Monday, 31 December 2012

Broadly Lacking

Few birds promise so much yet deliver as little as the Rough-legged Buzzard. I first encountered one four, nearly five, years ago now. It was love at first sight. That first sight; side-lit in the golden winter afternoons of the north Norfolk marshes, thrilled me. All it had to do was sit on a fence post, in a field, as I watched, rapt. I like arctic birds, I like raptors; but arctic raptors are something really special indeed.

That year was a fabulous year of carefree birding for me: a year of burgeoning confidence in my own abilities and widening horizons. I fell in love with Scotland that year. Nostalgia foreshortens the gaps between the successful trips and the lifers. And there were lots of those. But amongst them all, the Rough-legged Buzzard by Burnham Norton marsh remains a cherished birding memory.
(That first rough-leg)

It spoiled me, I think. Now I wonder if crossing the North Sea is so exhausting, they have to spend winter sitting down to recuperate.


It’s a clear day. The rain has gone, for a day at least, though its replacement is a bitter wind. On the western horizon lies Cantley Beet factory, and the steam from its cooling towers exits at a right angle. It’s five miles away and between us a dull green expanse of nothing-much marsh. Mud, grass, rivers and gates sprinkled apparently at random. Fritton, Chedgrave, Cantley, Furlton, Norton, Thorpe and Reedham Marshes all spread out in front of me. Dad and I, standing on the edge of the higher ground of Waveney Forest were the first thing the wind hit for those five miles; and it gleefully ripped through coats and gloves and shook the scope just to make things difficult, as well as cold.

These marshes are a desolate place. It doesn’t help that the fingerprints of man are all over it. In the gates, the raised river banks, the windmills that mark off the different marshes, the train track that splits into two and runs either side, the pylons, the bridge and the A143 in the distance… The landscape is cold. Unremitting. Man’s additions are functional, utilitarian. The only scenic additions are the windmills, the ghosts of agriculture past.

Another birder found it first. Taking the directions, we find the rough-leg. Or we think we do. Nobody was really sure: sat at nearly a mile, identification is by percentage; probability of what it looks most like. What we conclude, when we’re certain it’s not a goose, is that it’s a large greyish brown raptor, pale headed and pale tailed. The rest exists in uncertainty. It probably was the Rough-legged Buzzard was my conclusion, but it was hard to conclude anything. By behaviour as much as anything else. Ever since the Burnham Norton bird, the rest I’ve seen have all been sat on the opposite ends of whichever rain-sodden marsh I find myself at. I don’t think they fly at all, which, oddly, must be about their only similarity to Coots. But for a high-arctic, charismatic, scarce, and exciting species, they seem determined to be a damp squib, everytime.


After, we headed to Buckenham Marshes. Home of England’s only regular wintering flock of Taiga Bean Geese. Except not today. Today it was almost completely bereft of birds except for Wigeon, Kestrel and this Pied Wagtail.

The Kestrels were frantically hovering as if it were the only way to keep warm. We hid in a hide, overlooking a mammoth, thousand-strong flock of Wigeon...

...Wondering what happened to all the birds? Is this the worst winter in a decade for wintering bird numbers?

Thursday, 27 December 2012


After the redpoll? Christmas. Turkey, books and socks I’ll probably never wear again; enough alcohol to circumvent family gatherings and parents still busy with work. The final week between Christmas and the new year is always fallow. Lethargic, like this sentence. Short of a proper cold snap, are we witnessing the globally-warmed ghost of Christmas future? It was so warm that a pre-Christmas pint with friends was held outside, at 10pm, in December without coats. More practically, the mildness means the sky has been leaking rain since…forever? Or so it feels. Without the usual cold snap the countryside has laid to rot, devoid of anything that isn’t a Waxwing. And there’s none near the village here.
After the redpoll? Minsmere. After that redpoll most things don’t seem so good. That afternoon was spent wandering around various hides overlooking a remarkably birdless scrape. Passing Bittern hide we stopped and looked at it: ‘you never actually see Bitterns from it’ I remark to dad. He agreed. The same applies to Kingfisher hides. As soon as you name a hide after an animal, you’re guaranteed to never see that species from it. Mother Nature is the greatest ironist though: at that moment a Bittern flew from left to right, extremely close in front of the hide. Had we gone in the hide, we would’ve been walking up the stairs, oblivious to the bird.

We were headed to Island Mere, for the long dusk of winter days. Facing southeast, with the skeletons of poplar trees in the distance, the horizon turns a festive golden as the light slowly slips away. Bewick’s and Whooper Swans makes brief, unsatisfactory appearances, as does a Kingfisher, periodically flying from one reedy inlet in front of the hide to another. By the reedy edge of the hide, Water Rails comically, awkwardly, sprint from cover to cover. Living deep in cover does that: they’ve not learned the Minsmere way of parading to a paying public. As the shadows extend over the margins one becomes a bit bolder though, and hesitantly, slowly picks its way around a muddy puddle. They are impossibly awkward looking birds, with their long, gently decurved bill, long legs, and surprisingly slender, striped, body.
The hide fills up as dusk wins over day. Word has got around about this place, and more precisely this:
One of the more reliable places to go face-to-snout with an Otter, though never one you can ever confidently predict. It just appeared, in a channel in front of the hide, posed for just long enough to grab a photo before hunting for fish. For several minutes it was on view, often just the head or tail before the light disappeared completely.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Home is where the Hornemann's is.

I don’t travel well. Four hours into a seven-hour train journey is when the rot sets in. First the legs, then the head: I can’t be made to sit down for so long. It’s not right. And then I look at the Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll: a finch the size of a fist with wings as long as my fingers. It’s flown from Greenland and ended up in this scratchy patch of Sea Poppy in front of me on the Suffolk coast. I complain crossing Britain: this bird has done that and an ocean too.

It wasn’t that simple. It had been present in Suffolk for a week; about four days longer than I had been. It had gone missing for one afternoon in that time, and typically, just before we arrived.

For Jens Wilken Hornemann it was somewhat simpler: from his desk in nineteenth-century Copenhagen he ended up with an eponymous bird, in a field he didn’t study, that he never saw alive. Simpler, because he never left his desk: it was Carl Peter HolbØll who went to colonial era Greenland to collect the type specimen. Safer, because it was HolbØll who drowned in the mid-Atlantic when his ship sunk. Carl Peter HolbØll is the much more interesting individual. From his desk as Professor of Botany, Hornemann enshrined HolbØll in Boechera holboellii, a species of rockcress. Out of a wonderfully nineteenth-century politeness, HolbØll returned the favour with the redpoll, two years after Hornemann’s death. At least HolbØll was a botanist: Hornemann, by all accounts, was no ornithologist[1].

But questions of curious nomenclature aside, Hornemann or HolbØll never had to put with a Suffolk beach and a manic twitch in a brutal easterly wind. Manic, because there had been only one previous record of his redpoll in mainland Britain, and December is the twitching off-season. We arrived to find a crowd of people all looking in different directions. Most of them appeared to be just there for a social, as if standing on a shingle beach chatting is the most perfectly natural thing to do in this winter wind. Never mind the redpoll. Apparently it would reappear shortly. So we waited. Then we walked. To the north lies Aldeburgh, full of the neglected bijou gardens of second-home owners. More immediately in that direction is a boatyard – where the bird was last seen flying towards. Directly west is a marsh of rank vegetation. Up and down the shingle beach is tangled with the skeletal remains of sea poppy shaking in the wind. Balls of gulls bounce down the shoreline. The odd dog-walker gives us bemused glances. The redpoll could’ve been anywhere. Tundra birds stick to the ground: they live a life north of any trees. We figured we could discount looking amongst the taller vegetation. So we walked towards the boatyard. The rest of the twitchers just stood and chatted.

Creeping between boats, masts whistling in the wind, seems very far away from where you would expect birds. Surrounded by ‘nature’ why would a bird from the tundra end up in here? Looking with human eyes it seems mystifying. But from the bird’s perspective it’s shelter, and where there’s mess there’s normally food. And where there’s food, there’s not always birds: in this case, just boats, and one other confused looking twitcher. I turn to dad. He turns to me. Between us is the length of three boats, and a fat white finch flying between us.

It dropped out of sight behind the biggest building in the boatyard. We rushed around but found only twitchers casually talking. Dad suggests heading to the beach: we clamber up to the shingle from the track and find the other twitchers all converging on one bit of the beach.

At first it’s hard to see: staring into the light, a white bird in a pale tangle, with elbows, shoulders, bald-patches in the way. Then it shuffled onto the end of a dead stem, gently bending under the weight of the bird. Backlit like this, the first thing that strikes you is the size: this is not your typically dainty redpoll, but bulky throughout the body, bull-necked and big-billed; but with a lanky tail and oversized wings. A body the colour of arctic snow with two bold black scratches down the side and a pale buff face. And did I mention the ludicrous wings? The wind ruffled under its back feathers revealing dense fluffiness, and layers of feathers to repel the arctic chill or Suffolk-coast easterly. Time fades away when watching birds: I watch it until my knees complain of the shingle, I shift until I feel life returning to my legs and I carry on watching.
 (Note how the bill appears different with pose)

Every twitch comes wrapped up in its own justification. I’m a lover of deep nature, of slow nature. The minutiae of seasonal changes in a land you’ve spent years in; the behaviour of birds you see on a daily basis. It’s why nobody’s ever written a good book about attempting to see so many different birds in a year: you can’t manufacture suspense or meaning in something so utterly arbitrary. There’s no suspense in a twitch, just boredom and frustration; the pay-off from a successful sighting is undermined by the expectation. The justification? I also love birds. It’s as superficial as that. Particularly anything with high-arctic chic: the fluffy white wind-blocking feathers and the general air of being tougher than anything the capricious climate can throw at you. I also like anomalies. There’s an absurdity that this bundle of wings and stripes took a wrong turning somewhere over Canada and ended up the wrong side of the Atlantic to pitch down on this particular beach. It’s nice to dream that coastal Suffolk can have a touch of the tundra about it. I’m also, sadly, never likely to end up in arctic Greenland or Canada: I’m a Hornemann, not a HolbØll.

[1] For more detail, see Biographies for Birdwatchers, by Barbara and Richard Mearns (London: Academic Press, 1988).

Friday, 7 December 2012

Visible Dreariness


Are you ok? 

I feel like I’ve been neglecting you. I haven’t been up to much. Just a whistle stop tour from Paradise Lost to Omeros and 5000 words that will never see the light of day again. A week’s worth of angst printed, doubled-sided, to end up in a pile in a box in a cupboard with the rest of my undergraduate work. With it, no more Waxwings and nothing much of interest for you. For me, I walked the road from Cambuskenneth at night with the threat of snow. The sky above Edinburgh burns at night. You can see the orange stain from here; Grangemouth is just a smudge; the Hillfoots are a necklace of streetlights; cars race down here and the path is treacherous underfoot. There can be an even more treacherous beauty in pollution. Nothing quite compares to a clear night: the moon out lamping stars. Play connect the dots. Orion’s belt. The Plough. Polaris. Head back until your neck hurts. Dizzy. Not because of the endless mystery of the night sky, just it’s cold and my inept circulation. Geese heading to roost on the Forth after dark, cackle in the night. The moon is never quite bright enough to lamp them.
It did eventually snow. I woke up and saw the geese going the wrong way: as if they’d come up the Forth, found the carse in ermine and thought better of it. The loch mostly iced up; variations on grey and white, whilst a peachy drake Goosander bobs blissfully amidst the Mallards it tries to mate with in spring. A floating duck has a kind of zen, the zen that comes with not having to write essays and a timetable of eat, sleep, hybridise. I saw six from the bus the other day, floating in the Forth.

This is the life of the almost finished student. The apathy of a job mostly done, so let’s not try to think about it anymore. More books to read, a meeting to attend. Birds are still there at the fringes of life, they never leave. Wordsworth could wring a transcendence out of this. His visionary dreariness. It’s a phrase I love but that turkey’s neck has been well wrung by now. I’m counting days until I head home again, when the nature/life balance becomes more correctly skewed towards nature.

And in lieu of having an actual bird photo to put here, this is a sign at the university library, my new home.