Writing on Nepal wins competition

If readers will forgive a brief moment of self-admiration, I wanted to post my entries for a travel/nature writing competition that recently won me first prize. ‘Tiger Trace’ was the judges’ favourite, but they’re apparently going to include all three in a forthcoming publication. These pieces began life as posts on this site, so it seemed fitting to share the news here. So, courtesy of Naturetrek, my wife and I will be off for an all-expenses-paid 10 days in Romania this August. Hoping for my first brown bear!

Tiger Trace
We have spent the last two days driving and walking tiger territory here in Chitwan National Park. This morning, whilst others sleep on and before the sun is fully up, I join our guiding ornithologist through misty savanna on the banks of the Narayani. A nine foot marsh muggar crocodile is half submerged with a fleshy limb clamped in its jaws. We push slowly through tall grasses (the tallest in the world are here in the Terai-Duar lowlands) quietly searching for rare cisticolas and grassbirds. A little ahead of us is a local guide and his protective bamboo rod.

In the sand, he kneels to examine. Pug marks. Tiger. He lays a pen beside the indentations to indicate the size of the creature’s print. “Last night,” he says, pointing back along the path. “It came through.” Two evenings before, riding out high and safe on elephants’ backs, we’d come across a crisp and mealy carcass, almost a week old beneath a putrid haze of flies and nearly black from sun. Another lay half covered in high grass nearby, fresher, the stench carrying to some way off.

It’s not difficult to see why predators fascinate us: 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, striped and barred, fire in the eye. The largest Royal Bengal Tiger population anywhere in Nepal – 125 of just 2,500 or so in the subcontinent – lives here in Chitwan, an internationally important park in the Inner Terai. But they are no easier to see for that. The most elusive of creatures, fiendishly difficult to locate, they can be right there, camouflaged perfectly in dense undergrowth or the slightest stand of grass, and you’ll never see them. They will see you.

Yesterday we took a day-long, dusty journey through the reserve, driving narrow tracks through subtropical, riverine forests. The leaf litter is ankle-deep here, dry and tiger-orange, beneath big-leaved sal and rhino trees, saj, rosewood, the sailing buttress roots of kopak. Thick strangler vines coil like pythons round trunks, slowly suffocating their hosts. Way up, langurs, old man-grey and quizzical, swing easily from branch to branch. We spot a predator’s prey well enough, deer herds keeping mostly to the shadowy spaces among and between the understory. There are four species here: the small and numerous hog deer; muntjacs; the elegant spotted deer (or chital), akin to the European fallow; and the biggest, a tiger’s favourite, the dusky, skittish sambars.

In late afternoon, the cicadas are lulled, light shifts and the air is pungent with jasmine. We happened upon a small flock of great hornbills – 10 perhaps – planing one after the other through the canopy into the tree tops. They picked and fed delicately on finicky fruit with their preposterous turmeric bills, which look double the size for those huge casques (the bizarre appendage on the upper mandible used for aerial jousting) so that the whole thing looks like some ludicrous high-society hat.

We never expected to see tigers. And we did not. Why should we? To see the tiger would be exhilaration, a marvel, but to not see it somehow seemed as it should be too. It is never our right. This beast deserves our committed protection – we are, after all, largely responsible for its grievous demise – but also deserves its isolation, its right to be and to be unseen. I will make do with enigmatic traces that signal its absent presence; sandy depressions of movement just last night, the remains of attack and kill, uneasy yelps and alarms from deeper into the forest. It is here.

Heights and Kites in Kathmandu
At the hotel I head up for the highest point. Even on the rooftop there is more – it spirals up three levels, each appearing just as you make the last, well beyond most buildings’ top floors. The air is spice and warmth. Up here I am with the kites who turn on the city’s rising heat, and monsoon-washed house crows who fuss raucously from roof to roof. The birds are lodestars to new places; I begin with them.

It’s a habit I’ve adopted in many cities, but here seeking height feels doubly instinctive, mimicking the birds’ advantage. Nepal is the land of heights – from sea level to the highest point on earth in under 200 km, the world’s rooftop; a country with the highest elevation in the world reaching up to Tibet, the globe’s highest region. It’s a yearning for height that brings thousands here in the peak season to attempt ascents, or trek along the great Himalayan wall – Annapurna, Machhapuchhare, Langtang. Nepal has eight of the world’s tallest mountains and over 250 peaks over 20,000 feet. Everest (or Chomolungma as the sherpas call it – Goddess Mother) is the highest and most famous of them all, of course. It reaches beyond the clouds five miles into the sky – near aircraft cruising level at 8,848 metres, 29,029 feet – where there is so little oxygen and the air so cold humans cannot ordinarily survive, though many take on the dangers to reach its summit. And it’s still rising: colossal tectonic movements drive the subcontinent further under Eurasia and the snowy mountains upwards, upwards.

This time, our travels in Nepal will take us no further north than the foothills of the Kathmandu valley, but my preparations have still been fervid viewing and reading on Himalayan adventures, of sherpas, of Hilary and Norgay, Mallory and Irvine, of the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition, and high-flying bar-headed geese whose lungs can cope with rarefied air at Everest height – twice that – on their annual migration to the lowlands of India and the Nepal terai, to where we will travel in a few days. I’ve brought mountain literature, too, on snow leopards, on Tibetan monasteries and wilderness.

