As is the way with everything in my life, just when you think you have a pretty good idea of what is going on, the rug is pulled from under you. I was enjoying the annual arrival of migrants to the Chayne, mentally “ticking off” cuckoos, wheatears, spotted flycatchers and whinchats and feeling that I was starting to get quite a good handle on what was where. One little insect milestone is the appearance of crickets, which usually turn up on the farm during late April and early May, and they call thoughout the night all summer with an incessant chirrup.
Wanting to find out more about them, I waited until I could hear one calling and then began to work my way quietly towards the sound in the hope of seeing one. When I was still twenty yards away, the mechanical rattling stopped. “They must be very wary crickets”, I thought to myself. I tried a few more times elsewhere but never managed to get close before the call was extinguished. In the meantime, I looked up all I could find about crickets in Galloway but didn’t come across much in the way of useful material which might help me identify the strange and mysterious insects which added their unique buzz to evenings on the Chayne.
It was only while driving the car around the back of the farm that I heard a cricket calling very nearby and was able to stop the car and have a scan with binoculars. Ten feet away, a small dark blob was latched into the rushes, and I focussed the lenses as quickly as I could. With a quick hop, the blob materialised into a bird. I knew immediately what I was looking at, but marvelled at this delicate, drab little creature as it blasted out that strange dry rattle for second after second without having to breathe. I have often heard people talk about grasshopper warblers, and imagined that they belonged to some obscure and exotic landscape far from home – as it happens, I have been listening to grasshopper warblers throughout my entire life, but always thought that the sound was being made by a cricket. After all, how could such a dry, monotonous sound emerge from the throat of a bird?
The British Library has got a great recording of grasshopper warblers which you can listen to HERE. I bet that lots of people have heard that sound and never given it a second thought…
The grasshopper warbler that I saw sat still enough for me to sketch it with a biro on the back of an envelope, and when I got home I produced this quick colour painting (above) so that it is set down on paper. Perhaps a little smaller than a pipit, the warbler was totally motionless as it called. Occasionally it would jerk its head from left to right, and the feathers of its tail vibrated along with the call, but otherwise it remained perfectly still. Grasshopper warblers will sometimes call throughout the night, and it would be a good accompaniment to the sound of a corncrake – two mechanical bird calls working together. Sadly, it seems that grasshopper warblers are going the way of the corncrake, and the Chayne is very lucky to have them.
Since then, everytime I hear the “crickets” calling at night, I can’t help being surprised. From a vague survey conducted while driving on a circuit of the land on Thursday, I think that there are maybe a dozen calling warblers on the farm, although I want to look into this in more detail. For now, I’m just enjoying this latest surprise.