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A LONDON COPSE
IN October a party of wood-pigeons took up their residence in the little copse which has been previously mentioned. It stands in the angle formed by two suburban roads, and the trees in it overshadow some villa gardens. This copse has always been a favourite with birds, and it is not uncommon to see a pheasant about it, sometimes within gunshot of the gardens, while the call of the partridges in the evening may now and then be heard from the windows. But though frequently visited by wood-pigeons, they did not seem to make any stay till now when this party arrived.
There were eight of them. During the day they made excursions into the stubble fields, and in the evening returned to roost. They remained through the winter, which will be remembered as the most severe for many years. Even in the sharpest frost, if the sun shone out, they called to each other now and then. On the first day of the year their hollow cooing came from the copse at midday.
During the deep snow which blocked the roads and covered the fields almost a foot deep, they were silent, but were constantly observed flying to and fro. Immediately it became milder they recommenced to coo, so that at intervals the note of the wood-pigeon was heard in the adjacent house from October, all through the winter, till the nesting time in May. Sometimes towards sunset in the early spring they all perched together before finally retiring on the bare, slender tips of the tall birch trees, exposed and clearly visible against the sky.
Six once alighted in a row on a long birch branch, bending it down with their weight like a heavy load of fruit. The stormy sunset flamed up, tinting the fields with momentary red, and their hollow voices sounded among the trees. By May they had paired off, and each couple had a part of the copse to themselves. Instead of avoiding the house, they seemed, on the contrary, to come much nearer, and two or three couples built close to the garden.
Just there, the wood being bare of undergrowth, there was nothing to obstruct the sight but some few dead hanging branches, and the pigeons or ringdoves could be seen continually flying up and down from the ground to their nests. They were so near that the darker marking at the end of the tail, as it was spread open to assist the upward flight to the branch, was visible. Outside the garden gate, and not more than twenty yards distant, there stood three young spruce firs, at the edge of the copse, but without the boundary. To the largest of these one of the pigeons came now and then; he was half inclined to choose it for his nest.
The noise of their wings as they rose and threshed their strong feathers together over the tops of the trees was often heard, and while in the garden one might be watched approaching from a distance, swift as the wind, then suddenly half-closing his wings and shooting forwards, he alighted among the boughs. Their coo is not in any sense tuneful; yet it has a pleasant association; for the ringdove is pre-eminently the bird of the woods and forests, and rightly named the wood-pigeon. Yet though so associated with the deepest and most lonely woods, here they were close to the house and garden, constantly heard, and almost always visible; and London, too, so near. They seemed almost as familiar as the sparrows and starlings.
These pigeons were new inhabitants; but turtle-doves had built in the copse since I knew it. They were late coming the last spring I watched them; but, when they did, chose a spot much nearer the house than usual. The turtle-dove has a way of gurgling the soft vowels "oo" in the throat. Swallows do not make a summer, but when the turtle-dove coos summer is certainly come. One afternoon one of the pair flew up into a hornbeam which stood beside the garden not twenty yards at farthest. At first he sat upright on the branch watching me below, then turned and fluttered down to the nest beneath.
While this nesting was going on I could hear five different birds at once either in the garden or from any of the windows. The doves cooed, and every now and then their gentle tones were overpowered by the loud call of the wood-pigeons. A cuckoo called from the top of the tallest birch, and a nightingale and a brook-sparrow (or sedge-reedling) were audible together in the common on the opposite side of the road. It is remarkable that one season there seems more of one kind of bird than the next. The year alluded to, for instance, in this copse was the wood-pigeons' year. But one season previously the copse seemed to belong to the missel-thrushes.
Early in the March mornings I used to wake as the workmen's trains went rumbling by to the great City, to see on the ceiling by the window a streak of sunlight, tinted orange by the vapour through which the level beams had passed. Something in the sense of morning lifts the heart up to the sun. The light, the air, the waving branches speak; the earth and life seem boundless at that moment. In this it is the same on the verge of the artificial City as when the rays come streaming through the pure atmosphere of the Downs. While thus thinking, suddenly there rang out three clear, trumpetlike notes from a tree at the edge of the copse by the garden. A softer song followed, and then again the same three notes, whose wild sweetness echoed through the wood..
The voice of the missel-thrush sounded not only close at hand and in the room, but repeated itself as it floated away, as the bugle-call does. He is the trumpeter of spring: Lord of March, his proud call challenges the woods; there are none who can answer. Listen for the missel-thrush: when he sings the snow may fall, the rain drift, but not for long; the violets are near at hand. The nest was in a birch visible from the garden, and that season seemed to be the missel-thrush's. Another year the cuckoos had possession.
