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.
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.
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.
Two weeks ago on a humdrum Monday a sparrowhawk came to our three-storey balcony, blowing our little space wide open in a burst of flight and feathers.
That’s how it is with sparrowhawks. There’s no preamble to the strike. Not the slowly-does-it buoyancy of a harrier’s quarter, nor the panic warning that accompanies a peregrine’s hunt over winter marshes. Most of my sparrowhawk sightings are barely sightings at all—an intimation of something bullet-brained, a sign of wing and greyness that registers just enough to count. They are glimpsed in their sheering horizontal strafes, sensed at the tilting up-and-over moment into hedgerow ambush. I have sometimes seen females soaring high in an eagle-fashion, and I’ve heard—seen photos—of individuals that do materialise for whole periods of time, all the hawk components suddenly but undeniably singular, complete, right there in plain sight of the kitchen sink. The most solid example I’d had till now was the filamentous ghost of wings from a momentary window zonk—the delicate traces of a botched hunt in a suburban garden. Sparrowhawk dust.
As with all predators, most raptors’ hunting attempts end in failure. Not this one. A young female perfecting her game. She is big and broad, built for open-sky spaces, unlike the males who haunt the intimacies of summer full-leaved woodlands. Our creaking reactions have already missed the arrival, whole seconds too clunky to match her. We must surmise the action: a chance sighting and too good to miss, shift and accelerate towards the next second. She lives now at the cusp, slicing the in between of everything in the strike down to seize and overtake the present, straddling the instant like the poor-bastard dove she’s shafted from the iron railing. On the balcony floor she’s astride her prey as if in some strange copulation, plucking furiously, then tearing at the good meat.
The space around was snow-silent in these minutes after the kill—a penumbra of small bird fear and human awe. We watched from just two feet away, edging closer on our stomachs right up to the window sill, making the most of this unpredicted hawk proximity. She saw us; of course she did—her whole being spins on those huge yellow eyes—but she was hungry and willing to tolerate us. Even so, we didn’t see her go. We’d turned to whisper, and right then she’d taken off with her carcass undercarriage, leaving a mess of dusky feathers to tell the tale, just in case we’d missed it.
What struck me in the days after was how many people miss out on such wonder, even when it thrusts itself right into our human centres. These chance happenings are so much on the margin for some of us—the countryside at the edges of our obsessive internalised urban lives. I called a friend that Monday, eager to share this remarkable incident on our fire-escape balcony, and knowing he was just minutes away. I couldn’t tempt him. Next time, perhaps. There is always hope that such things will take us by surprise, hurl our attention inwards to the ellipse of a hawk’s world.
This morning felt like autumn. Cold on the hands, and mist hanging in the road’s low-lying hollows. Scudding dense clouds doubled the dark in the early hours. On the edge of Sheppey’s marshes, where the Harty church hunkers squat, I waited, alone and silent.
It broke suddenly at first light, as though conjured with light from dark hedge and thorn. Last week I’d happened upon this very bird at Elmley reserve, further west along the estuary – a young pallid harrier; slender-winged, ring-tailed, collared, rich chocolate-brown, with underparts the colour of October stubble fields, fermenting windfall. It quartered between sheep, rested in the sallow grass, then lifted out of sight over the sea wall. In the following week it was sighted briefly elsewhere, before it settled for happy hunting along these fields that slope to the Swale mud. Today I was back for a second glance. The bird burst into the still, flushed a partridge, and sat mid-field to pluck and tear.
