Barnacle Geese: High Arctic Birds on the Solway Firth

Its body was gone, knawed and drenched clean to bone, the spine looping the rib cage like a tail. The wings, though, the neck and the head were as though untouched by anything. Turned on its front, so that the remaining feathers of its back hid the shock of plundered corpse, you might think it had died only hours ago. Even in this state, it was beautiful. A barnacle goose’s plumage is the perfection of monochrome, every shade between purest white and purest black in there somewhere—the extremes of the spectrum boldly contrasted in piebald parts, and intricate gradations of the subtlest silvers and greys stippled and striped and suffused.

This bird is a victim of this winter’s bird flu outbreak. Here on the border of England and Scotland, the wintering site for all of Svalbard’s breeding population of barnacle geese, nearly half of the 40,000+ birds that call these grassy marshes on both sides of the Solway Firth home have perished.

I’m with Brian Hodgson today, who has worked on the Rockcliffe marshes for forty years and known them intimately since he was a child. There can be few people who know these geese better, and in all that time he’s never seen anything like this. ‘There are fewer dead birds about now, but back in November, you just walked among them, thousands of them. It only takes 24 hours from catching the virus. The sick birds just sit, and then die. These geese are everything that is adventurous about a wild place, and to see them like that is just so sad’.

At Brian’s instructions, I look up from the dead bird at our feet to see its colours and patterns mirrored at large far out on the marsh. ‘Geese as far as you can see from one side to the other.’ That’s no exaggeration, even with the losses this year. I scan round slowly with my binoculars; as far as I can twist myself from left to ride, the skein of barnacle geese like a seam of dawn light lifts and falls with the tides. They are not like murmurations of knot, which turn so that the whole wader body shifts colour as one. Rather, the effect of these geese on mass is caused by every individual registering itself distinct in the many. Each bird glints like mica in granite, or quartz in dark igneous rock.

I pick up a wing feather from the goose below me that has worked free. It is at once thrilling and disheartening to hold. It is dull and inert, detached from its purpose as from the bird, useless and earthbound as me. But to have it in hand is also to connect yourself with some residual flight magic, the miracle it should have performed only days from now all the way to the top of the world.

‘Any time soon, they’ll be off,’ Brian says. ‘One evening, the birds will lift as one, spiral higher and higher. It’s quite something to see and hear. They’ll do that evening after evening, and then one night, that’s it. They’re gone.’

The unquestionable defiance of a chiffchaff’s spring song

The True Sounds of Night, Part 2 will be here soon, but I wanted to take seasonal advantage of today’s post before the moment is lost.

I heard my first chiffchaff of the year today. Small as this occurrence might seem, small my nod of recognition, small as the bird is itself, it is a triumph of the still-early year. The chiffchaff is one of our very earliest spring arrivals, arriving from the Saharan south in mid-March when the land here is still winter-dim, so there is a glorious sense in which its bright notes carry a little of the warmth and light yet to come. Its plumage conveys something of this spring promise: a dusky, suffuse dun, but with the subtlest, emerging hint of mossy green—a small brightening.

The chiffchaff’s song is only two notes. Actually, it’s often three, sung like a small child determinedly chanting its first numbers, but it’s two that have been remembered in its mimetic name: chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff … To be sure, it is monotonous. It has nothing of the blackcap’s variety and sweetness, nor the wood warbler’s silvery, tremulous splendour. But it is the most spring-like of all to me; unquestionably defiant, definite, delivered with such unfaltering and vital energy. The chiffchaff hammers those metallic notes on the anvil of its own syrinx. Translated into poetry, they are spondees, each one equally emphatic with no room for lesser syllables. CHIFF CHAFF CHIFF CHAFF CHIFF CHAFF

The name feels old, but is recorded no earlier than Gilbert White’s famous references to the bird. Very early English people must surely have had a name for this spring chimer, but if they did it fell out of use, or lives on secretly in some county dialect word for this little leaf sprite (perhaps even chiffchaff itself, the local Hampshire name that White obviously inherited?)

Strangely, the bird doesn’t have the same popularised status as other, more celebrated summer migrants. It ought to, though, and ought to be better known—this bird that arrives well before most others, declaring its gladdening presence right across the land with such hopeful insistence and never letting up.

