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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When it comes to favourites, certain British birds nudge their way into the top ranks repeatedly: the robin – unofficially Britain’s top choice – is predictable enough, as are other garden species, such as blue tit and blackbird, or perhaps something less commonly seen; a barn owl or kingfisher. I suspect my own favourite, though, is shared by few, and would never occur to anyone curious enough to hazard a guess. Fieldfares are unfamiliar to many, a birder’s bird maybe, unnoticed in the hedgerows of sodden ploughlands in such short and dreary days. But these mobster thrushes are mysterious and attractive. They exist like the promise of hard snow – overnight, sudden and thrilling, they come with the boreal cold.
This year, as every year, I have been walking and driving the lanes in search of fieldfares and their thrush cousins, redwings, mostly across the flatlands of Romney Marsh not far from home in Kent. These winter nomads breed right across sub-arctic Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, making their annual incursions each October and November to wander and raze berry harvests in southern Europe. I found a roving flock last November, one bright and blue morning when it was painfully cold. I knew the birds were there long before I saw them, announcing their presence with restless stony calls, a ringing magpie ‘chak-chak’. For all this commotion, they can be frustratingly difficult to catch in good view. They remain teasingly invisible in the bare but impenetrable thorns. Suddenly, at the moment you become just too close, they burst from cover as though the trees have kept their leaves all along to release just now in a brisk gust. The action is surrounded by accelerating notes that rise in pitch and dynamics, scattering with as much force as the birds themselves. These cackling fits disappear again just metres down the frosted path, though some birds veer upwards to sit defiantly at the top branches. They mark my advance like a procession, always just ahead and out of reach, as though alarmed and mocking all at once.
The fieldfare’s evasive presence seems fittingly mirrored in their slight cultural legacy. The name as we have it is certainly medieval, but its origins, although almost certainly older (Old English feld ‘field’ + fara ‘to go’), are all but lost, scantily and obscurely present in the inky tracks of just one or two Anglo-Saxon scripts for scholars obsessed with such things to ponder and trace. Fieldfares, curiously in my view, have never attracted poetic attention in the way of so many other British species. John Clare, of course, does not forget them as passing details: they ‘chatter in the whistling thorn’ (‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’) or ‘come and go on winter’s chilling wing’ (Shepherd’s Calendar, March). At the end of the medieval period, though, it is clear that fieldfares did not go unnoticed: Chaucer ends his catalogue of birds in The Parliament of Fowls, unexpectedly, with the ‘frosty feldefare’, and in the Sherborne Missal (c. 1400), there is a remarkable titled image of the bird, accurately depicted in all its striking colours (see here for some of the images, although the fieldfare page is not included).
I find a new, hustling chatter of fieldfares on Romney Marsh again this week in mid-February. By now, with most berries stripped, they are dispersing to the fields, roaming in big numbers. Chaucer’s phrase, I’d say, has it right – their hoary plumage is a precise configuration of winter splendour, even on a day as drab and wet as this. They mark extremes: that pristine white underwing and belly, that storm-grey hood, are balanced with colours that flare like hibernal dusks, or the light and warmth of indoors we seek against such cold – the colour of smoky whisky, or the slow burn of wood fires. I follow fieldfares across tree-lined fields, follow their flights down hawthorn paths to be with all that clattering verve that turns and turns again straight into the wind.
There are some birds that are early fixed in the imagination, and hold their allure for a lifetime. These are not childhood memories of actual encounters, but of something more mythic – birds that made claims on my experiences long before I ever set eyes upon them. I knew them only from illustrations (John Gooders’ Kingfisher Guide to Birds in Britain and Europe; a scrappy pocket Collins), or experienced them vicariously in my uncle’s scrawling field notes. I loved their rarity, made them live – the impossible colours of bee-eaters, rollers, waxwings; the wildness of eagles – in my assiduously copied sketches from a hand-me-down set of Ladybirds. I dreamed of discovering these birds myself, desired them as much as those accumulating notebooks in my uncle’s study – dinky and black, with an elastic band that made a firm snap when you pulled it into place.
