Sunday, June 21, 2009

A bird like an insect...

Returning home from a Poetry reading in Ballina late the other evening I pulled over for a break and opened the car window. And there they were. Singing beautifully in the dark stillness - Grasshopper Warblers. The air was full of their cricket-like mantra - a bird that sounds like an insect. Their song lends a distinctly mainland European flavour to the Irish countryside; like Greece or Spain, perhaps.
The Grasshopper Warbler is widely distributed but seldom seen. We used to hear them in certain areas of Macclesfield, the town where we lived in Cheshire, England. But I rarely caught a glimpse. More often than not they were skulking deep among bramble and Rosebay Willowherb on railway embankments; skulking is their habit.
They favour anywhere wild and unmanaged; low scrub and overgrown grass. In fact, they have an elongated middle-toe for that is ideal for grasping several grass stems or such like; the Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler are different, having a foot evolved for grasping individual reed stems.
Their reeling song is unique. And when singing they turn their heads from side to side producing a ventroloquist effect, so that the sound rises and falls, comes and goes, sounds here then there, making it a joy to listen to, but very difficult to pinpoint.
They don't tend to sing on bright nights so you won't hear one singing when the moon is full. Their preference is for dark, still nights when they can sing undercover to their heart's content, to use a cliché. Last evening, here at River Cottage, was one such evening, and the night air was full of them.
If you do catch a glimpse of the bird you may be disappointed - apart from the thrill of having actually seen one - by its appearance. They are quite a nondescript small brown bird, and you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about. But that elusive bird always causes my heart to leap - as though I have set eyes on a Secret of Nature. Make no mistake - the Grasshopper Warbler is special. And I'm glad to say their distribution is increasing.

Best Wishes, Mark

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