Once, aged ten, I found a red-backed shrike on the cliff top at Walton-on-the-Naze. I ran all the way back to the beach to fetch my father, desperate to show him the bird, impatient at his slowness the whole way back. But this pallid harrier is my first self-discovered big rarity. It’s a bird at home far, far east of here – Ukraine, Kazakhstan, on the Russian Steppes – and should be wintering in Africa or India. It’s what’s known in birding terms as a ‘vagrant’ – an avian wanderer off course, far outside its normal range. All birds are vagrants in a sense, of course. That’s what makes them so compelling – airborne, liberated from our earthbound mammalian living, they are masters of travel, the embodiment of mystery because they take off as they please, pursuing directions that seem to us entirely directionless and unpredictable. Some birds make seasonal journeys across the globe, flying great distances north to breed, and south again to winter in warmer climes where food is more abundant. Many of our much-loved, most familiar, British birds are ‘migrants’ (the ornithological term for these birds that have specific, come-and-go seasonal flight routes): swallows, nightingales, cuckoos, turtle doves. They all winter in Africa and breed in Northern Europe. Other birds – curlew sandpiper, arctic tern, corncrake – stop briefly to feed on their return from breeding grounds in the Arctic or far north of Britain. It works the other way around too – some birds such as the barnacle goose, fieldfare, whooper swan come to our comparatively temperate shores from the high Arctic to see out the winter.
Migrants can usually be expected, if you’re in the right time and the right place. Vagrants, however, offer no such assurances, which is, of course, what makes them so exciting to birdwatchers. These are the wayward wanderers, the migrants who got it wrong, who end up the other side of the world, sometimes as far from ‘home’ as it’s possible to get. In May and October (traditionally the most active migration months), the frisson of finding and watching is intensified, because these are the times when great rarities occur: Yanks blown across the Atlantic by tremendous weather fronts to land on west-facing isles or fall exhausted onto ships; tiny warblers bound from Siberia to southeast Asia whose fuddled magnetic sensibilities send them off in entirely the wrong direction; birds that overshoot their destinations by hundreds of miles. Some birders will go to great extremes to add these birds to their lists – ‘twitchers‘ who travel the length and breadth of the UK for each species as soon as it’s reported. (One chap who joined me watching the harrier a little later this morning had just returned from twitching an eastern kingbird (from North America) on the Isle of Barra; a fourteen hour trip from the outer Hebrides, two hours in between to grab a coffee back home in Slough, and he was on the road again to see the Sheppey harrier.)
It’s not clear precisely why pallid harriers turn up on British shores – as with other raptors, these individuals may be wandering, inexperienced juveniles straying beyond their range, or even seeking and expanding territories (the species’ range has begun to stretch westwards). It’s still a very rare species, but more and more seem to be turning up here during autumn months.
Taking pleasure in these lost or outlying birds seems perverse in one sense; they are, after all, moribund creatures – their mistakes or bad fortune may well be their end. Larger birds, like the harrier, are likely to fare better, correcting themselves or surviving well in their accidental wintering grounds. But the privilege of moments like these can and should inspire further wonder at the natural world, re-engage our sense of the everyday, which is suddenly and marvellously ignited when the new and mysterious come upon what we take to be old and known. Degrees of familiar and unfamiliar shift, for a time, though novelties – however strange or fine – so easily become ignored ordinaries. The pallid harrier brings to me an elsewhere, carries a yonder and farness to this here, now and near. It speaks of the world’s vastness, but collapses it, too, by connecting me briefly to long-travelled distances and encounters, shared lines of occurrence and being.
I’ve been reading and writing about goshawks and their kin a lot over the last four months. As fashionable birds from the sport of falconry, they make frequent appearances in medieval literary texts, alongside eagles and falcons and other hawks. Chaucer’s Sir Thopas carries a ‘grey goshauk on [his] honde’; Maldumarec in Marie de France’s Yonec morphs into the species; and Philomena in the very popular L’Ovide moralise (a 14th-century French moralised version of the Metamorphoses) is a woman of status, skilled in the art of hunting, who knows about goshawks and moulting patterns.
Goshawks are back in fashion. They’ve made it beyond the rarefied interests of birdwatchers and austringers to fascinate a wider public. Two recent books have contributed to this accipitrine passion – Conor Mark Jameson’s Looking for the Goshawk (2013) and the phenomenally successful H is for Hawk (2014), both of which honour their debt to, and have renewed interest in, T. H. White’s classic The Goshawk. Helen Macdonald’s work has outstripped sales of all other books of its kind, and is now set to make it to the big screen. The goshawk craze looks set to continue.