The true sounds of night

It’s been far too long since I posted. Nearly two years of juggling writing a book (which is still very much in the early stages!) and bringing up two young children has meant I’ve got very lazy about finding time to post blog entries as well. It is a resolution this year to try and get back to form. So, here’s my first effort of 2022.

At the beginning of this year my family and I moved house, after over a decade living in Cranbrook. Various circumstances forced the move and the speed with which it all happened, and my wife and I found (still find) ourselves caught between novel excitement for a new-build house in Headcorn (also Kent) and the wrench away from a sixteenth-century, old-beamed cottage in Cranbrook that we had come to love very much. We have both felt the detachment from all that history. We had never imagined ourselves living in a new-build, for the very reason that we both feel deeply attached to places that are steeped in the past.

There was, however, a moment of serendipity when we turned up to view the Headcorn house (and subsequently put down a reservation fee that very morning). The new estate was just off Ulcombe Road. Ulcombe is a village just north of Headcorn that I had come to know very well through many trips for the book I am currently writing. It means ‘the owl’s valley’. Moving from Cranbrook, ‘the cranes’ brook’, to another bird place, just when I’m writing a book about birds and place, was an omen I couldn’t ignore!

What follows is the first in a short sequence of posts on my explorations in and around the village of Ulcombe, searching for tawny owls and pondering the night. The sequence is adapted from an owl chapter in my book.

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In November, when the trees were nearly bare, I drove in the pre-dawn hours through tree-tunnel lanes, seeking the sound of owls and owls’ true landscape. Darkness. At no particular point, I pulled up right in the road, turned the ignition off and got out. I leant on the bonnet while the car blinked and cooled to silence. In these narrow Kentish lanes with high banks and tree-roofs, far from big towns and hidden from scattered rural habitations, the dark feels absolute. Scudding cloud doubled the dark—no moonlight, no stars.

It’s a point easily overlooked, but our experiences of night are not the same as our ancestors’. The changes to our night sky, in fact, are so recent and rapid that it’s no exaggeration to say that up to the nineteenth century—the twentieth century even—it was a simple condition of people’s lives that night was dark; that it was distinctly divided from the day; that this cycle, by and large, determined rhythms; and that darkness could only be dissipated by the moon or the shadowy flicker of firelight. The differences with modern experiences are probably more apparent now in the twenty-first century (which has never known a time without intensive, global industrialisation) than has ever been the case in human history. In our own times, light pollution violates the solar pattern so aggressively that only the most rural or unpeopled parts of our country are spared the star-blinding sky glow. Urban lights right across the West can be seen from space (if you take a Google look at the planet it’s not so much night’s space-blackness you see across half the globe but the astonishing light show illuminating that blackness).

It’s a startling realisation. When we speak of ‘dark’ now, it is infected by these dazzling intrusions. The word itself, though, is rooted in a purer, different understanding that traces back through Middle English derk to Old English deorc and back further to a proto *derkaz past. Medieval folk, speaking pre-modern English, had various other words for ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’ too, such as þeostre (THAY-os-tre). As a term in our once richer nocturnal lexis, þeostre could not have encompassed the industrial twilight that now passes for night in our metropolises and conurbations.

Þeostreness–real dark–intensifies nocturnal sounds. Devoid of the distractions and diminishments of anthropogenic light noise, it sharpens sounds’ presence and clarity, and, too, our senses to hear, feel, them. That morning, hoping for an owl in dark about as dark as I could find in south-east England, I got to thinking about how that sort of darkness must have genuinely affected they way that people living in past ages heard and understood owls. Owls must have seemed, were, intensely, the ‘first true sound of night’, as J. A. Baker, author of The Peregrine, memorably puts it. For him, an owl’s ‘dark release of song’ made ‘dusk bristle[ ] … like the fur of a cat’. I love that. Conveyed through blurred senses in Baker’s description, an owl’s sound is an animate shaping force.

I drove on, deeper into the lanes and the owls’ realm. There was still time yet, still time for the last true sounds of night.

A roving winter flock: the smallness of winter being

The frost today was so full and white and stiff with sharp glistenings it was like snow had fallen. The cold mist, which hung with us all day, made the air so thickly and densely grey—every fine degree of grey—it was as though I might weigh it, turn it in the hand.

Hoar frost in the Wealden landscape south of Cranbrook, 10th January.