There is a detached ash tree in the field by the copse;
it stands apart, and about sixty or seventy yards from , the garden. A cuckoo came to this ash every morning, and called there for an hour at a time, his notes echoing along the building, one following the other as wavelets roll on the summer sands. After awhile two more used to appear, and then there was a chase round the copse, up to the tallest birch, and out to the ash tree again. This went on day after day, and was repeated every evening. Flying from the ash to the copse and returning, the birds were constantly in sight; they sometimes passed over the house, and the call became so familiar that it was not regarded any more than the chirp of a sparrow. Till the very last the cuckoos remained there, and never ceased to be heard till they left to cross the seas.
That was the cuckoos' season; next spring, they returned again, but much later than usual, and did not call so much, nor were they seen so often while they were there. One was calling in the copse on the evening of the 6th of May as late as half-past eight, while the moon was shining. But they were not so prominent; and as for the missel-thrushes, I did not hear them at all in the copse. It was the wood-pigeons' year. Thus the birds come in succession and reign by turns.
Even the starlings vary, regular as they are by habit. This season (1881) none have whistled on the house-top. In previous years they have always come, and only the preceding spring a pair filled the gutter with the materials of their nest. Long after they had finished a storm descended, and the rain, thus dammed up and unable to escape, flooded the corner. It cost half a sovereign to repair the damage, but it did not matter; the starlings had been happy. It has been a disappointment this year not to listen to their eager whistling and the flutter of their wings as they vibrate them rapidly while hovering a moment before entering their cavern. A pair of house-martins, too, built under the eaves close to the starlings' nest, and they also disappointed me by not returning this season, though the nest was not touched. Some fate, I fear, overtook both starlings and house-martins.
Another time it was the season of the lapwings. Towards the end of November (1881), there appeared a large flock of peewits, or green plovers, which flock passed most of the day in a broad, level ploughed field of great extent. At this time I estimated their number as about four hundred; far exceeding any flock I had previously seen in the neighbourhood. Fresh parties joined the main body continually, until by December there could not have been less than a thousand. Still more and more arrived, and by the first of January (1882) even this number was doubled, and there were certainly fully two thousand there. It is the habit of green plovers to all move at once, to rise from the ground simultaneously, to turn in the air, or to descend — and all so regular that their very wings seem to flap together. The effect of such a vast body of white-breasted birds uprising as one from the dark ploughed earth was very remarkable.
When they passed overhead the air sang like the midsummer hum with the shrill noise of beating wings. When they wheeled a light shot down reflected from their white breasts, so that people involuntarily looked up to see what it could be. The sun shone on them. so that at a distance the flock resembled a cloud brilliantly illuminated. In an instant they turned and the cloud was darkened. Such a great flock had not been seen in that district in the memory of man.
There did not seem any reason for their congregating in this manner, unless it was the mildness of the winter, but winters had been mild before without such a display. The birds as a mass rarely left this one particular field — they voyaged round in the air and settled again in the same place. Some few used to spend hours with the sheep in a meadow, remaining there till dusk, till the mist hid them, and their cry sounded afar in the gloom. They stayed all through the winter, breaking up as the spring approached. By March the great flock had dispersed.
The winter was very mild. There were buttercups, avens, and white nettles in flower on December 31st. On January 7th, there were briar buds opening into young leaf; on the 9th a dandelion in flower, and an arum up. A grey veronica was trying to open flower on the 11th, and hawthorn buds were so far open that the green was visible on the 16th. On February 14th a yellow-hammer sang, and brambles had put forth green buds. Two wasps went by in the sunshine. The 14th is old Candlemas, supposed to rule the weather for some time after. Old Candlemas was very fine and sunny till night, when a little rain fell. The summer that followed was cold and ungenial, with easterly winds, though fortunately it brightened up somewhat for the harvest. A chaffinch sang on the 10th of February: all these are very early dates.
One morning while I was watching these plovers, a man with a gun got over a gate into the road. Another followed, apparently without a weapon, but as the first proceeded to take his gun to pieces, and put the barrel in one pocket at the back of his coat, and the stock in a second, it is possible that there was another gun concealed. The coolness with which the fellow did this on the highway was astounding, but his impudence was surpassed by his stupidity, for at the very moment he hid the gun there was a rabbit out feeding within easy range, which neither of these men observed.
The boughs of a Scotch fir nearly reached to one window. If I recollect rightly, the snow was on the ground in the early part of the year, when a golden-crested wren came to it. He visited it two or three times a week for some time; his golden crest distinctly seen among the dark green needles of the fir.