It’s not difficult to see why these birds fascinate us. We love a predator – a creature that can be part-tamed, or captured at least, but which remains well on the distant side of loveable or predictable, of that we think we can come to know. Minacious and fierce, tiger-striped, fire in the eye. Goshawks might be familiar to us as captive birds for display or hunting, but we know they exist wild, too, rare creatures that made it back from extinction in this country. In British forests these huge, striking birds are masterful predators, but so rarely seen by the uninitiated that they more fully inhabit the mythic realm – the stuff of medieval elite hunting (unsurprisingly they appear in T. H. White’s best known book The Once and Future King, the source for Disney’s Sword in the Stone); the blood-and-guts poetry of Ted Hughes; or stunning footage in wildlife documentaries, at large in HD. Their name hints at their impressive bulk: from Old English goshafoc;goose-hawk. These birds are capable of taking large prey, unlike their smaller cousin, the sparrowhawk (OE spearhafoc), and there is evidence that they were used to hunt big water birds from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards. All in all, I imagine Macdonald may have had less success with M is for Meadow Pipit.
I have never seen a goshawk. In the last few days of 2015 I make determined plans to change this in the coming year. Wild breeding goshawks are elusive and, quite rightfully, guarded closely. The threat of egg collectors has not yet passed. I know there are goshawks in the counties where I live and watch birds, but the most likely places are the Forest of Dean on the border of England and Wales, and Thetford Forest in Norfolk. On calm, sunny days in March, it is possible to see goshawk pairs displaying above their territories. I am re-reading Jameson’s book, translating his journeys into my own imagined quest for a bird that still exists as symbol for me, as a complex and tantalising construct that has not yet escaped my Kulturbrille, the thrilling bird in Ted Hughes’s ‘Hawk Roosting‘ whose ‘manners are tearing off heads’. The poet’s ‘falsifying dream’ both dismisses human pontification and confirms it – the bird is a part of that ‘falsifying’, even in the attempt to envisage a hawk’s perspective, for whom the ‘earth’s face [is] upward for my inspection’. I revel in all of this, in White and Macdonald and the goshafoc, but what I really want is to see the thing itself, to collapse and explode myth into the barred breast and the orange eye of the flesh-and-feathers bird.
For now though, I return to medieval hawks, to a sparrowhawk in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and a goshawk in the ‘Tale of Tereus’ in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. The references are insubstantial – fleeting metaphors, in fact – but carry sophisticated meanings. In both examples (and its certainly possible that Chaucer’s sparrowhawk detail influenced Gower’s goshawk), the birds take on inherited meaning from aristocratic culture, but they also allow something of the instinct and unpredictability of real hawks to intrude as well, to create perversely alluring figures of sexual desire.
In Middle English, the association between these birds and their predatory nature was linguistically pronounced – ravine referred to both greed, but also raptors; indeed, our modern word for birds of prey still carries the Latinate etymology – from rapere (to seize). The knot of words surrounding this term included raptors alongside lust, theft, abduction and aggression. Rape still carries these associations, but ravishment has more romantic significance than it once did. John Trevisa, in the Properties of Things (14th cen.), writes that: ‘The goshauk is a real foul and for þe takynge of oþir foules for pray (because it takes other birds for its prey) he[o] (she) is icplepid (called) aucipiter (accipiter) ‘a raptour and rauyschere (ravisher)’.
Both Chaucer and Gower take advantage of this apparent ferocity. In Troilus and Criseyde, the sparrowhawk is a metaphor for the first sexual union of the two lovers, and is striking because it conflates sex with both disturbing violence and sexual pleasure. The narrator rhetorically asks ‘What myghte or may the sely (wretched) larke seye / Whan that the sperhauk hath it in his foot?’ No answer comes, but the narrator goes on implicitly to link this metaphor to the lovers’ ‘gladnesse’ (III.1196) as well as their ‘hevynesse’ (III.1197): they come ‘out of wo in[to] blisse’ (III.1221). The implication is that both human and avian sexual instincts are alike – love, lust, aggression and death are not unrelated, and not human preserves.