I took the lanes south of the town into the frozen woods and meadows, then into the gills, following one brook into the ancient shaws that have survived down the centuries in the High Weald. In spring this place bursts with oak-green light, shimmers with bluebells, luminous with wood anemones and heady wild garlic. All that colour and life was yet to come.

A gill valley south of Cranbrook under frosted winter mist.

The ‘gills’ define the Kentish Weald—a network of streams cutting through steep, wooded valleys. They made this landscape so difficult to farm thousands of years ago that many of the shaws, fortunately, have never been unwooded. Down in the gill the world is double enclosed beneath beneath hoary trees and beneath mist. I was glad to be alone in the old land and all that silent stillness.

Suddenly, above me, a winter tit flock—then all around, and that little spot was immediately alive with small-bird movement. A great tit oiled its rusty hinge. Blue tits snickered and tee-heed. Long-tailed tits were restless, feeding, feeding, branch to branch, tree to tree, attending to nothing but the roving imperative of simple survival.

Everything about these birds is smallness—the upside-down deftness; butterfly buoyancy; finicky feeding in slender tips of tree tops; song all peep and scold and titter; mouse-scurry of mouse-birds. The long-tailed tits are smallest; dainty, downy and whiskered. They seem light as one of their own tiny feathers, and their aerial song is so delicate it is as though the birds’ tiny frames are transfigured into their own tiny fairy notes. The Old English word for the family (from which we derive ‘titmouse’, though the two words are unrelated) is mase: ‘little or tiny thing’. ‘Tit’, incidentally, means the same thing, so titmice are ‘small-small things’.

Winter smallness defined that moment for me. Not just the birds, but the secrecy down there under winter-thin trees in the valley nook. My sense of place was the slow, clear run of a brook and little birds in search of little food for little whirring bodies.

Frost on hogweed.

The isolation of deserted villages and red kites

On a weekend in March before these lockdown days, I went walking high on the Sussex hills in search of loneliness. I would have no chance again for months.

The South Downs escarpment above Fulking running east to the Devil’s Dyke has the grandeur of mountains. The chalk buckles into steep glacial vales. When the wind blows (always it seems) it cuts cold and sharp straight over the north edge. There is no protection.

I’d come for solitude twice over. Right up here in the keening wind,  just a little south of the ridge, off the track and along a scattered line of gorse, there are remains of a deserted medieval hamlet. The folding land creates a shallow coombe but it’s hard to imagine why anyone might choose to make a living in such a location, so far above other settlements snug in the down’s foot-slopes. Perching (Perchinges in Domesday) was once a small but thriving community though, with a well and a mill, toughing it out in downland traditions.

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Site and remains of Perching medieval village, looking north. (Image: Geograph, Simon Carey)

Perhaps this hardship finally made life up here impossible. Or perhaps, like many of England’s 3000 or so ‘lost’ villages, it was left suddenly to the wind when the Great Plague devastated the population in the fourteenth century. The pandemic of an age; a pancosmic pestilence from God for our great ills. For what might God scourge us now?

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Perching in Domesday Book (1086). The spelling here implies Old English -ingas suffix, meaning ‘descendants or people of’ a particular person. (Image: Open Domesday.)

Back on the escarpment I turned at the right moment to see a lone red kite alongside me soar over the precipice. They are the most exhilarating creatures of freedom, managing economy with such supreme ease, forked tails figuring the air like compass points. I thought of how often and for how long we’ve envied birds this. In the indoor weeks to follow, I thought of kites, knowing intensely the ‘clay that clutches my each step to the ankle’ while the kite ‘Effortlessly at height hangs … steady as a hallucination in the streaming air’ (Ted Hughes, ‘The Hawk in the Rain’).

A mercurial flock of knot

It flashed across the marsh, once and momentary—a lighthouse beacon, the sudden flare of sunlight on angled glass, like accidental morse code. We waited in silence, sure we’d seen something, though doubtful enough to put it down to ghostly illusion. A trick of the light.

There! Again. A brilliant whiteness materialised instantly from itself. It swelled and diminished all at once, pulsed itself along the horizon, a good two miles from where we stood on the sea wall with the North Sea to our backs. This was no ghost, but miracle nonetheless: a mercurial flock of knot, one thousand strong, joined by dunlin and grey plover, spiralling, dilating, compressing, flexing, pouring down and through the estuary.

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Knot massing on the shingle. Image: Tom Mason/Daily Mail.

