RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Listen for the soft sound of the redwings

“Listen!” whispered the farmer, pointing out into the pitch darkness of the night.

Everyone was silent, straining to hear whatever faint noise the man had heard.

At last he said: “They have arrived!”

There was a look of excitement on his face as he whispered: “There, and again there. Did you hear?”

He was at supper with my son and his family, in the Alentejo, that quiet forest land of southern Portugal, not far from the Spanish border.

It is wild countryside of cork oaks and cistus bushes, where the woodlark sings its haunting ululation in the quiet moonlit nights of early spring and the hoopoe beats its soft drum of song as the relentless sun climbs white hot into the blue.

My son and his family greatly respect the young farmer whose name is Paulo and who lives next to them. He knows every bird and insect, the names of flowers and reptiles that haunt the land, but only in his native tongue.

He has described to me, in Portuguese, the names of birds he hears, but only by showing him pictures in the European Guide do I have any clue as to what bird it is.

On that dark night in this new year, my son eventually heard what had thrilled Paulo.

It was, he told me over the telephone, the faintest, softest little whistle it was possible to hear, described as ‘seep, seep’.

Nobody but the farmer had noticed the sounds.

They came from every part of the sky: above, to the side, left, right. There were scores.

Once it had been pointed 
out to them, the whole family began to notice.

Something was out there in the night, but only the farmer knew what it was.

The family are fluent in the language, so there was no need of a picture.

The sounds came from migrating thrushes.

Well now, as soon as my son had spelt the sound ‘seep’ I knew what Paulo had heard.

They were redwings. Every birdwatcher in Britain knows that sound in the winter night in England, as the great tide of thrushes sweep in to our country from the east.

We love to see them here and watch them flying in flocks around the meadows of Sussex and even down on the harbour tideline where they hunt for winkles on the mudflats.

Paulo is a birdwatcher, oh yes. But not exactly for those reasons which thrill us in this modern age.

Maybe back in the war years, when food was almost unattainable. I can remember then, gunners going along the hedges in winter, popping off at thrushes such as redwing and fieldfare.

Italian prisoners of war on my father’s farm would snare the birds with a horse-hair noose, for they had known near starvation 70 years ago in 1930s’ Italy and they too, had learnt to live off the land.

The soft delicate meat that song birds could provide was part of that inheritance. Paulo’s ancestors had learned that lesson, too, and that was the song of the sky that ran on in his mind.