Yesterday’s nagging northeasterly wind was gone by this morning – just the occasional gentle breeze ruffling the reeds by the river. And it’s quiet too, almost as hushed as in the original first lockdown.
I stop to listen to the yaffling calls of green woodpeckers from Assiters Spinney on the far bank. There are wrens and robins, great tits and chaffinches and the first chiffchaffs singing too. And a sudden blast from a hidden Cetti’s warbler. Then a mistle thrush starts to sing from high in the trees and my heart soars.
There’s no point in looking for him with the naked eye, and anyway that would be a waste of good listening time. To me the mistle thrush is a sonic mystery I hope never to solve. There’s something about the sound of those few repeated notes, the call and response, that stops me in my tracks. I just have to listen.
When I do recordings of music or birdsong I spend a lot of time trying to make sounds appear natural. Microphones never capture the sound as it really is, and the trick is to reproduce the sounds you heard in the performance (or maybe even the sounds in your head) rather than what the technology has captured in the first instance.
This may involve changing the balance of frequencies – taking away high or low sounds to get a better balance and tone. It may also involve adding reverberation to give a sense of the space the sound was made in. The point of saying all this is that the mistle thrush’s call sounds to me like it comes from the mixing desk of a celestial sound engineer. Subtle work has been done which I can’t quite fathom, and the result is magical.
With other birds a large part of the beauty comes from the echoing sounds of the woods and spaces around them. Owls and cuckoos sound flat and scratchy when you are up close, but wonderful from a distance when the vibrations have bounced around among the trees before they get to you. Same with woodpeckers. But to me mistle thrushes still have that strange, haunting skirling quality whether they are calling from right above my head in a wood, in a single tree at the roadside or perched on the aerial of a city office block. Like other birds they exploit the acoustics to get their point across but there’s something else going on that’s wonderful and inexplicable.
It stops singing and I carry on walking. I can’t get that sound out of my head, I wouldn’t want to. But as I get near home I can hear the kids back playing again in the pocket park and that soon takes over my listening ear and makes me smile. I loved the hush of the first lockdown, the melting away of traffic and aircraft noise so that birdsong had space to chime through loud and clear. But some human sounds are equally uplifting and beautiful – hearing children playing together was a pleasure I sorely missed. I wouldn’t want that to ever happen again.