Knots are not the only birds that fly in this mesmerising, synchronised fashion. Starlings are best known for this phenomenon known as a murmuration. That species can gather in millions, filling the sky with borealis transformations. But, for my money, knot are the most spectacular. You don’t get starling numbers, but they add to those virtuoso shifts in shape and size a constant change in colour. The flock appears suddenly, as though from an icy fracture in the winter sky, so intensely white it blazes even against bright, clear morning, but then all those bodies and wings turn as one and they are suddenly silver, then as suddenly again, black, and back through to white, until there is an exact angle when a precise shade in the wintry spectrum somehow dissolves the flock entirely, and you lose them.

Observing knot like this is an exercise in metaphor. Your mind races for comparison, a way to conceptualise what you see: smoke, blizzard, writhing eel, multiplying cells, double helix, bait ball—the centre generating outwards while consuming itself inwards with predator rapacity. To witness this spectacle of disintegrating wholeness is to perceive the world newly and to know it more marvellous.

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The Essex marshes at dawn, two hours before the knot spectacle occurred.

A robin in the hand: the astonishment of small moments

This morning, five days after the solstice, the year tipping into the next and turning to light and length, we went out. Two days of indoors indulgence made us keen for outdoor winter solemnity–for the plash of drenched paths and water-logged fields; for the sting of rain and the bite of wind to invigorate indolent, fireside senses. In the event, the rain ceased. We went out to still winter blue and clear air.

Woods Mill is a small Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve near Steyning. This morning its woodlands and meadows were sodden and deep with dark, drenched earth. Its waterways were true winter burns, saturated and flowing fast. We embraced the wet and the mud, and my daughter sought the best puddles in new wellies, a bright red waterproof suit, and a novelty pair of binoculars.

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My daughter is old enough now–just shy of two years–to take attentive, independent interest in the natural world. We have always encouraged a connection whenever and wherever we can, but now there is added joy in her personal discovery. She knows an impressive number of species’ names, and currently delights in showing us each morning the ‘incy wincy’ spider who inhabits a cobwebbed corner, or the hibernating ladybird who suddenly appeared on our living room lampshade.

In one dell we paused to fuel her energy and enthusiasm with squares of chocolate. Crumbs of hazelnuts fell on the boardwalk as I snapped the slab into pieces. Immediately a robin came beneath our feet, deftly and briskly picking at every tiny morsel, nimbly withdrawing to a fence post just feet away. We crumbled more to entice it back and instantly it came, closer, closer. I held out my hand. Cautiously, then boldly, it flew to my palm, snatched what it could, went back to its post. We repeated the routine, and again and again it came and came.

Islay knows the ‘robin bird’. We often listen to one singing at the top of a bare sycamore at the end of our tiny garden. But this was an astonishing new moment for her–sudden, unexpected–that brought a wild creature right into her little, growing sphere.

In the end, the encounter may have meant more to me than to Islay, but I knew it meant so much because of her. She will not remember, but perhaps it has changed her world nonetheless–a small but remarkable moment shaping her perceptions. I felt fully and newly this morning the thrill of a parent who knows how vital are such moments spent with and in the natural world.

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We left the robin feeding, joined by another. With its back to me, the soft browns of its plumage were near indistinguishable from the dull wood and bramble and sedge of its surroundings. When it flicked round to face me, its breast blazed–sudden, unexpected–in the sullen landscape, the colour of low winter sun or the smouldering embers that accompany our dark nights indoors.

The turtle dove’s aeolian song

One was calling immediately we arrived. The song came on the wind, lost when the breeze got up to a susurration in the grasses and trees, but then clear and gently there. It came and went for just long enough to confirm what we thought we’d heard, something of an aeolian making.

There are some birds my wife and I seek out every year, now with our young daughter too. They are the markers of seasons, and intimate elements of those places we have come to know so well in our home county of Kent. In winter we hope for fieldfares, Arctic swans, and short-eared owls. In spring, nightingales arrive in late April to the ancient Wealden forests nearby, swifts arrive suddenly and nest in the eaves of the old houses in our street, cuckoos and nightjars sing and breed in scrubland just down the road.

Of all these birds, though, it might be the turtle dove we yearn for most. Regrettably, we seek turtle doves each year because we fear each year might be the last. Nearly all the birds that come to our shores for one season or another are in trouble, but the turtle dove is in such serious jeopardy that there is a very real chance this species will be extinct in the UK before my daughter has a chance to see, hear, know this bird for herself.

