Confessions of a Short-Sighted Birdwatcher

June 2015

In mid-May I sprained my ankle (something I’ve done many times before) and a couple of weeks later it gave way again, thanks to a missing Montalcino cobble. So I’ve spent a couple of weeks in our village house in Tuscany walking only with great care, and not very far. Tottering slowly along the long line of cypresses that compose the entrance to Camigliano has its special compensations though, especially when accompanied by my eight-year-old grandson, who shares my interest in the local bird-life, and has such sharp eye-sight that he can spot raptors a mile way that I can only just make out with the help of binoculars. We keep stopping; and we look and listen. Listening has become a main delight. I am very vain of the fact that I have managed to identify two local birds by their song alone, before I managed to see them. With the help of obscure transcriptions of their songs in bird books and a very good website (‘Bird Songs and Calls with Spectrograms of Southern Tuscany’), the Corn Bunting and the Woodlark are now in my ken. The former is easy to see as it sings from all kinds of perches near the local fields, though I would never have known what it was without the song (‘tűck tűck-zick-zik-zkzkzrrississss’ in Collins Bird Guide). The Woodlark likes to be in the middle of a grove of olive trees, and I have only ever seen it once, this year, when I was lucky enough to catch one just taking off from a vineyard near the road. But before this I was still certain I had it right; one night at 3:00 am I heard the familiar lilting, melancholy notes from the valley below, and I’d read that the Woodlark’s song was ‘mostly delivered in drifting song-flight high up (100–150m), often at very first light, or even beneath stars on [a] pitch-dark night.’ Bingo.

   I while away long dawn hours listening to the procession of sounds from outside. This year the Cuckoos were always first, well before dawn, eventually mixing in with the scolding of Little Owls and the interrogative whoops of the Tawny Owl. Then the Collared Doves start their tedious conference (these noisy birds were wrongly called ‘pigeons’ in a former Newsletter). An absolute barrage of Sparrow-chatter then takes over, followed by the Goldfinches and Serins. Occasionally there is a sound like blowing across the mouth of a large bottle: a Hoopoe. And twice this year a family of Golden Orioles passed through the village at dawn, calling to each other with their intriguing mellow whistles.

   It’s been a slow process trying to recognise these sounds, but I think it has been worth it. Why, you may ask? It seems to me like the gradual drawing together of information about paintings and sculptures so as to make each artist recognisable, to have a grasp, perhaps only a weak one, of the salient aspects of their work by which they may be distinguished from each other. Some artists are difficult because their style is always changing — Raphael for example — others, like Botticelli, you can spot pretty well instantly. This too has been a slow progress over the last dozen years, aided by lectures on Learn Italy holidays and innumerable visits to art galleries. I sometimes feel cross with myself because I am always looking at the labels of pictures to find out whether a particular picture is by an artist in my ken, and therefore worthy of my concentration, or not. Perhaps one should just drift through emoting about the pictures that catch one’s eye, or trusting one’s own powers of connoisseurship. But think how difficult it would be if there were no labels at all, and we had to navigate the collections by trying to identify the painters for ourselves (as we have to do when spotting birds).

   Knowing about some artists makes me see more, and enjoy more what I see. Knowing a few birdsongs helps me to hear more, and see more. This can’t be bad. Here are two areas where in a blundering, private way I feel I have made some progress, even in spite of the defections and slippage of age. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’  

   At the time of writing I am pleased to report that my ankle is very much better.