From this rooftop in a city 4,600 feet above sea level, I watch for birds – bulbuls and magpie robins, swifts and sparrows. Their bother and busyness make me think of the bustle down there, all that dense, high-rise living; mucky children, cadaverous dogs; of grand civic monuments tumbled in earthquake or unrest; chickens scratching at earth in between cars, and their dead kin garroted and gutted to bleed in the street. A flock of white egrets flaps past. Below our bedroom window, a man cooks in a battered pot on a wood fire at the doorway to a corrugated shed.

Kathmandu, formed at the confluence of two rivers where an ancient lake once existed, is the heart of a country of commingled and harmonious differences. Here are Buddhism and Hinduism, Christianity and Islam; Tibetan peoples from the north and Aryan tribes from the great plains of the Ganges that meld like all elements in nirvana; the many into one, single minds into universal mind, as ‘waves do not derive from water … [but] are water, in fleeting forms that are not the same and yet not different’ (Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard). Here we will seek all that difference and beauty, of people, foods and lands, of birds.

Phulchowki Mountain – a Twitching of Warblers
The air is tight, desperate for rain; it was forecast last night but did not come. This morning we head out of the city, beyond the brown heat of Kathmandu – the colour of dust and fumes and sultry air – south to the green valley foothills. Behind the oily smog, the sun is copper, rhododendron-pink. We are headed right to the peak of Phulchowki mountain, the highest in the region at 2760 metres. On a good day you can see the Himalayan range from here, but mists are low, and they linger all day.

Birdwatching these temperate forest slopes can be hard work – so much song and exotic frenzy, but high up, or flitting fast between dense tree lines. But stand still for long enough, and let all that thronging abundance come to you, and you understand Phulchowki’s reputation for sheer range of birds; one third of Nepal’s species can be seen here, one third of the one tenth of all the world’s species that can be found in this small country.

Barbets and cuckoos echo across the valley all day, but it is the birds right here, in front of us now, that I have come for. Minute by minute the trees and shrubs just feet away fill and fill with twitching passerines – some here to breed; others feeding up before flying north to the high Himalayas, or on to Siberia; some that winter lower down the slopes and now ascend to precise heights in spring – so active and so many it is difficult to make a start and the trees and rhododendron shrubs quiver and mutate. Our guide, Hathan, has expert ears and lists them all on song, the briefest snatches – ashy-headed warbler, chestnut-crowned – here a black-throated tit – Blyth’s leaf warbler here – buff-barred warbler – black-faced over here – here, here, green-backed tit, next to the grey-hooded warbler, just right of the fire-breasted flowerpecker. I am unused to abundance and vibrancy on such scale.

The famous French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s last work engaged with the overwhelming variousness of species, what he called the ‘multiplicity of the living’, all categorised into that most limiting, singular, and superficial of terms – animal. I think I am seeing something of what he implores us to recognise in all this shifting brilliance – not simply bird, not simply warbler, but individual; this being and that being; here curious, elusive, aggressive, now loud and fleeting, flicker, momentary stillness; creature and creature, bird colour and song, alert and quick to living on these leaves the same greens and yellows in one great, assembled movement.

All these birds, the coming and going up and down this mountain and valley, across the country, across continents. The privilege of moments like this I see now can and should inspire 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 us. Degrees of familiar and unfamiliar shift, for a time, though novelties – however strange or fine – so easily become ignored ordinaries. This twitching of warblers brings to me an elsewhere, carries a 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.

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Finding the fieldfare

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.

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Fieldfare in snow. Image: RSPB (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/f/fieldfare/).

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.

Enigmatic riddle birds

Bit of a cheat post this one, but since I’ve recently published a general-audience post on the Anglo-Saxon riddles site The Riddle Ages, I thought I’d provide a link for readers of this site who might be interested. It’s taken and adapted from work I’ve produced on the Old English Exeter Book Riddles – an amazing collection of riddles written in Old English (the only ones we have – everything else is in Latin) and compiled in a huge manuscript given by Bishop Leofric in 1072 to Exeter cathedral, where it still resides. Many of the riddles involve a first-person speaker who describes themselves in typically riddling, paradoxical style and then asks that the listener or reader saga hwæt ic hatte ‘say what I am called’. Intriguingly, in this manuscript at least, there are no answers. It really is a guessing game! The natural world features well in the collection of 90+ riddles, and birds make up a noticeable portion of these. There is a swan, a nightingale, a cuckoo, a barnacle goose, hens and a jay. Riddle 57 is nearly always solved as one species of bird or another (crow, swift, swallow), but no scholar has ever settled on which species. So … here are my thoughts on why we should pay more attention to the anonymity of the birds in Riddle 57 then the possibility of a precise answer: see here for the translation, and here for the commentary.

