Category Archives: birdwatching

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).

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Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

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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Interview on my book

Bit of a cheat post this one, but Boydell and Brewer have recently published an interview they conducted with me on my book, Birds in Medieval English Poetry, so thought I’d share it. Click here, or simply read the text below.

Thank you for assisting our discussion of your book, Dr Warren. To begin, could you tell us a little about how you came to write this book, which is now the second in our new series Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages. What first drew you to the natural world in literature? 
When I decided to return to medieval studies after some years in teaching, it was an obvious choice for me to pursue a subject that combined a personal love of mine with literature. I knew that there was plenty to say about birds, in fact, because I’d written on this subject for my undergraduate dissertation a number of years before. Medieval literature is full of birds, and it seemed strange to me that no one had yet produced a full study examining how they are represented and what their significance is, or at least not one that seriously considered the presence and relevance of ornithological interests, rather than simply birds’ totemic aspects. Birds—as just one, conspicuous set of species in the natural world—were clearly of profound interest to medieval thinkers and writers, and I wanted to explore how and why. So that’s how it all began, but the project inevitably took on much bigger proportions for me as it progressed.

Do animals receive enough attention in medieval scholarship? 
I think it’s more a question of do they receive the right sort of attention. Animals haven’t been ignored in medieval scholarship, but there is a long tradition of thinking that medieval poets weren’t really interested in actual species themselves; it was what they meant that was important. Birds, specifically, have always received short shrift in ornithological histories, which tend to deal with Aristotle, and then skip to the 16th century. The medieval chapter in these histories is always by far and away the shortest—it’s a respectful nod to the more familiar textual references that exist, and which suggest that birds must have been observed on some level, but the popular attitude, at least, is that medieval people ‘knew little about birds, and cared even less’ (Stephen Moss, A Bird in a Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching).

With the spike in 21st century ecological sensibilities, though, there has been a revolution right across disciplines. Ecocriticism and animal studies have achieved considerable popularity and influence in medieval scholarship over the last decade, striving to emphasise the reality of nonhuman creatures in life and text, and demonstrate that how medieval people thought about the natural world and their relationship to it was much more complex and diverse than we have previously thought. So yes, I do think animals are receiving the right sort of attention in medieval scholarship now, but there’s still some way to go (if you look at how many panels there on nonhuman topics at the big medieval congresses each year in Kalamazoo and Leeds compared to other more traditional topics, there is a very striking disparity).

Your book discusses a rich span of poetry, from Anglo Saxon texts through to Chaucer and Gower. Do you have a favourite? 
I do have a particular fondness for The Seafarer. There’s something about the early Christian asceticism and the tempestuous seascape in which this plays out that really appeals to me; I suppose it chimes with my love of bleak, people-less spaces, like marshes. There is something so affecting and powerful about the intimate linking of the exile and the wild nonhuman, and the fact that birds are a conspicuous part of the environment and the Seafarer’s experience is fascinating to me. Seabirds are especially compelling to us humans I think, being that that they are perfectly at home in a location so alien and hostile to us—their mysterious experience is what, paradoxically, makes them such rich metaphors. I’m sure this must have genuinely been the case for those monastics seeking solitude and hardship on remote Atlantic islands like Skellig. If you’ve ever visited locations like this you’ll know you just can’t avoid the raucous presence of seabirds!

How did you come to settle on this particular selection? Did you have many to choose from? 
There are so many texts to choose from, especially if you move outside European traditions and consider, e.g., Arabic or Persian texts as well. I chose only English texts because I was interested in representations of native British wild birds, and because I purposefully wanted to bring new perspectives to much-studied poems by revealing and exploring their intricate and knowledgeable depictions of birds. These birds have received attention before now, but I wanted to take this further—to look at how the ornithological elements might be part of the wider thematic interests of the texts. There is also a subsidiary thread to the book which seeks to fill in some of those gaps about medieval ornithological knowledge, for which it was useful to survey the whole span of the Middle Ages.

What place, if any, did birds hold in the everyday lives of people in the Middle Ages? 
As for the everyday lives of most people, it’s very hard to know. The surviving texts of the medieval age, of course, were not written by or for, and can’t be said to represent the ‘everyday lives’ of, most people. But the written evidence does imply that for intellectual or elite milieux, at least, birds had a diverse and important status in all sorts of ways ranging from the practical to the philosophical: food, quills, hunters (and quarry) in falconry, caged songbirds, intriguing comparative subjects in theories about voice and music, allegories in bestiaries, subjects of ‘special mention’ in encyclopaedias (Bartholomew the Englishmen). In poetry, of course, birds became elevated metaphors for a whole variety of subjects, but what I aim to do in the book is show how knowledge of real birds and species (the ‘everyday’ if you like) still important in informing how these metaphors work.

Beyond this, though, it is possible to get a feel for how birds must have played a part in vernacular lore and discourses. Old English names for birds, for instance, suggest remarkable degrees of observation and listening, and their presence in Anglo-Saxon place names or charter boundaries conveys how they were acknowledged as important elements of environment (‘take the path left past the pond where the coal tit lives’, sort of thing), and there is no reason to believe that much of this didn’t descend from or wasn’t shared by your ordinary man and woman living and working in the natural world where birds are. There is no doubt that wild birds generally were much more plentiful in the Middle Ages; our modern ‘baseline’ perception is heavily distorted because we live in a world where pretty much all species, but particularly groups like farmland birds, have dramatically declined due to modern industrial practices.

