Sandy, Bedfordshire: I can imagine myself a legionnaire marching towards Baldock, but the birds have been fighting for survival

Country diary: greenfinches' insistent calls break a Roman reverie | Environment
‘One greenfinch bounced over the road, singing as it flew, flashing its short-forked tail.’ Photograph: Alamy

At school we learned about oxbow lakes, the water bodies left when rivers changed their course. Britain has its oxbow roads too, the broken strings of highways bypassed by history, some so reduced that they are mere paths alongside a hedgerow. Here the ancient forerunner of the Great North Road runs in rural parallel with the A1 half a mile west before coming to an abrupt end at a pony paddock.

A Roman garrison was sited at the town end of Stratford Road – the forded street – and archaeologists and diggers have unearthed finds that span the breadth of recorded history along its length: iron-age pottery, Roman walls, coins and skeletons, the footings of a Saxon building.

In walks down the lane, I imagine myself back into these various time periods – I’m often a legionnaire marching south towards Baldock. Goats, geese and horses along the way stare back unimpressed.

On this spring morning, however, sounds from a more recent past broke my reverie. Finches are attention-seekers, and none are more demanding with their “look at me” song than greenfinches. It seemed as if every hedgerow tree was issuing a proclamation, filling the air with drowsy buzzing song and insistent “chop-chop-chop” calls. One greenfinch bounced over the road, singing as it flew, flashing its short-forked tail. It dropped into the topmost branches of a silver birch and I raised my binoculars.

On my way home, a curious dog walker would ask me what I’d “spotted”. I would tell him I’d been watching birds that had been almost loved to death.

Just 15 years ago, greenfinches were a daily given, top 10 certainties in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. But finches congregating at uncleaned bird feeders caught and shared trichomonosis, a highly infectious disease that jumped species from the dove family. Within a couple of years, the garden regular had become a countryside rarity.

Now the birds were back, filling the lane with song. My binoculars found the treetop finch, privet green, the eye facing me blackened as if it had been in a fight. Its beak was open. I no longer heard the clanking of armour or the clatter of chariot wheels but the shout of a greenfinch: “chop-chop-chop”.