Straining to hear birdsong

A firecrest
A firecrest

A FIRECREST was working its way through the ivy in my hedge. I could just about hear its song but then it was only fifteen feet away. I blame that on firing .303 rifles in Defence of the Realm! Well it’s a good excuse.

Sten guns and rifles make a terrible din and the eardrums pound for minutes after.

I blame EOKA terrorists in Cyprus and manoeuvres on the Syrian border in Jordan and Iraq, not to speak of the old Damascus barrelled 8 bore I once borrowed.

Who had heard of earmuffs in the good old days? Not even airmen marshalling squadrons of Hawker Hunters into their bays. Those lucky enough to retain their hearing of high pitched bird calls may well have heard the lovely silvery tinkling that’s been going on in the tops of fir trees in recent years.

The firecrest is sometimes claimed as the smallest British bird at 3¼ inches in length, a quarter of an inch shorter than the goldcrest. The books today however claim both are 3½ inches.

Firecrests are winter visitors mainly but in recent years have also spread up north to Britain as breeding birds from their normal range in Spain, France and Italy and along the Baltic coast.

In the spruce trees of the Cowdray/West Dean estate borders they have been breeding like rabbits in the past ten years and lucky people have heard the songs right up there at the tops of the trees ninety feet above.

The recent cold spells however have retracted their range back a bit southward.

Now: could you tell a firecrest from the goldcrest? You might get the chance, because both are confiding, and are not much bothered by humans.

Once when working as a forester burning up brash, I had a goldcrest perch on the toe of my boot as I stood for a moment enjoying the warmth on a cold winter’s day.

The easiest diagnostic feature is the eyestripe. Firecrests have a white supercilium above a black eye stripe. Crowning that lot is a red (male) or yellow (female) centre stripe. These three bands are very neat and attractive.

The French call the firecrest Roitelet a triple-bandeau in recognition of the crown.

Like the bird in my hedge, the firecrest finds most of its food in lower scrub than the goldcrest, hunting like a little green vole through bracken, tall grass, swampy rushes and scrub.

Usually the males are squeaking away to themselves with a song as high up the scale as that of the treecreeper – another one I can’t hear.

Maybe one day I shall be unable to hear skylarks, perish the thought. That is what happened to BB, that superb writer and chronicler of country ways whose 60 books give many of us so much pleasure. He had an 8 bore too.

Richard Williamson