There are squirrels in the copse, and now and then one comes within sight. In the summer there was one in the boughs of an oak close to the garden. Once, and once only, a pair of them ventured into the garden, itself, deftly passing along the wooden palings and exploring a guelder rose-bush. The pheasants which roost in the copse wander to it from distant preserves. One- morning in spring, before the corn was up, there was one in a field by the copse calmly walking along the ridge of a furrow so near that the ring round his neck was visible from the road.
In the early part of last autumn, while the acorns were dropping from the oaks and the berries ripe, I twice disturbed a pheasant from the garden of a villa not far distant. There were some oaks hard by, and from under these the bird had wandered into the quiet sequestered garden. The oak in the copse on which the squirrel was last seen is peculiar for bearing oak-apples earlier than any other of the neighbourhood, and there I are often half-a-dozen of them on the twigs on the trunk before there is one anywhere else. The famous snowstorm of October 1880 snapped off the leader or top of this oak.
Jays often come, magpies more rarely, to the copse; as for the lesser birds they all visit it. In the hornbeams at the verge blackcaps sing in spring a sweet and cultured song, which does not last many seconds. They visit a thick bunch of ivy in the garden. By these hornbeam trees a streamlet flows out of the copse, crossed at the hedge by a pole, to prevent cattle straying in. The pole is a robin's perch. He is always there, or near; he was there all through the terrible winter, all the summer, and he is there now.
There are a few inches, a narrow strip of sand, beside the streamlet under this pole. Whenever a wagtail dares to come to this sand the robin immediately appears and drives him away. He will bear no intrusion. A pair of butcher-birds built very near this spot one spring, but afterwards appeared to remove to a place where there is more furze, but beside the same hedge. The determination and fierce resolution of the shrike, or butcher-bird, despite his small size, is most marked. One day a shrike darted down from a hedge just before me, not a yard in front, and dashed a dandelion to the ground.
His claws clasped the stalk, and the flower was crushed in a moment; he came with such force as to partly lose his balance. His prey was probably a humble-bee which had settled on the dandelion. The shrike's head resembles that of the eagle in miniature. From his favourite branch he surveys the grass, and in an instant pounces on his victim.
There is a quiet lane leading out of one of the roads which have been mentioned down into a wooded hollow, where there are two ponds, one on each side of the lane. Standing here one morning in the early summer, suddenly a kingfisher came shooting straight towards me, and swerving a little passed within three yards; his blue wings, his ruddy front, the white streak beside his neck, and long bill were visible for a moment; then he was away, straight over the meadows, till he cleared a distant hedge and disappeared. He was probably on his way to visit his nest, for though living by the streams kingfishers often have their nest a considerable way from water.
Two years had gone by since I saw one here before, perched then on the trunk of a willow which overhangs one of the ponds. After that came the severe winters, and it seemed as if the kingfishers were killed off, for they are often destroyed by frost, so that the bird came unexpectedly from the shadow of the trees, across the lane, and out into the sunshine over the field. It was a great pleasure to see a kingfisher again.
This hollow is the very place of singing birds in June. Up in the oaks blackbirds whistle — you do not often see them, for they seek the leafy top branches, but once now and then while fluttering across to another perch. The blackbird's whistle is very human, like some one playing the flute; an uncertain player now drawing forth a bar of a beautiful melody and then losing it again. He does not know what quiver or what turn his note will take , before it ends; the note leads him and completes itself. His music strives to express his keen appreciation of the loveliness of the days, the golden glory of the meadow, the light, and the luxurious shadows.
Such thoughts can only be expressed in fragments, like a sculptor's chips thrown off as the inspiration seizes I him, not mechanically sawn to a set line. Now and again the blackbird feels the beauty of the time, the large white daisy stars, the grass with yellow-dusted tips, the air which comes so softly unperceived by any precedent rustle of the hedge. He feels the beauty of the time, and he must say it. His notes come like wild flowers not sown in order. There is not an oak here in June without a blackbird.
Thrushes sing louder here than anywhere else; they really seem to sing louder, and they are all around. Thrushes appear to vary their notes with the period of the year, singing louder in the summer, and in the mild days of October when the leaves lie brown and buff on the sward under their perch more plaintively-and delicately. Warblers and willow-wrens sing in the hollow in June, all out of sight among the trees — they are easily hidden by a leaf.
At that time the ivy leaves which flourish up to the very tops of the oaks are so smooth with enamelled surface, that high up, as the wind moves them, they reflect the sunlight and scintillate. Greenfinches in the elms never cease love-making; and love-making needs much soft talking. A nightingale in a bush sings so loud the hawthorn seems too small for the vigour of the song. He will let you stand at the very verge of the bough; but it is too near, his voice is sweeter across the field.
