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
i100
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
Arts and Entertainment
James Dean on the set of 'Rebel without a Cause', 1955
photographyHe brought documentary photojournalism to Tinseltown, and in doing so, changed the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing