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).


  1. "Where there's mess, there's normally food". A great write-up and a brilliant bird...