Expanding on the last question, why would the presence of birds in poetry have appealed to a medieval poet or audience? 
Beyond what I’ve suggested above, I think the overall thing for me is that birds are such consummate and enigmatic transformers. They complicate, escape and thwart human attempts to categorise—something I pick up on with particular reference to the Exeter Book Riddles in the book. Birds, in life and in poetry, always seems to be in some sort of ‘trans’ status and I think this has a lot to do with why they were (and are) so compelling. David Wallace has eloquently said in his recent book on Chaucer that medieval conceptions of the human condition engaged the ‘perilous art’ of aligning ‘bawdy bodies and stargazing intelligences’. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why birds were illuminating parallels—they are animals below human status in one sense, and yet occupy the ethereal heights above humans as well; they are both mundane and numinous at once.

A captivating aspect of your volume is the depiction of everyday birds and how their reality is used and transformed into metaphor. What’s your favourite example? 
Again, I’m drawn to the alien, pelagic qualities of the seabirds in The Seafarer which the poet aligns with the solitary speaker, but perhaps one of the most interesting examples is the owl in The Owl and the Nightingale. Part of the poem’s sophisticated comedy, for me, is that the ‘realities’ of the eponymous birds are consistently (and knowingly, on the part of the author) confused, which causes problems when these particular qualities are transposed into metaphorical use in texts like the popular bestiaries. So, when the nightingale attacks the owl’s day-blindness (which becomes a well-known metaphor for the sinner who cannot or refuses to see the light of Christ), we are aware that profound moral ‘truths’ are being drawn up on false premises: the owl states herself in the poem that this particular ‘truth’ about owls is just plain wrong.

This book clearly demonstrates a real love for birds. Are you an avid birder yourself? 
I certainly am. I birdwatch a lot in Kent where I live, particularly on the marshes up in the north of the county. It was my uncle who got me into birding when I was very young, and it’s his photos, in fact, that illustrate the book, including the striking image of flying godwits on the front cover.

Of course, you don’t need to be a birdwatcher to write about birds in medieval poetry, but I do think it has helped attune me to various nuances, such as the importance of sound or accurate observation in Old English bird names, or the ornithological aspects of certain species that clash with allegorical treatments.

What are you working on now, or will you be working on next? 
Still birds! I was approached by a publisher some years back whilst writing my PhD about the possibility of producing a trade version of my thesis. So, now the monograph is finished up, I’m turning my attention to this new project. It will take some of the informative, ornithological elements of the monograph and weave these into a nature/travel-writing narrative. The first chapter is set on the Essex Marshes, particularly concerning a place called Foulness Island, to explore Old English place names, and how birds, but also the natural world more generally, are intimately observed and become a part of human conceptions of place.

 

A bittern booming in the mire

It’s easy to imagine why some birds appeal so well to our myth-conjuring habits. I think particularly of those species that make a skill of obscurity. Crepuscular birds excel in shadow—the nightjar or woodcock are no more than ghostly silhouettes in dusk-dark. By day you’ve not a chance—their plumage is the very stuff of earth, intricate and cryptic patterns of leaf-litter, mulch, soil.

The bird that most comes to mind for these evasive sleights, though, is the bittern. It does not need darkness; this bird has perfected invisibility in specialist reed bed living. The woodcock’s argillaceous plumage is matched in the bittern by habitat imitation so effective it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed in metamorphosis, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks. It’s colour and striations mimic the close, vertical world of marsh and fen exactly, especially so when the bird lifts its beak right up, narrows itself to reed-thinness and sways gently with the wind-rustling stems.

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A well-camouflaged bittern. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

This morning I’ve been waiting since dawn at Ham Wall RSPB reserve for the briefest of glimpses. It’s April and I can hear one male booming—a sonorous, eerie bass note that carries over a mile. It’s this aspect of the bird, in fact, that humans have responded to for millennia. The many dialect terms for the bittern show alliterative playfulness with the bird’s reverberations: butter bump, bog bumper, bog blutter. These marvellous names go way back. In the Anglo-Saxon age, when King Alfred was hiding out here on the swampy Levels, the bird was a raredumle, probably meaning  something like ‘reed-boomer’. By the late Middle Ages, the vernacular term was miredromble, but the English language also adopted French bitour, which became ‘bittern’. The strange booming spurred inventive explanations about how ‘a bitore bombleth in the myre’ by lowering its head ‘unto the water doun’ (Chaucer), or blowing through a reed. Inevitably, the supernatural aspect of the disembodied noise associated it with omen and disaster.

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Image: RSPB

The old names alert us to the priority given to bird sound in the past, and even now the bittern is certainly a bird more encountered by its unique call than sight. Its presence in the once extensive marshes of Britain bred inventive myths down the centuries. Here on the Levels, bitterns stalked the prehistoric swamps alongside pelicans, cranes and white-tailed eagles. Neolithic tracks across the marsh still exist, preserved in peat beneath the watery landscapes recreated in recent years. What did our prehistoric ancestors make of the bittern’s booming call? What was their word for the bird? We’ll never know, but surely they were equally struck by its eldritch presence. Perhaps those medieval myths and names reach back this far.

Like many of Britain’s fen and marshland birds, the bittern became extinct. It recolonised in the early twentieth century after an absence of 50 years, but numbers remained low and as recently as 1997 there were only 11 booming males. Thanks to hard conservation work, 46 males have been estimated calling on the Avalon Marshes this spring in Somerset alone, the densest population anywhere in the country. Our names and myths recall how elemental bitterns are to this habitat, as much as reed and peat and water. It is joyously encouraging that a bird so intimately rooted in these special places is not lost.

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RSPB Ham Wall reserve, April 2018

A harrier from the east – autumn wanderers

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.

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The Isle of Sheppey pallid harrier (Image: Malcolm Freeman, from Bird Guides)

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.

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A male pallid harrier, at home in steppe country.
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Juvenile pallid at Falsterbo, Sweden. (Image: Sean Nixon)

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.)

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Pallas’s warbler – a birder’s favourite October/November vagrant from far east Siberia.

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.