A world opens up, a world beyond the commonplace, a wild world.
I am ten years old, or maybe eleven. No older. I am wearing green shorts and a yellow shirt. I am alone; I often am: this is another time, another world, southern Ontario in the late 1960s. I can smell the dust of a July afternoon, feel the heat of the sun, see the purple of the vetch that lines the farm lane: the moment is fixed in my memory.
I’ve been out in the fields and woods, exploring, pretending, observing. The woodlot lies a quarter mile directly south of our house, twenty acres or so of field between the Norway spruce that line the southern edge of our yard and the woods. This is my world, and I share it with animals and birds I know: rabbits, groundhogs, the occasional skunk; crows, sparrows, robins.
I have – or rather my brother has, because this is meant to be a boy’s pursuit – a bird book written for young people. I look at it often; I like knowing the names of things: trees, birds, flowers, rocks. Even then I find my place in the world through its landscape – or, more precisely, although the word is not widely in use yet – the ecosystem that surrounds me.
It’s midafternoon, and I’m hungry. I’m heading home for a snack. Am I running? I think I might be. A bird flies up from beside the lane. I stop, in a moment of recognition and delight: a bright yellow breast, a distinct black V. A meadowlark, I tell myself. I’ve seen a meadowlark. Wonder suffuses me. They live here. They are real. A world opens up, a world beyond the commonplace, a wild world.
I will go on to see hundreds, if not thousands, of meadowlarks across the Americas, to recognize their whistled, flute-like song as a harbinger of spring, to mourn their decline as a grassland bird. As agriculture in southern Ontario changed, fields that were once pasture now grow corn and soybeans; hayfields are cut earlier, destroying nests; old fields on the edges of towns become housing developments. I have to look for meadowlarks now. But every first meadowlark of spring takes me back, just for a moment, to that ten-year-old realizing a world of wild beauty lay both beyond and within the familiar one, if I had the eyes to see.
Sometimes birding brings back a strong and immediate sense of place from another time or another country.
The Cooper’s hawks have fledged two young: I see them every few walks, never (yet) very far from their nest, and always together. There’s a noticeable size difference between them, but as they are still in juvenile plumage, I can’t tell if that’s a gender difference–females being noticeably larger than males–or if it’s just hatching order. By now, they should be hunting independently; the rich bird life of summer likely providing sufficient prey. If they survive through to the winter, they may well become one of the birds that swoops around the corner of our house to take a bird from a feeder. That between-houses and around-corners dash is characteristic of the Cooper’s Hawk (and its smaller, almost identical cousin the Sharp-shinned Hawk): Cooper’s Hawks were once called ‘chicken hawks’ because they used the same techniques in farmyards, using buildings as cover to grab a foraging chicken.
The thistles have gone to seed, and there seems, some mornings, to be a goldfinch feeding on almost every thistle head. They are nesting now, timed to coincide with the thistle and milkweed seed crops. They are by far the most common bird I see–and hear–on any walk. Right now, I’m seeing far more of the bright males than the olive-drab females, who are likely sitting on nests. As goldenrod comes into flower, I find it just a bit harder to find the males in the fields: not everything bright yellow is a goldfinch now!
In among the chipping sparrows this week was a cowbird chick, twice the size of its unknowing foster parents, actively going into begging mode – beak open, tail and wings quivering – each time its parents approached. Mostly, they ignored it: it could fly, and it was time for it to learn to feed itself. The chipping sparrows that nested in the forsythia hedge at our house raised a cowbird this year too: at first, of course, they fed it constantly, and then less often, and then not at all. For a day it sat on our deck railing or on top of a garden ornament, looking disconsolate, occasionally flying up to the feeder but not feeding, and then it vanished. But if it lives to adulthood, and it was a female, it will choose chipping sparrow nests to lay its eggs in too, because it was raised by them.
Sometimes birding brings back a strong and immediate sense of place from another time, or even another country. Juvenile American robins are everywhere: I must have counted over two dozen in one six kilometre walk the other day. But for some reason, every time I raised my binoculars to look at one, my brain said “Fieldfare”. Fieldfares are a European thrush, fairly closely related to American robins, and not dissimilar in appearance to their juveniles. But I’ve been looking at juvenile robins (consciously) for about fifty-five years. I’ve only been looking at fieldfares for about twenty-five, so I’m still trying to work out why I was so convinced I was not in North America: the day was classic Ontario high summer, and everything should have said ‘home’ to me.
