Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Reason to be cheerful. It's rook-building time

A A A

It sometimes seems a pity that there are only four official seasons. Golden October is a world away from sodden November, but they're still lumped together in autumn. And this period at the moment, mid-March, is a sort of in-between time, with winter officially gone and spring officially here, but it doesn't really feel like either. It's a waiting time, when things are coming, but haven't yet arrived.

I got a sense of what you might call it last week when I went to the Norfolk coast in search of small wintering songbirds, the uncommon feathery bundles you can find hopping along that shoreline in the cold months, which breed somewhere else far away. I was hoping there were still some around, in particular twite (finches which breed in the Pennines), shorelarks (which breed in Scandinavia) and snow buntings (a few of which breed in the Scottish Highlands, although most nest high in the Arctic.)

I ended up at Holkham, the sweeping beach backed by pine-clad dunes which Gwyneth Paltrow walks towards in the closing scene of Shakespeare In Love – that unforgettable metamorphosis from the end of one play, Romeo and Juliet, into the beginning of another, Twelfth Night. You may remember that Paltrow's character, Viola de Lesseps, who has just played Juliet, gives to her lover Shakespeare, as a farewell memento, the idea of creating the Viola who is Twelfth Night's spirited heroine, and whom we first meet shipwrecked on a beach, distraught to think that her brother has been drowned.

(And I have to say, in passing, that Viola's first five words are a supreme example of Shakespeare's way with cadence, his ability to impart feeling to the simplest phrase. Viola says, "What country, friends, is this?" Which to me has always ached with sadness. But imagine putting the "friends" somewhere else in the sentence, as the rest of us would probably do. At the beginning, we would have: "Friends, what country is this?" Which is merely commanding; or at the end, we would have: "What country is this, friends?" Which is merely curious. Got to hand it to the old boy, haven't you?)

Being on Viola's beach, so to speak, was a pleasure in itself, and it was buzzing with birds, especially skylarks and parties of finches like linnets, but of twite and shorelark there was no sign, although a splendid snow bunting dropped down right in front of me. By then, however, my thoughts were filled with another bird entirely: the rook.

One of the benefits of getting out of London is the chance to see rooks. Although the capital is filled to the brim with carrion crows, their rook cousins these days avoid the city centre as it is now too far from the ploughed fields in which they forage. But as soon as you get into the Home Counties, rooks start appearing, as they did when I got to the South Mimms service area on the junction of the M25 and the A1: there's a rookery in the trees surrounding the car park. And what are they doing? Right now, they're building their nests.

There's something immensely uplifting about rooks nest-building in their colony, a great group of them cawing continuously: it's almost as if they're on a building site, whistling. The contrast with the solitariness of the carrion crow is striking. I know it's hopelessly unscientific, I know it's anthropomorphising, but I look at a carrion crow, at that sinister lone black figure – especially in the city – and I think: "serial killer". I hear the neighbours being interviewed after the arrest: "Crow? Kept himself to himself, really. Bit of a loner."

Whereas rooks – rooks which do everything together, foraging and feeding, roosting and sleeping, and now carrying twigs back to the rookery – seem full of the high spirits of cooperative enterprise. All the way to north Norfolk, there were bustling rookeries, building sites in the trees – I stopped to look at several – and they were full of birds which seemed to be calling out to each other, "Up a bit! Up! Now left a bit! Left!"

And eventually it dawned on me, this is what the season is: it's the time when rooks build. It might still be on the chilly side, rook-building time, it might be too late for snow and too early for swallows, but it has its merits. Go out and find a rookery right now and I guarantee you'll come away cheerful.

One of our five cuckoos is missing

A slightly worrying update on the five cuckoos coming back from Central Africa to Norfolk, the birds fitted last summer with satellite transmitters by the British Trust for Ornithology, whose 4,000-mile journey to their wintering grounds in the Congo many people have followed with fascination. Nothing has been heard of cuckoo Clement for three weeks: his last signal was picked up from Cameroon in February 22.

In the meantime, the other four birds, Martin, Lyster, Kasper and Chris, have shot past Clement on a north-west axis on their journey back to Britain: Martin is in the Ivory Coast and the other three are currently in Ghana. Although there have been longer periods when some of the transmitters have been silent, the BTO is beginning to be "concerned" for Clement. Fingers crossed.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Twitter:@mjpmcmarthy

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past