Bird survey on Dartmoor

I’ve just become a volunteer with the British Trust for Ornithology and have been allocated an amazing patch to survey twice a year. By sheer chance, it has led me to walk into the obscure title of a book of amazing Chris Chapman photographs of bygone Dartmoor: Wild Goose and Riddon, the names of the two houses in the valley north of Cator from which he chose the name of his book.

I did try to volunteer this time last year on my own but the stepping stones across the little river weren’t even visible below the rushing depth of water and the boggy terrain was far too difficult after that wet winter. I knew I didn’t know enough about bird song too. BUT this year, two birdy friends came along to help me out and we sussed out the route. I can’t believe I have been given such a beautiful place. What an absolute privilege.

The farmland and bog areas were full of the song of the Willow Warbler, newly arrived from its winter home in Africa.

as well as sky larks, meadow pippits, wrens and chaffinches. My ears are newly opened. The path crossed the river twice so we had to take off our boots and wade through it once. Then the bogs quaked and shivered under our feet. Last year I might well have disappeared beneath with only the top of my head protruding!

It’s quite complicated having to record all the birds on the BTO paperwork using their abbreviations and symbols for directions of flight and whether they are singing or feeding. We met the farmer (who I had spoken to on the phone, brave of me, I tell you,  because I am almost phone-phobic with strangers) and when I asked him if there were snipe, said,’Oh yes, flocks of them’ and our mouths dropped open. But he said curlew and peewits were no more. Even there. My companions commented how lucky I am to have such an enthusiastic farmer on ‘my’ patch!

I am reminded of this paragraph from Richard Jefferies: ‘The bevies of chiffchaffs and willow wrens (old name for the willow warbler by the way) which came to the thickets in the farm, the chorus of thrushes and blackbirds, the chaffinches in the elms, the greenfinches in the hedges…; every bush, every tree, almost every clod, for the larks were so many, seemed to have its songster…’ Today, there was larksong pouring out of the sky and that arc of notes from the willow warbler filled the sunlit air. Robert Mcfarlane in his wonderful book Landmarks describes Jefferies as ‘a philosopher of vision’ in that ‘he wobbles our sense of reliable vision, showing the impossibility of achieving a privileged position of perception.’

Here are some pictures I took. I feel a bit like a willow warbler myself now.


For some reason, WordPress (grr) won’t let me show you the old Dartmoor pony (with a moustache)eating gorse flowers nor the newly born foal just risen onto its soft feet for the first time. Nor the sedge grasses and the buzzard in a pine tree.

I have to go back in about 4–6 weeks to record what else I hear so I look forward to this treat. And I hope to take a trip at dusk to listen for the ‘drumming’ of the flocks of snipe there (though that won’t be recorded for the BTO). And then there will be next year to look forward to…my squiggles and symbols helping to create an archive of this special place.

About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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6 Responses to Bird survey on Dartmoor

  1. rose cook says:

    How wonderful Becky, thank you for writing about it so we can accompany you.

  2. What a wonderful project to be involved with Becky – look forward to your updates. Birdsong is so uplifting – such a joy.

  3. I am besotted with birdsong and I have all summer ahead. What joy!

  4. E.E. Nobbs says:

    It’s a joy to follow along with your adventures, Lovely photos & text … & the cat & I both enjoyed the warbler YouTube clip 😀 xx

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