A great tit has crowned the lime trees outside our house for three months or more, with its steady, seesaw song, rendered mnemonically and memorably as “tea-cher, tea-cher”. Over that period the bird has become – to some ears at least – a bare-branched bore.
In the unfurling of May, its song became more sporadic – but in addition, a new voice had arrived, one that was even more repetitive, yet anything but monotonous. Obsessed and addicted, I hurried down to the riverside meadow, lured to listen for the eighth time within a fortnight.
Among the dead standing stalks of an unmown summer, two sedge warblers rattled on, a pair of scratchy fiddles. They wanted to be both seen and heard, perched in the open, heads thrown back.
But there was this other sound, stealing out around their fevered scrapings. It carried, but appeared neither louder nor softer. A regular, fast clicking, ticking or buzzing. Had I not known what it was, I would have wondered whether it was animal, mechanical or electrical. The trilling certainly emanated from the left, or was it the right? Was it close, or further out towards the river? After eight visits I still hadn’t seen its maker.
The grasshopper warbler cannot be pinned down. It closes its wings after flying all the way from Africa and goes into a summer-long skulk. It manages both a covert courtship and an insect-fuelled lifestyle without being watched. Though its name has common currency throughout Europe (it is the “grasshopper singer” in both Dutch and Swedish), it doesn’t even sound much like a grasshopper. There is nothing to me of the rasping scrape of an insect bow. The song starts without a rise and ends without a fall. Once before, I heard a change in pitch; it was only the bird turning its head.
I could still almost hear the warbler after I returned home, and can still almost hear it now, and want to go back to listen to it for real again. But somehow I’m happy that it’s not within permanent earshot. Otherwise we might call out, as we do in jest to the great tit, “Will you please give it a rest?”
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