There are still, in October, a few red apples on the boughs of the trees in a little orchard beside the same road. It is a natural orchard — left to itself — therefore there is always something to see in it. The palings by the road are falling, and are held up chiefly by the brambles about them and the ivy that has climbed up. Trees stand on the right and trees on the left; there is a tall spruce fir at the back.
The apple trees are not set in straight lines: they were at first, but some have died away and left an irregularity; the trees lean this way and that, and they are scarred and marked as it were with lichen and moss. It is the home of birds. A blackbird had its nest this spring in the bushes on the left side, a nightingale another in the bushes on the right, and there the nightingale sang under the shadow of a hornbeam for hours every morning while "City" men were hurrying past to their train.
The sharp relentless shrike that used to live by the copse moved up here, and from that very hornbeam perpetually darted across the road upon insects in the fern and furze opposite. He never entered the orchard; it is often noticed that birds (and beasts of prey) do not touch creatures that build near their own nests. Several thrushes reside in the orchard; swallows frequently twittered from the tops of the apple trees. As the grass is so safe from intrusion, one of the earliest buttercups flowers here. Bennets — the flower of the grass — come up; the first bennet is to green things what the first swallow is to the breathing creatures of summer.
On a bare bough, but lately scourged by the east wind, the apple bloom appears, set about with the green of the hedges and the dark spruce behind. White horse-chestnut blooms stand up in their stately way, lighting the path which is strewn with the green moss-like flowers fallen from the oaks. There is an early bush of May. When the young apples take form and shape the grass is so high even the buttercups are overtopped by it. Along the edge of the roadside footpath, where the dandelions, plantains, and grasses are thick with seed, the greenfinches come down and feed.
Now the apples are red that are left, and they hang on boughs from which the leaves are blown by every gust. But it does not matter when you pass, summer or autumn, this little orchard has always something to offer. It is not neglected — it is true attention to leave it to itself.
Left to itself, so that the grass reaches its fullest height; so that bryony vines trail over the bushes and stay till the berries fall of their own ripeness; so that the brown leaves lie and are not swept away unless the wind chooses; so that all things follow their own course and bent. The hedge opposite in autumn, when reapers are busy with the sheaves, is white with the large trumpet flowers of the great wild convolvulus (or bindweed). The hedge there seems made of convolvulus then; nothing but convolvulus, and nowhere else does the flower flourish so strongly; the bines remain till the following spring.
Without a path through it, without a border or parterre, unvisited, and left alone, the orchard has acquired an atmosphere of peace and stillness, such as grows up in woods and far-away lonely places. It is so commonplace and unpretentious that passers-by do not notice it; it is merely a corner of meadow dotted with apple trees — a place that needs frequent glances and a dreamy mood to understand it as the birds understand it. They are always there. In spring, thrushes move along, rustling the fallen leaves as they search among the arum sheaths unrolling beside the sheltering palings. There are nooks and corners whence shy creatures can steal out from the shadow and be happy. There is a loving streak of sunshine somewhere among the tree trunks.
Though the copse is so much frequented the migrant birds (which have now for the most part gone) next spring will not be seen nor heard there first. With one exception, it is not the first place to find them. The cuckoos which come to the copse do not call till some time after others have been heard in the neighbourhood.
There is another favourite copse a mile distant, and the cuckoo can be heard near it quite a week earlier. This last spring there were two days' difference — a marked interval.
The nightingale that sings in the bushes on the common immediately opposite the copse is late in the same manner. There is a mound about half a mile farther, where a nightingale always sings first, before all the others of the district. The one on the common began to sing last spring a full week later. On the contrary, the sedge-reedling, which chatters side by side with the nightingale, is the first of all his kind to return to the neighbourhood. The same thing happens season after season, so that when once you know these places you can always hear the birds several days before other people.
With flowers it is the same; the lesser celandine, the marsh marigold, the silvery cardamine, appear first in one particular spot, and may be gathered there before a petal has opened elsewhere. The first swallow in this district generally appears round about a pond near some farm buildings. Birds care nothing for appropriate surroundings. Hearing a titlark singing his loudest, I found him perched on the rim of a tub placed for horses to drink from.
This very pond by which the first swallow appears is muddy enough, and surrounded with poached mud, for a herd of cattle drink from and stand in it. An elm overhangs it, and on the lower branches, which are dead, the swallows perch and sing just over the muddy water. A sow lies in the mire. But the sweet swallows sing on softly; they do not see the wallowing animal, the mud, the brown water; they see only the sunshine, the golden buttercups, and the blue sky of summer. This is the true way to look at this beautiful earth.