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Turtle dove, north Kent marshes, 30/05/18

Turtle doves have declined by 91% since 1995. That’s well within my lifetime. I’m not old enough to recall a time when this species was ever plentiful, but I know they are harder and harder to find in general. Where we live in Kent there is lots of ideal habitat for them, with expansive, untidy hedgerows and shaw boundaries between fields. And yet the birds just aren’t here. It feels deserted. Turtle doves, more than any other bird, make me think of a lost legacy I have never experienced, and never will: the overwhelming abundance of life and song and colour that once was.

For now, at least, we know one or two untidy spots in the north of our county where we can still hear turtle doves. Momentarily we can forget the sombre narrative of loss and enjoy the hazy summer evocation of their song. All our pigeon species convey something of this: it’s in the ease and rhythm of a wood pigeon’s throaty cooing, or even the collared dove’s early-morning tiresome intonation. But it’s the turtle dove’s purring, like a chorister’s tongue-rolled ‘rrrrr’ or contented feline slumber, that most conjurs high-summer, drowsy days. Everything about turtle doves seems understated. Their song is soft and delicate, and their uncertain futures as fragile, as their suffuse, exquisite plumage.

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Estuary ahead and scrub behind us, where we found our second turtle dove.

That day we found the birds was scorching August-heat at the end of May. We moved further along the coast for lunch, and settled for an hour or two between estuary creeks and dense hawthorn scrub. A lone nightingale gave a late-season burst, and then, just audible on the wind, another turtle dove’s pink purring song.

Birds in English Place-Names

I’m currently writing a book on birds, nature and place in our medieval past. It’s a nature book as a much as a work about medieval literature and culture. The narrative takes me all over Britain, exploring how people understood and connected to the natural world in the Middle Ages. Currently, in my first chapter, I’m on home turf in Kent writing about birdy towns and villages (including my home town, Cranbrook). I hope to post something of what I’ve produced soon, but for now, here’s a blog post on the subject of birds in place names that I wrote at the end of last year for Boydell and Brewer: https://boydellandbrewer.com/blog/world-literature/spirits-of-place-birds-in-english-place-names/

The winter stare of a short-eared owl

I’d never have found them two minutes later. I watched them, a pair, drop to ground after twenty minutes working the field and hedgerows and there achieve an instant metamorphosis—bird become sullen vegetation. Fixed on the spot where they went down, I located them only by their intensely yellow irises, stark and astonishing against indistinguishable feather-scrub, like a night creature’s eerily luminous eyes in singular darkness.

Photo: W.dog.net

Short-eared owls are always a remarkable and special winter sight. They breed in northern and Scottish uplands, but their numbers are swelled from autumn onwards when continental birds disperse to new territories across the rest of more southerly Britain. Some years bring so many birds that every likely patch of land for hunting seems to have a resident pair (one year the small common just across from my in-laws, right on the edge of a busy town, had a pair that hunted each evening right among the regular dog-walkers).

The owls’ seasonal appearance makes them particularly associative of shortening, colder days. Their cryptic plumage is somehow the stuff of winter itself: matched to the subtleties and gradations of arctic tundra. It is the drab beauty of earth and grass intricacy; winter browns of loam and thorn, sedge, stubble and reed. It’s those facial markings, too, which conjure for me the year’s darkening nights—that black smudging mask framing the eyes has something of a Gothic, All Hallows spectre, a ghoulish stare that is unyielding and severe as winter itself.

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Mist coming in over the owl field. Beeding Brooks, Sussex, 27th December 2018

That evening mist came in quickly as the sun set. It seemed to generate and rise from the earth itself, as though the field steamed with optimistic warmth. The cows became monoliths, their dark, head-down bulks forming a stone henge. To the south-east where St Peter’s church stands on a knoll, I could hear the jackdaws’ nightly Tenebrae in the tall stands of beech tree either side of the rectory. The birds continued to drift across from the west, their black forms like bonfire fragments in the red sky. Periodically and suddenly, the growing roost broke to an explosive cackling as thousands of jackdaws took flight before settling again minutes later.

By contrast, the owls hunted on in complete silence, easy and elegant on long, languid wings. The mist in the last minutes of light had consumed the whole field and the owls’ ghostly figures dissolved into whiteness.

 

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