I left work earlier than usual yesterday before the sun had deserted the day and decided to take a short walk to the edgeland. Wrapped in my German issue Flecktarn jacket I left the house worried I’d be too warm and for those first fleeting minutes the sun did share its autumn warmth, falling gently on my face and neck.
It wasn’t until I crossed the rail bridge that the whip of the easterly wind lashed against my face and hands and for the first time since early spring I felt cold. October can be a month of continual contrast. Just last weekend I walked this field way in a long sleeved t-shirt but the wind was south-westerly and full of continental warmth. The floral front-garden displays I pass to get here are still in full bloom creating an illusion of late summer yet two nights since my last jaunt have seen the first frosts of the year.
Shuffling gently through the gate so as not to announce my entrance into the edgeland I made my way along the right-hand side of the first field of pasture, hugging the hedge of bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn that lines the curvature of the gravel pit fishing lake on the other side. I notice a healthy crop of sloes forming in the blackthorn and my thoughts drift to Christmas sloe gin and the hip flask of warming ruby red liqueur I carry on my winter walks to take the bite out of the cold.
A dozen or so Magpies flit from trees and fence posts around the pasture and I try to count them, one for sorrow, two for joy to see how my luck is fairing but I lose track and I’m not sure I know all of the words anyway. I cross the style into the next field and take note of the fox-runs through the hedge. About half way up I bend down to inspect a large gap in the hedge. I’m surprised by how deep the hedge is and the thickness of the woody bases of shrubs that intertwine and twist around one another creating an overwhelming maze for the filed voles and wood mice that I imagine call this place home. The hedge isn’t well managed. In fact I can’t remember the last time it was cut back or trimmed and thick clumps of bramble appear to be taking over what was once, years ago, a well coppiced field boundary of mainly hawthorn. I can’t find any buff-red fox hair trapped in the bramble thorns that line the entrance and the ground is still too dry to capture silent paw prints.
When I stand again the chattering alarm calls of Magpies assault my ears and then the crows join in for good measure. I peer through the airy foliage at the top of the hedge and can see why the sudden commotion. A buzzard is digging for worms in the newly ploughed field and the corvids are not taking too kindly to its presence. The buzzard persists but eventually the alarm calls become dive-bombs and the Buzzard flaps its broad, hazel-nut brown wings and takes flight. The Crows follow, joined by a platoon of yapping Jackdaws until the spiral of chaos slips over the tree-line and out of view.
The wind whips up a notch or two and the sun is already dipping well beyond the canopy that surrounds the sewage works straight ahead. I make my way into the third field where the grass is even less manicured and drier to the touch. This field is almost meadow, unmanaged meadow but meadow all the same with tufts of thistle, knapweed and ragwort still bearing flower throughout. I make my way through the field but avoid the style in the corner and head instead for a central gate further up the hedge-line where I can peer into the next field. Horses chew nonchalantly on the mown grass path through the middle which leads to the canal and locks. If the sun was higher in the sky I would continue on, over the canal and to the river Sence in the next meadow but the fire tinged orange skyline is already morphing plum red and aubergine.
Instead I leave the gate and follow the hedge-line to my left into the furthest corner of the meadow and sit down. Through the fence to the private farmland on the other side a small, juvenile rabbit stops and hunkers down watching me intently but somehow avoiding my gaze. I watch it for a while until a strong gust of wind spooks it and sends it hurtling away into the distance. I turn my attention back to the meadow and sky where starlings are gathering in miniature murmurations and suddenly hear a high pitched, raspy shreeeee shreeeeee. It cajoles a memory somewhere in my mind and I gaze my binoculars skywards to find the culprit. It’s a Greenfinch. Bobbing up and down in flight across the meadow in front of me before coming to rest in an elder.
The memory surfaces. When I was younger one of the most common sights from my mum and dads kitchen window was that of Greenfinches squabbling on the bird feeders hanging from an old cherry tree. In fact, they were there so often that my interest in them waned quite quickly. A young boy with his RSPB Birds of the British Isles guide sitting, waiting and watching patiently for the Kestrels, Crossbills, Crested tits and Firecrests that never came. Dad would ask me what I’d seen and the answer would always be the same, unenthusiastic “Sparrows and a greenfinch”.
Then they disappeared. Gone from the morning chorus and feeding frenzy on the patio. Gone from the perch of a tall, slightly ragged conifer at the bottom of the garden. Gone from the street. The estate. In childhood, when I prayed for Goldfinch I was given Greenfinch. Now, in the mysterious absence of Greenfinch, the Goldfinch have come and they have multiplied and continue multiplying. Swings and roundabouts I suppose.
The Greenfinches didn’t go anywhere though, they didn’t just up and leave for pastures new. Trichomonosis crept through the estate like an assassin in the night. Deadly. Invisible. 2006/2007 saw epidemic levels of infection decimate the Greenfinch population around the British Isles and the bird-table landscape of our gardens was changed noticeably.
From the BTO website:
Trichomonas typically causes disease at the back of the throat and in the gullet. Affected birds show signs of general illness (lethargy, fluffed-up plumage) and may show difficulty in swallowing or laboured breathing. Some individuals may have wet plumage around the bill and drool saliva or regurgitate food that they cannot swallow. In some cases, swelling of the neck may be evident. The disease may progress over several days or even weeks.
The trichomonad parasite is vulnerable to desiccation and cannot survive for long periods outside of the host. Transmission is most likely to be through contaminated food or water, e.g. where a bird with difficulty swallowing regurgitates food that is then eaten by another individual. Trichomonas gallinae is a parasite of birds and does not pose a health risk to humans or their mammalian pets.
BTO researchers, working alongside others involved in the Garden Bird Health initiative, used Garden BirdWatch and other data to establish the impact of this disease on Greenfinch and Chaffinch populations. The results of this work revealed a substantial population decline in those areas where disease incidence was greatest
The disease is not host specific to Greenfinches. Chaffinches, Sparrows, Tits and Dunnocks are all similarly effected although their levels of decline did not reach the catastrophic proportions of the Greenfinch. Smaller scale mortality rates have been recorded in subsequent years but thankfully it’s progression has slowed. Publicity around the disease has widely increased and those keen to feed the birds are now well aware and often reminded to thoroughly clean and disinfect feeders, birdbaths and feeding stations. Moving your feeding area regularly to give the ground beneath a break is also a useful way to keep disease minimal.
Back in the meadow and the Greenfinch still chirps away. That long Shreeee echoes around the hedges and I breathe it in, let it fill my ears until finally, with the last of the sun fading the finch takes flight over the tree-line and out of sight leaving a trail of silence except for the odd Crow call in the far distance.
I stand up, scribble a few lines in my notebook and brush myself down. Walking back the way I came the last of the light has sent the rest of the diurnal animal kingdom back to their burrows and roosts. I’m freezing, that easterly wind biting at my fingertips and my stomach starts to rumble. Even though I didn’t see all that much in my short time out in the edgeland I did see an old friend returned and in seemingly high spirits. In the three summers that have passed since I moved into my current home my feeders are still yet to be visited by a Greenfinch but this year they have returned to the garden of my parents, where I first met them as a boy.
The memory of Greenfinches in my mothers garden didn’t seem all that significant, buried in the noise and unremarkable of the daily grind to the point where I had forgotten the memory existed. I remember it now though, smiling to myself as I cross the rail bridge. Shreeeee. One thing is for certain. When the Greenfinches do return to the feeders in my garden, I won’t take them for granted this time.