Dipper singing made me feel like Tonto


It was not until I went out walking, recently, with someone new to bird watching, that I began to appreciate just how much fieldcraft I seem to have accumulated over the years.

A friend came to visit and we went for a stroll in the Bowhill area, along the banks of the Yarrow near Newark Tower. The weather was cool but calm, and ideal for hearing bird calls; I was able to locate a singing dipper almost right away.

Scanning some likely-looking perching posts overlooking a field, with my binoculars, yielded a pair of kestrels, which impressed my pal greatly.

I was beginning to feel a bit like Tonto with the Lone Ranger!

Passing a field of kale which was heavily interlaced with some sort of weed, whose seeds were apparently particularly attractive to birds, we stopped to try and see if there were any visiting bramblings in amongst the hundreds of chaffinches, which kept disappearing into the leafy depths.

It was so frustrating to see huge flocks descending and simply vanishing, just a few yards from our vantage point.

Suddenly, the entire horde exploded skyward with a great whirring of wings. My companion said that at last we could get a look at them, but I was looking elsewhere.

From experience, I knew that such a violent reaction is nearly always caused by the arrival of a predator and sure enough, a few seconds later, a male sparrowhawk veered across the field, his grey plumage and pointed wings catching the hazy afternoon sunshine.

Unfortunately, he had entered the cover of the field-edge trees before my friend had a chance to see him – his binoculars had still been trained on the departing finches.

You can learn so much about wildlife from books and TV documentaries, but the ability to anticipate only comes from experience in the field.

My friend may not have seen as many birds as I did on our walk, but he did take home with him the knowledge that melodious birdsong near a river in winter can only be coming from a dipper, and that large concentrations of small birds usually mean that predators are close by and that a little patience is likely to be rewarded.

This is the kind of information which walking in the countryside yields, and the ability to recall it when a similar situation arises in the future is what fieldcraft is all about.