume the high fox count is the reason for the low four-footed rat count.
Now Kate has begun slowly surveying the other likely neighborhood suspects, those who might be fox feeders too. She has already gotten a couple of English women to confess, not a simple matter. To some the fox is still to be hunted, still a vermin. But the jaunty trot, the glorious ruddy fur, even the tell-tale screech of the night-time discourse have endeared him to many Londoners.
Just after passing the fox's driveway, I began to hear the clear, distinct, melodic notes of a Song Thrush from somebody's back garden tree. The males are already warming up, not a bad thing to do now that pre-dawn temperatures are around forty degrees Fahrenheit. They are starting to sing the songs that will get more frequent and longer as the days finally do lengthen into spring.
There is the usual dawn chorus chatter form the usual vocalists: Carrion Crow, Blue and Great Tits. But mornings in December London are bereft of many familiar bird voices. Magpies, House Sparrows, Wood Pigeons, the finches all sleep until daylight. Our Blackbirds are active but usually quiet, just charcoal shadows flitting through a streetlight corona. Beside Song Thrush there are only two other songsters: Winter Wren and Eurasian Robin. Males proclaiming their winter feeding turf. One recent morning a Wren gave out his song at the east end of the Nunhead train platform.
Here, away from the Central London cement, the train tracks are generally lined with narrow bands of wilderness. At Nunhead there was about forty feet of trees and brush on each side of the station platform. Good wren turf indeed. After that first Wren, one more sounded off, then another, in succession each further east along the track.
I often think of those early European explorers stepping into the strange American forests four hundred years ago, and then hearing and perhaps seeing that same Wren.
The Winter Wren is found all over northern Europe and there is no other wren here. It must have given those early explorers and settlers a false sense of familiarity. Perhaps that is one reason they started slapping English names on America's different birds: robin, blackbird, sparrow, titmouse. Same names on different birds.
Not to be outdone by the cascade of Wrens a Robin added its wire-rubbing-over-glass sounds. Several blocks away I could still hear the Song Thrush.
Last weekend I got a couple hours of birding along the southern coast of England, while visiting my oldest son's family at their weekend home in Bosham. That's "Boz-zum" in local lingo. It's a village that goes back to Saxon times and sits on an estuary about ten crooked miles from the English Channel. Bosham tides are extreme in high and low moments, with streets flooded at full moon and miles of mud and rock exposed when the tide is lowest. And nowhere outside of Bodega Bay have I seen as many Brant. Some paddle up to the edge of town and accept bread from the locals.
There were other watchable birds in every direction: the pied Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstones (they don't get Black here), Redshank, Black-bellied Plover (which they sensibly call "Grey"), Black-headed, Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls, Gray Heron, Little Egret. The latter were first reported in London area in 1956 and there had been only scattered reports of the bird along the English coast in prior years. Now it's regular and breeding in many southern England marshes. The Little Egret is similar to our Snowy, including its yellow slippers. Most of the Common coastal birds were about: Pied Wagtail, Eurasian Collard-doves, Starlings, Carrion Crow, Mute Swan, endless Mallards, Northern Lapwing, Common Shelduck, Dunlin, a single Eurasian Curlew. Of course, there were Jackdaws flying around the church steeple. They're a village staple in England: steeple with Jackdaws.
Best land bird of the day was a singing Mistle Thrush in a holly tree in the church yard. He's not as versatile a stylist as his cousin the Song Thrush, but it was a warm song on a cold evening when it was already dark by four-thirty. I silently thanked him for whistling in the dark.