In Gower’s Confessio Amantis, the well-known tale of Philomela is re-told to focus on Tereus, the king who rapes and mutilates his sister-in-law. Gower describes this act ‘As if a goshawk hadde sesed (seized) / A brid, which dorste noght for fere / Remue (does not move for fear): and thus this tirant there / Beraft hire (bereft her)’ (V.5642-7). Similar to Chaucer’s sparrowhawk, the goshawk becomes a complex and paradoxical image of shared sexual kind between beings – ravine (lust) and ravine (raptor) are intimately linked – so that the goshawk is invested with enabling and natural qualities through which Tereus performs worrisome and yet excusable acts (morality and natural law are frustratingly uncertain in the Confessio). The mutilation of Philomela’s tongue also anticipates the dismemberment of other human bodies later on in the tale, particularly that of Itys, Tereus’s son, whose is served up for his father to eat. Bodies, we are reminded, are flesh, eaten and eating.
Most tellingly, Gower’s goshawk image presages real avian transformations at the end of the tale which are not punitive, not indications of depraved bestiality, but empowering changes which reveal and define character most fully through bird-human bodies. In this light, the Tereus-goshawk must be considered more than simple metaphor. The raptor and the ravisher, bird and human, desirous knight and seizing bird, conjoin in Gower’s tale. Medieval goshawks are symbolic, heraldic, projections of cultural elite values, but these writers do not forget the natural either. There is something of the bird I will seek next year, that reminds us of common impulses, the shared viscera and carnality dispersed and experienced across species: the ‘herte on fyre’ in lust (Confessio, V.5622) and ‘takynge of oþir foules for pray’ (Trevisa) are of a kind.
I recently blogged about birds of prey in medieval culture with particular reference to Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. Originally, what follows was a part of that entry, but I’ve decided the topic deserves its own post because I wouldn’t want people to miss out on the stupendous manuscript to which I direct you below!
In relation to my previous entry, if you want a good sense of just how popular and skilled the arts of hawking and falconry were in the medieval period, take a look at this digitalised edition of a thirteenth century copy of De arte venandi cum avibus(The Art of Hunting with Birds) by Frederick II (1194-1250), Holy Roman Emperor. It’s known as the Manfred manuscript and is housed in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.
This chap, and his treatise on falconry, was really advanced for his time. He approached ornithology with a genuine empiricism (inspired by Aristotle), quite different to the prevailing mode of interpretation by which nature was regarded as an allegorical code to God’s divine intentions. It was Frederick, for example, who first decided to dispprove the centuries-old folklore belief that barnacle geese grow from drift wood or dead trees. He sent envoys to northern countries to find evidence. Of course, they found none! I came across this digital edition of the text very recently (see here). I’m a sucker for medieval manuscripts depicting birds of any sort, and I’m aware of most, but this thing is just something else. It’s full of birds! And accurately depicted birds too: black vulture; falcon (look like juvenile sakers or lanners by colour, but possibly peregrine); gyrfalcon; eagle owl, long-eared owl; barn owl; lapwing; curlew; white-fronted goose (I think); greylag goose; barnacle goose; black stork; white stork; European crane; grey heron; bittern … the list goes on and on! If any ornithologists want to tackle the trickier species, write a comment to this entry and let me know what you think. The images in this manuscript perfectly suit Frederick’s (more) scientific approach and provide another great example of how the ways in which medieval writers thought about and dealt with birds/nature were complex and diverse. Many birds are labelled, too (in Latin, of course). The second half has some fascinating depictions of courtly types attending to and training with their birds, or wonderfully intricate images of falconry equipment.
I presented for LOMERS (London Old and Middle English Research Seminar) yesterday evening to a small group of medievalists on the topic of avian rationality and language-song in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. The concept of cross- or inter-species communications and knowledges in this poem is the subject of my PhD’s fourth chapter.
This morning we went walking in a local wood, intent on seing the fulsome signs of spring. It’s the perfect time to be out and we were content in the primrose-brilliance of it all. The undergrowth beneath the beeches was rich with white wood anemones and bluebells.
