Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Funny how your ideas of nature can seem so solid and yet change so quickly.

Scene one.

Last week I was in Madeira, up a dry riverbed and halfway towards the summit of an old volcano. The steep sided rock faces were covered in laurel forests, thick and lush. They seemed primordial, untouched; the habitat of the Trocaz Pigeon said the book. We saw two. Distant flyovers, weaving along the fringe of trees at the edge of the cliff top. Later we tried another valley. Just next to the go kart track, down the valley from the gravel quarry. The bottom and top were orchards mostly, scattered with houses. Lorries thundered past, temporarily turning the world to dust. And when it settled: Trocaz Pigeons, perched not too distantly in the trees. The colour of stone, but shaped more athletically than you might think possible for a pigeon. When they flew up the valley they were darker: Jackdaw-like actually, with large pigeon tails and thick white and black bands.

Further down the valley by the main road, the river has been diverted by concrete to take it under the go kart track. Pallid and Plain Swifts fed in a frenzy on the insects just above the water. It’s cooler here by the bridge. And you need the dark background to work out the shade of black-brown on the swifts. All the while the smell of burning petrol, the whine of two-stroke engines and the screech of tires and the site of swifts careering chaotically.

Scene two.

I got a text just as I was leaving work. A Wryneck at Wormwood Scrubs, the second ever record for the park. It hastened my step.

I had given up on birding the park for the summer and never quite gotten back into the swing now it’s ornithologically autumn. It can be the most dispiriting place. I am still young enough to struggle with a 6:30am start for diminishing returns of Meadow Pipits and Whitethroats, and the staring mutual incomprehension of joggers and model aircraft flyers. But a Wryneck. They’re not supposed to turn up at west London parks with views of brutalist council estates, the Shard, the Heathrow flight path and the London eye… 

I got there for the last hour of light. As the sunset burnt up over distant building; I watched the open grass, searched amongst the brambles. I found teenagers smoking in the bushes, people drinking beer by the benches, artists sketching the umbellifers in the long grass and football practice. Multiple aircraft flyers and joggers tracing rings around the park; British Airways and parakeets shrieking through the sky, and a multitude of friendly dogs. No migrant birds. No Wrynecks taking a quick break between Sweden and Africa in this islet of green grass, or any of the as-advertised Whinchats either.

Nevermind. It’s the promise that nature can surprise us still — can turn up where least expected and in the least promising of places —  that sustains.