 

The Seafarer and the Seabirds

Last year I posted on a particular chapter of my PhD thesis that I was re-writing at the time. This will now be published in the peer-reviewed journal English Studies, so if any readers enjoyed the summary I provided here and want more, then here’s the link to the pre-print manuscript version: https://www.academia.edu/31023882/Native_Foreigners_-_Migrating_Seabirds_and_the_Pelagic_Soul_in_The_Seafarer_English_Studies_forthcoming_

The winter angel

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.

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The first of all my shrikes (John Leigh-Pemberton, Birds of Prey, Penguin, 1970); an early Ladybird book of birds (1954).

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.

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(Photo: Duncan Usher)

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.

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The Sherborne shrike (Image: Janet Backhouse, Medieval Birds in the Sherborne Missal, British Library, 2001).

Birds – wondrous transformations

I’ve rather neglected the blog this year, particularly in the second half as the pressure of finishing up the PhD has intensified. Very nearly there though. So … I’m going to cheat a little for this post, and offer an adaptation of my thesis introduction that ponders generally why birds are so significant in medieval thinking and writing. Probably for much the same reasons as they are in any age or culture, but (without digressing into broader philosophical contemplation on birds), here are my thoughts.

For starters, medieval writers must have been struck by birds’ bipedalism. Their two-footedness would have resonated with a commonplace medieval image: bipedal heaven-facing man and quadrupedal earth-facing beast, often invoked to defend human, rational superiority. Birds, in this way, set themselves apart from mankind’s anatomically closest quadruped relatives. Like humans, they achieve an elevated status separating them from other nonhuman creatures, and consequently, this aligns them with certain human privileges. Medieval encyclopaedic discussion of birds certainly recognised the literal manner in which birds were elevated: they are ‘of the eire’, the ‘foules of hevene’ who physically occupy a space that even mankind is denied in his or her earthly time. Birds, of course, were classed as animals, but their unique aerial skills also divided them from the lowly beasts, earned them ‘special mencioun … in the texte of the bible’. Their strange mobility must surely have registered with the conventional hierarchy in which humans are poised midway between animals and angels, as recalled in artistic representations in which angels are typically depicted with birds’ wings.

Birds were outliers in medieval conceptions: on the one hand, base and subject to human dominion as any other creature; on the other, aligned with human abilities and privileges. Birds’ uniqueness confounds intellectual attempts to categorise at all, making them both the most rewarding and challenging creatures against and with which to contemplate species and identities, whether human, nonhuman or human-nonhuman. Birds not only defy categories, but in doing so, they display remarkable transformative abilities that at once distinguish them, and provide them with the means of persistent escape from these laboursome human efforts to classify. In Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus’s popular De proprietatibus rerum (the standard medieval encyclopaedia), birds are described as ‘bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt’ [between the two elements that are most heavy and light]. Trevisa concludes: ‘it nediþ onliche to knowe þat among oþir kynde of beestis generalliche foules ben more pure and liȝt and noble of substaqunce and swift of meuynge and scharp of siȝt’ [it is only necessary to know that among other kinds of beasts generally, birds are more pure and light and noble of substance, swift of moving, and sharp of sight’.

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The gull (larus) is described in Trevisa’s translation of Bartholmaeus to demonstrate birds’ in between-ness: it ‘lives sometimes in water, sometimes on land … is in rivers and on land, and now seems like a fish, and now flies as a bird.

Perhaps even more alluring, though, is the medieval belief that birds’ flight engages these creatures in transformative evasions that literally leave no traces by which we might purchase more tangible understandings of avian being. Bartholomaeus states that birds are ‘without waye’ … for here [their] wayes in the eyre be not distinguyd in certayne’. Like other encyclopaedic treatments of the natural world, Bartholomaeus borrows from the hugely influential authority of Isidore of Seville (6th-7th cen.), whose observations on birds proliferate right across the Middle Ages: ‘They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways’. For Isidore, the very name for these creatures in Latin reveals their defining characteristic; not simply flight, but secretive flight known only to birds themselves.

There is another aspect of bird kind that Isidore identifies and which is repeated by his imitators. He notes that ‘There is a single word for birds, but various kinds, for just as they differ among themselves in appearance, so do they differ also in the diversity of their natures’. The great diversity of birds, as much as their flight, perpetuates the avian enigma. It is quite impossible (because ‘anone aftir þe fliȝt þe eire closiþ itself and leueþ noo signe neiþir tokene of here passage’ [immediately after their flight the air closes itself and leaves no sign nor trace of their passage]) for mankind ‘to penetrate all the wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia, so as to know the kinds of birds and their differentiating characteristics’.

St. Isidore, from the 12th-century Aberdeen Bestiary (see the Aberdeen Bestiary website)
Isidore of Seville, depicted in the 12th-century Aberdeen bestiary. Source: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/ms24/f81r

In all their diversity, birds embody, perform and represent transformation, variously and wondrously in their colours, moults, migrations, flights, oviparous reproduction, songs and displays. Medieval writers marvelled at how their prolific diversity of kind and appearance, and their distant, untraceable directions, make these aerial shape-shifters masters of evasion, misdirection and resistance, always moving across and beyond.

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.