In an attempt to conjure one of these exotic species, I once invented reports to my mother, hoping that the fantasised chase across the South Downs would turn up a real life counterpart to the impressive sunset vision depicted in that Ladybird plate. It was years before I finally saw a great grey shrike – a strange songbird from the north with a grisly habit and a dapper bandit mask to suit. I’ve seen several since, but I am still compelled to see these birds when small numbers make their winter homes here each year from Scandinavia.
This morning was ideal out on the brooks, the first properly cold weather of the season and everything reduced to a shrike’s wintry colours: the stone-hard whites of frost, the bare blackness of trees, and low mists tracing every degree of grey-silver. As shrikes do, the bird I was after appeared quite suddenly, there atop a nearby birch. It was gone as quickly, in the second I glanced away, but there it was again, at some distance, silent and sentinel on another tree top. Shrikes establish large territories and can go unseen for long stretches of time, though they will be present all winter, remaining faithful to particular sites year after year.
Despite its scarcity, the bird has a long-lived gruesome legacy in British folklore, which pertains to the red-backed shrike, too, once a breeding species in these isles (unlike the great grey). Its various names speak of its macabre reputation, derived from its family propensity for impaling prey on thorns, recalling a butcher’s meat store, or the huge iron hooks from which his carcasses hang. The great grey’s scientific name reminds us of this habit – Lanius derives from Latin for butcher or executioner. A meat-hacker: the butcher-bird.
Its infamy goes back much further, however, as indicated by the strikingly similar cluster of names across northern European countries. Its late medieval English name was the waryangle which existed in various dialect forms for centuries, all of which, like Germanic werkangel or warkangel, mean something like ‘suffocating angel’ (compare Modern German, würger and würgengel). The name is not attested in Anglo-Saxon records, but may well extend back this far; waryangle, may, in fact, derive from Old English wearg (criminal) and incel (diminutive suffix): ‘little-villain’. Certainly by the fourteenth century the name was invoked as an abusive term. In Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, the summoner is denounced by way of comparison, ‘as ful of jangles [tricks] / As ful of venym been thise waryangles’ [as shrikes are full of venom] (a shrike’s butchering thorns were thought to be forever after poisonous).
Remarkably, in an age without binoculars, and which is traditionally dismissed for its unscientific indifference to ornithological precision, the earliest illustration we have of the species actually comes from a medieval English missal (1400) produced in Sherborne, Dorset. It very clearly and accurately depicts a grey shrike labelled waryghanger, one of many British species depicted in this remarkable manuscript. For this illuminator, at least, the shrike held a place in the native imagination, as it always has in mine. Its flight from thorn to thorn points on to shrikes I have not yet seen, that exist in those books and pocket notes that occupy me still.
The day was sopping before it started. Wringing and beating itself into barely light. Even so, first thing I took the rain-ploughed track north through a small band of woods near Chichester. No one else ventured out – just me, the banging winds and squalls of rain up past the deserted medieval village towards Monkton. There’d been word of them recently enough, only yesterday, great gatherings seen this way in the fields and corridors of woodland, and the thought of this spectacle was enough to get me out.
I found them quickly enough, three or four hunched in the dull hedges like overnight embers. They took flight as I neared, joining others I’d not noticed in the smudged trees around, then more from beyond, flock into flock out onto the dripping maize stubble; bramblings flew with more and more – chaffinches, hawfinches, yellowhammers – their white behinds clear as snow in the drizzle.
Bramblings are a birder’s bird. More precise still maybe: a bird for the binocular-swinging, hibernal fanatic. For those, like me, who are northerly-minded while others dream themselves south in the darker months; who savour the vocabulary of north – ice and floe, taiga and tundra, this bird forms a winter trinity, poles apart from the summer lover’s turtle dove or nightingale.
The brambling, redwing and fieldfare all come to our isles in autumn, seeking warmer climes, but bringing short days and Arctic winds with them. Their plumage marks these extremes, as though flaunting a self-assigned symbolism: the fieldfare’s frosted underwing, the brambling’s rump – pristine as Arctic swans – or hoary hood that slowly wears away to black come spring, and the redwing’s bold eyestripe. But all three flare with heat, too, the colours of whisky, winter dusk, the slow burn of wood fires.