Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A Love Letter to a Garden

(This was written in late May 2016, but only published today – when my parents finally moved).

This week, after 21 years, I will be saying goodbye to the garden I’ve known pretty much my entire life. I’m writing this as I sit in it – two Dunnock’s have just bombed into one of the bordering hedges, and a pair of Collared Doves are waiting nervously and patiently in the big oak at the back, no doubt ready to swoop down to the fallen seed when I move. Halfway through typing that sentence a Coal Tit alighted just a few feet away from me on the niger feeder. Having spent the first years of my life that I can remember in this house, all the way through my teens and into early adulthood, there is no doubt of the affinity I have for this small rectangle of land.

With my siblings and I having all graduated, my parents are climbing aboard a lifelong dream to relocate to the sea, Sussex in fact, where I can realistically hope for Divers, Terns and Skuas on that particular garden list. Lists are things you never think of finishing. A life, county or patch list lasts as long as you do, and only recently have I realised that my garden total will no longer be able to be extended, with 72 seemingly the grand total I’ve amassed, bar a very surprising visitor this week.
A juvenile Dunnock foraging on the day I wrote this post
With my mini ‘scope set up, the dining room was very much a hide in my early teens, and I familiarised myself with a number of common species during these formative years, as well as enjoying the thrills of candid moments with unusual birds (to a young kid), like Siskin and Marsh Tit. In my later teens as my interest waned, and birding became practically non-existent, my garden was always going to be the only place I’d notice anything feathered, forever a little time portal to my obsessive youth. And, here I am now, in the garden, rattling away a post for a blog that was triggered in part by my re-found love for birds over the last 6 or 7 years. 2 Woodpigeons have shooed off the Doves in the Oak, and a very bold Jay just grabbed a peanut and flew off.

It’s fair to say my garden triggered my hobby of birding, and the pleasing feel of identification. It must have been 1997 or 1998, and a bird with a red forehead was sat in the small Ash. My mum could ID the common birds, and I could too, having an interest for general wildlife (think Really Wild Show), but this bird was a mystery. We knew my late grandmother had an ancient bird book on her shelf, so we phoned her up to ask for her help. She told us what it was – a Redpoll, and I remembered watching in awe at something I didn’t even know existed, let alone having it in my garden.

From that point I was hooked, and in 1998 my parents gave me a nondescript blue book for Christmas. It was to be my bird record book, and I used it until 2004, jotting down the more unusual things I saw. I longed for this book in recent years as I knew it’d hold forgotten memories, but numerous trips to the attic proved fruitless. Typically, with the upcoming move, it was found deep in a box, and I’ve had great joy thumbing through it these past few weeks. It holds many garden records that I recall vividly – my first ever Fieldfares and Redwings up close on the Rowan berry bush outside my very window (cut down to my frustration around 2002!), a pair of Mandarin Ducks on the deck for a good half an hour one April tea-time, and a handful of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers on the feeders. A very unseasonal Siskin called above me as I was typing this paragraph, and the Dunnock pair are now scurrying about the lawn.

As the years went on I was able to ID rarer birds. The rarest bird on my garden list no doubt came in 2010, when a Nightjar flew north over the back. It was surreal – broad daylight, clearly identifiable with a very unique flight, it was gone almost as soon as I saw it. More recently I’ve had Firecrest, one I waited a while for, and in 2010-2012 a regular flock of Bramblings would turn up in the winter. My friend Sam Jones even came over to twitch these, and it was also how I met Kevin ‘Kojak’ Guest, one of the Beddington birders, who came down one February day to photograph them. We’ve remained friends since. All of these memories will live with me forever – the foundations of a hobby, and the creation of sights that remain crystal clear in my mind. The last bird on the list was a Ring-necked Parakeet, perhaps fitting, symbolic of the changing times and landscape. No doubt in another 21 years they will be a lot more regular here, and will give any cats the same jip mine just received for innocuously strolling through the garden.

And, as always with birding, there was the one that got away. This is another memory I can recall perfectly, and to this day I’ll never be sure. It was a hot, sunny day, 17th May 2001, and I was playing in the garden when I noticed something big, high up. It had come from the east, and was slowly circling. I had my binoculars by the swing, and I managed to grab them and connect with the huge, Heron-like bird. Its neck was outstretched, and to my shock it uttered several loud, honking calls. I watched it for a good 4-5 minutes before it spiralled over the house and away. Looking back now it seems incredible, but I am pretty sure it must have been a Common Crane. Perhaps the next people living here will have one fly over, to lay that ghost to rest. However, I’ll never know if the bird list for this garden will ever get added to. Forever 72.