We heard it before we’d gone fifty paces. The very thing we came for surprised us from the dense bramble – a secret nightingale out its tremendous song; a cry, as the poet Ted Hughes remarks, that ‘momentarily threatened the earth’. I think of my first nightingale this year, freshly arrived on the north Crete coast only two weeks ago; Homer’s nightingale – the bird that began centuries of thinking on just how that remarkable voice raises such powerful ideas of love and suffering, of yearning for the warm days of spring and the beginning of a year’s work in the fields. It’s a bird I seek every year in May.
This morning’s nightingale, though, is back here in a small but ancient wood near a tiny village in West Kent. It’s a bird intimately associated with our own landscape in its own special way – the oak, beech and hazel woodlands of southern England. And English poets, too, have always found something inspiring, even numinous, in that disembodied voice. Of Keat’s ode most people have some inkling, can perhaps even quote the odd snatch about ‘shadows numberless’ and ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’. The Romantic poets generally were pretty keen on the symbolic potential of the bird. But the nightingale’s legacy in English poetry goes back much further. It’s as old as English poetry itself, in fact. The bird crops up in Latin lyrics from the British Isles in the early medieval period (the 7th cen. Bishop Aldhelm, for instance, who includes the nightingale in his Enigmata), but it’s first known appearance in English itself is in ‘Riddle 8’ from the Exeter Book Riddles (see here). Well, it’s first appearance as far as most Anglo-Saxon scholars agree, that is; the problem is that this collection, most unusually, has no answers, so it’s taken a good couple of centuries of academic guesswork to produce convincing solutions, and some are still heavily contested! ‘Riddle 8’ has generated a whole range of suggestions (mostly birds). To my mind though, the phrase eald æfensceop ‘old evening-singer’ points the way – a veiled reference, using other words, to the nihtegale, the Anglo-Saxon name for the bird that stuck.
In the later medieval period (influenced by the courtly poetry of French troubadours and trouvères), the nightingale becomes such a ubiquitous feature of love lyrics, it sort of just fades into the background of the stock ‘wodes that waxen grene’ when ‘lef and gras and blosme springe’ (see here). And then it finds its way into a run of bird debate poems (that’s right, avian poetic altercations were all the rage for the literary elite in late medieval England!): ‘The Thrush and the Nightingale’ (anon.); The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ (Clanvowe); ‘The Clerk and the Nightingale’ (anon.). By far and away the best, however, and perhaps my favourite of all medieval poems is The Owl and the Nightingale (probably late 13th cen., but no one really knows). It forms a substantial part of my PhD thesis on birds in medieval poetry.
What’s remarkable about this poem is how self-consciously it uses the nightingale as a character. In short, the whole thing becomes a parody of the overused bird symbol in the debate genre. With great humour that prefigures the trademark irony of Chaucer, this poet pulls the bird back off its literary high horse and back into its real scrub environment. This allows for some brilliant ornithological-based comedy through playing off the tendency to treat the bird as a symbol against neatly observed real bird behaviours. The beginning of the poem starts off in typical fashion, describing the woody scene in what’s known as a natureingang (basically a pretty nature scene). But this is no locus amoenus (‘beautiful place’ – medievalists’ speak for the natural world idyll). The nightingale sits right in the middle, unseen, in a ‘vaste þicke hegge’ / Imeind mid spire & grene segge’ (dense, thick hedge / Mixed up with reeds and green sedge’. Real, biodiverse, natural territory – just where you’d expect to find a nightingale, in fact. There’s a further description of the nightingale’s habitat to snigger at later on. Here’s the owl in full invective:
Wan ich flo niƷtes after muse,
I mai þe uinde ate rumhuse,
Among þe wode, among þe netle.
Þu sittest & singst bihinde þe setle:
Þar me mai þe ilomest finde –
Þar men worpeþ hore bihinde.
When I fly at night after mice
I can find you at the crapper
Among the weeds, among the nettles.
You sit and sing behind the toilet seat:
I will find you there most often –
Where men thrust out their behinds.
There’s more from the owl – when all is said and done, the nightingale is nothing more than ‘lutel soti clowe’ (a little sooty ball)! All of this makes me think of John Clare’s oft-quoted criticism of Keats’ fictive nightingales all those centuries later, takes issue with ‘nature as she appeared to his [Keats] fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described’. The owl doesn’t get off lightly either, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out more.