Each morning a small chap in a dun-coloured tail-coat sings lustily. Almost bursting across his proud chest and rounded midriff is a champagne-cream waistcoat spotted with copper. As the skies begin to whisper into wakefulness, when all the world is dressed in grey and silver, he opens his throat to sing. He is a mistle thrush and he perches on top of a telegraph pole or chooses the uppermost branch of a hawthorn now grown to a tree. His song is a mixed melody, made of small ditties so varied that each morning, as I listen through the slightly open window, I struggle to count them all. And he sings alone for almost an hour, his voice clear and powerful, until the main dawn chorus is roused. Perhaps all the other birds stay warm in their nests just as we like to do on a Sunday morning, reluctant to move. Perhaps they listen to him and try to decipher his tunes, counting them as I do.
It took me a long time but I finally figured it out, and this is my interpretation for a true birder will be able to correct me. The song of the well-dressed mistle thrush seems to be not one but a collection of songs, copies of the trills and warbles and piping of other birds. I can hear the blackbird’s mellow tunes, the chattering of goldfinches and greenfinches, the high notes of chaffinches and robins, the piping of skylarks and occasionally the eerie call of a raptor. There are many more snippets that I cannot name. But the more I listen the more I think of him as a collector of songs who proudly recites his sonnets and sings his verses to all and sundry. Eventually though the dawn chorus begins in full and for a time the thrush’s voice is drowned out by the sheer volume of smaller voices. But he returns again and again throughout the day when other birds rest or relax awhile, his voice high and strong, and clever.
Spring is upon us and as the days lengthen the ground warms. Bees now rush about seeking nectar as flower begin to open. There’s cherry blossom in a sheltered corner of the garden, fritillaries nodding in the wet meadow, primroses on the embankment, pale yellow hazel catkins and shiny pussy willow along the river bank.
Spears of lime green spike cleanly up through the sodden leaf-mat of winter and there are buds aplenty on the ash, oak and birch in the little patch of croft woodland. One tree is very special. Grown from a conker and living still in a big pot, the horse chestnut tree, which traveled here to the far north with us, has big glistening, scaly buds, filled with promise.
On clear spring days the light is crystalline and it shimmers and dances from sea to sky, wave to cloud, from hill top to boggy hollow and tree top to grassy meadow. Yellow rays of sunshine are caught by the river in tumbling cascades as they splash in giggles across red rocks and are poured into the mirrored surfaces of the little lochs. All around the croft and in the surrounding hills water is singing of spring and light and life. I am dazzled by it all and my eyes ache. For most of last week this wild landscape has been lulled by gentle breezes, the warmth of the sun trapped in each hollow in the ground until the scent of earth and living soil rose and seeped into everything.
But winter keeps picking at us, nibbling in spiteful, icy bites and then swiping at us with impish blasts of cold. Today the north winds have returned bringing snow showers in dark clouds that billow like smoke yet paint us all in white.
And the milky sea glowed turquoise as it churned crossly with sediment and foam.
Yet still the mistle thrush sings. He leads a defiant chorus. Together they deny winter a foothold. Although the air is swirling with snow, the songs are brimming with the promise of growing things. And they will overwhelm the ice, banishing it to the mountain tops where winter will play on. For a while.