Thursday, December 10, 2015

Thoughts on winter Thrushes

I was in Washington D.C. during the Spring, and had an excellent day’s birding there that I have woefully failed to write-up. While there my boss dragged me, none too reluctantly, into an old second-hand bookshop either on, or near, Dupont Circle. I forget the name now. There it was that I picked up a copy of Chuck Bernstein’s The Joy of Birding, published in 1984, which I suppose to be one of the earliest of the new wave of books on birding, now so legion. There had been an earlier wave, now largely forgotten, between the First and Second World Wars, exemplified by Edward Grey’s The Charm of Birds and another book, mentioned below.

Two things struck me about Bernstein’s book, when I read it over the summer. The first is that he uses the terms “Birding” and “Birdwatching” pretty much interchangeably, giving the lie to the idea that the words denote distinct passtimes; the first being American and active, the second British and passive. In fact Bernstein’s isn’t the first book to highlight this false dichotomy for me. That was Willliam Henry Hudson’s The Book of a Naturalist, published shortly after the First World War, in which he refers to the pastime of “birding”. The is the earliest use of the word that I know of, and though Hudson was born and brought up in Argentina, he made his professional life, through writing for the most part, in Britain and it’s striking that the early usage comes from this side of the pond. So much for the great Transatlantic ornithological divide.

The second thing that struck me about Bernstein’s book was his passionate description of migration not as an event, but as a never-ending process. It’s obvious, of course, when you think about it. Birds are never static – they come and go over greater and lesser distances year round, and yet it is difficult not to get geared-up for the Spring migration, or the autumn one to a lesser extent, as if for a sporting tournament, somehow qualitatively different from other similar events; the build-up, the statistics, the attention to the weather forecast. And it is the Spring and (early) autumn movements that prompt this feeling, not the later autumn movements that bring in our “winter visitors”.

I was prompted to this thought by a visit to England at the beginning of November for my son’s half term. The weather was dreadful, so there was no possibility of real birding and I was limited to what could be seen through fog and rain from my parents’ sitting room, which looks onto farmland.

In the Cotswolds, looking out onto rain and fog

Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) had arrived, as had their warier, smaller and more beautiful counterparts, Redwings (Turdus iliacus). There were larger numbers of Pied Wagtails (Motacilla alba yarrellii) than normal and I also saw a strikingly large roost of these birds on the Said Business Centre near the train station in Oxford. I’ve never seen such a large roost of this species before in England.

These were all nice birds, in good number. I don’t see Fieldfares, still less Redwings, well or often given where I live (in the centre of a city) or where I travel. And they’re really beautiful birds, too; considerably more so than our breeding Thrushes. But they just weren’t as exciting to me as a single singing Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin) or a hunting Hobby (Falco subbuteo) would have been earlier in the year. Why?

In the end I suppose it is a matter of seasons. Spring really is the season of hope, and we greet the birds we see at these times of year like friends at a Wedding or Christening – events marking the beginnings o things. It’s a back-slapping, belly-laughing greeting. Our winter migrants, though, mark the definitive arrival of the season of short days and hunched shoulders, and no matter how happy we are to see them again, it’s harder to articulate that happiness in that context. They’re the friends we see at a funeral; a spontaneous, but fleeting, smile and a somber handshake, firm and with feeling.

Funnily enough, though, I think there is an exception to this rule, and that is for wildfowl; the huge flocks of geese and ducks that will now be in the process of arriving along the Dutch and Belgian coasts impress, somehow, through sheer numbers, seeming to defy the weather that they’re fleeing further North even in the act of escaping it.

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