The Way We Get By: Anna B Savage Is Really Into Birdwatching

The singer-songwriter really wants to see a nuthatch.

In the last three or four years, I’ve started birdwatching and really loving birds and taking notice of them. One of the things I discovered while I was on this new foray was a podcast called Tweet of the Day. I’ve been listening to that a lot again now, because it’s so calming and gorgeous. The way that it’s produced is so nice. The premise of it is, it goes out on BBC Radio 4 at two minutes to six in the morning; each episode is 90 seconds long and basically they just get someone to talk about a bird, and its importance to them. It ends up being tableaus of the most human stories you can imagine, told through the language of seeing or waiting for birds.

I was listening to one the other day, and it really struck a chord with me. It was the actor, Samuel West, talking about how he was a new-ish birdwatcher, and he’d gotten this CD of bird calls that he was listening to his car when he was driving to and from work. He was out one day and heard a bird, and in his head he was like, “That’s a long-tailed tit!” And then he walked around the other side of the bush and it was a long-tailed tit. It was the first time he’d managed to ID a bird based on the call alone; it’s that thing of, suddenly, this whole language that’s been there your entire life opens up to you. You’re suddenly aware of it, and it’s everywhere.

I’ve been earnestly filling up my birdfeeders and positioning them just outside the window from the desk I work at, and writing down all of the little birds I see, trying to ID some. There’s a presenter here called Dermot O’Leary, and I was listening to his episode on a bird called the dunnock, and it turns out I was misidentifying the birds I was seeing at my feeder — I thought they were sparrows, but actually they’re dunnocks! That kind of thing just brings me a lot of joy. I guess it’s kind of the fleeting ephemeral part of it, and the patience. And, birds are so free! So I guess there’s an element of sadness, watching them out my window.

I can ID quite a few birds visually, but bird calls are a new one for me. Tweet of the Day starts with a call of the bird they’re talking about. There’s one bird that I love, and actually wrote a song about because I read about it in a couple of books, called a corncrake. It used to be super prevalent in Scotland and the UK, but now they’re quite rare. I read a book called The Outrun by Amy Liptrot that was about corncrakes — well, it was about her alcoholism, but in one segment she goes to Orkney, where she grew up, and gets a job at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that’s to try to ID and clock how many corncrakes there are. They’re nocturnal, so she drives out every night into the darkness and has to open her window and listen for corncrakes — then she closes her window, drives another 500 meters, opens her window… She hears a couple, but she never sees one. I didn’t know what a corncrake sounded like. When I started listening to this podcast a few years ago, I sought out the birds I knew and liked. So, I listened to the corncrake one and it is a wild noise. It’s really strange.

I’m slowly getting better at IDing birds by sound. It’s also just nice to have a very long term, unraveling goal to have set myself.

There are two birds I’d really like to see. A nuthatch — I’ve never seen one before in real life, but they’re really beautiful. My dad has spotted a couple in my parents’ garden, but I can’t go see my parents because they’re both over 70. He was so excited when he told me about it. The other is a goldcrest, which is the smallest British bird. I really want to see one of those out and about! It’s kind of the bird that prompted my love of birds. I was in my house four or five years ago and I heard this little knock against my window. I looked around and saw that a bird had basically KOed itself into our window and was passed out in a flower pot outside. We had a cat at the time, so I was like, Oh, shit, I’ve gotta go save it. So I ran outside before the cat could get out. I didn’t really know what to do — I kinda picked it up, thought I’d put it in a cardboard box or something. But it was so small! I’d never seen anything like it in my life. So bizarre. It’s maybe the size of a squash ball. I picked it up in my hand and then it woke up and flew straight into my face and flew off. I had no idea what it was — I was like, what is that absolutely miniscule little bird? I went back and did some research, my first successful bird-IDing. Then I realized I was seeing excellent birds just in my garden. A few days later, I saw a goldfinch out there.

It’s really nice having this web of stuff that is ever-present in your life. You start to be able to kind of join the dots.

The coronavirus has hit many people financially, and it’s been especially tough on musicians who rely on touring to support themselves. If you’re able and inclined, check out Anna B Savage’s website and order a T-shirt, some vinyl, or whatever they’ve got on offer. Every little bit helps.

(Photo Credit: left, Ebru Yildiz)

Anna B Savage is a London-based singer-songwriter.

(Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz)