The early days of November have been calm and strangely mild. The storms of October seem a long way off and the autumn has somehow slipped into winter. In birding, the seasons tend to remind me of watercolour paintings…there are no sharp edges. The changing seasons bleed into each other and, before you know it, one season is over and the next has arrived.
Last Friday I walked the coastal stretch close to my home in Wicklow. It was warm and the sea was flat calm. The sun was shining. It was a perfect birding day. A late Wheatear was on the beach…it was a big, buffy, Greenland-type bird. It bounced along the beach heading south, flashing its white rump as it disappeared into the distance.
Despite it being such a beautiful day, I was struck by the silence. Walking north past the marsh where Sedge and Reed Warblers were singing their hearts out only a few months ago, the reed beds were silent. The woodlands that were alive with Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap songs in summer now only hosted a scolding Wren. Even offshore, there were no calling Sandwich or Little Terns.
I know that winter has so many other sounds to offer. The calls of Whooper Swans are enough to stir the spirit and, at night, I’ve been listening to the calls of Redwings overhead as they arrive into Ireland for the winter. However, every winter, I always miss bird song.
As I pondered the silence along the coast that day, I heard a distant sound. It was a strangely eerie, wailing and plaintive sound coming in off the sea. I strained to listen to it…it seemed quite far away. Several minutes passed before I heard it again…it was a Red-throated Diver. This time I could see the bird…it was still a long way out. As I watched, it was joined by a second bird. They began to sing a duet…it was beautiful.
They were coming closer to the shore and it seemed that their song was attracting other divers from far out to sea. Two birds flew in to join the pair while others just seemed to appear from nowhere. Within five minutes, 22 birds were all together in a tight floating flock. Then, the most magical thing happened…they all began to call to each other. I was listening to a choir of Red-throated Divers and it was a sound like I have never heard before.
I sat down and allowed the wonderful songs of the November seas to flow over me…it was as uplifting as any symphony. The silence of the reed beds and woodlands seemed perfect. It was only in their silence that the delicate songs of the divers could be truly appreciated.