My first fieldfares were in an old orchard at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, on Christmas Eve of 1991. We were driving to Scotland to spend Christmas Day with my husband’s cousins; Leighton Moss is in Lancashire, more or less on the way. I remember the day as changeable, cloud giving way to brilliant low sunshine, the light winking in and out. We were walking from the visitor’s centre along the lane that borders the reserve, making our way to the footpath that runs out into the reedbeds. A rush of wings, and thrushes exploded into the old orchard: fieldfare, and their cousins the redwings. Both were new to us, and in the winter light and bare trees they were a delight of sound and colour. I’ve seen both species many times since then, but I remember them best from that first sighting. Emily Dickinson wrote ‘hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…’ but for me, ‘the thing with feathers’ is a time machine, one that, in the time it takes to raise my binoculars, can take me from an August morning in Ontario in 2020 to a mid-winter afternoon in northern England in 1991.
Cooper’s Hawk: Pauk, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC 2.0;
Fieldfare: Teresa Reynolds, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC 3.0
Featured Image: Goldfinches on Milkweed (C) Marian L Thorpe 1994
I was mildly conscious there was some danger in my solo birding trips. There always is, for a woman travelling alone.
This is a very different blog post than I usually write, but it’s what I was thinking about for much of the day. I woke up yesterday mentally exhausted, from editing and book launches and promotion and marketing and my community newsletter responsibilities and reviewing and…..just too many words. My wrists ached from typing. My eyes were dry. My creativity was missing. So I went birding instead.
Alone. I needed space and silence. I drove up to a lake about an hour north of us, and walked around a pond and then along the lakeshore, and looked at trumpeter swans and blue herons and pied-billed grebes, and the osprey overhead and the swallows chattering over the water, and listened to yellow warblers singing. I took pictures of wildflowers. I startled a white-tailed doe, and a lot of turtles. And I thought about my two solo birding trips: one a week in the High Island area of Texas; one a road trip out across the Dakotas and up into Saskatchewan.
I was in my 50s, for both trips. In Texas I stayed in one place, and did day trips to the local wildlife refuges. On the road trip, except for three nights at Grasslands National Park, I moved every day. I drove back roads; I stopped at ponds and potholes and rivers; I hiked into prairie. I had no phone reception, much of the time, and anyhow, my husband was in Peru when I was in Texas, and in Papua New Guinea when I was on the road trip.
I was mildly conscious there was some danger in what I was doing. There always is, for a woman travelling alone. I was always alert; not on edge, but alert. Once or twice I returned to my car earlier than I’d planned, because something made me nervous: a pickup truck stopping, its driver watching me, that sort of thing. Once or twice I didn’t stop at a location I’d meant to, because who was already there concerned me.
Then this week I read stories from birders who are black, men and women, about their experiences in the field: about the suspicion they often are met with. How they are watched, and sometimes followed, and challenged. How having the police called can so easily outweigh the pleasure of birding. What are they doing, with those binoculars or spotting scope or camera?
I thought about the slight extra alertness I had on those trips, and the few times I listened to instinct and didn’t bird. What if every day was like that? How many challenges or scrutiny would it take to stop me birding entirely? How much fear? I think of the joy and delight birding has brought me in the fifty years I’ve been consciously doing it, and what I would have lost if I’d been driven away from it.
Racism mars lives – destroys lives – in worse ways, without a doubt. But the scream of an osprey or the chatter of tree swallows – and the ability to stop and watch and listen– should belong to everyone. I am doing my best to simply listen to and learn from the voices calling (again) for change, because I know much of what is behind these valid and overdue demands is outside of my experience. But this one small thing isn’t.
I don’t know, yet, how – or if – I can help bring about change. But I can ask how. I can try. That’s what I thought about today, while the yellow warblers sang.
“Retirement” still seems to involve twelve-hour days.
Posts have been few and far between recently….my apologies. Here’s why. I’ve just finished printing and framing twelve new versions of graphic prints, to be included in a display of eighteen of my works that I’m hanging next Wednesday. I also completed Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the Empire’s Legacy Series, this week, prepped the files for printing, and sent them off – just waiting now to get the first proof edition. This was also the last week of the on-line university course I’ve been taking, on the landscape archaeology of Britain…and then there’s been the community newsletter, the community herb garden, retirement parties to attend, books to edit, the kitchen cabinets to prep for painting (next week!), and all those little things – like grocery shopping and meal prep and time with friends – in-between.
“Retirement” still seems to involve twelve-hour days – I’m usually started on the day’s work a bit after 7 a.m…..and it generally continues on to about 7 p.m. I’m still fairly reliant on my on-line calendar to remind me what’s next to be done. The huge difference is that I’m doing exactly what I want to, most of the time, and an hour-long bike ride to pick up my library books and a liter of paint is multi-tasking – exercise and errands in one – but it’s FUN. And if I feel like taking a day (or more) off, there’s no-one to tell me I can’t, or shouldn’t…hence our week in Cape Cod and the White Mountains at the beginning of the month, a fairly last-minute decision. (But if we were ever going to see Bicknell’s Thrush, it had to be done. I’m pleased to say we were successful.)
I’m going to drop the pace for a few weeks, though: it is, after all, summer. There are outdoor concerts to attend (weather permitting, in changeable and stormy Ontario this year), books to read….and cupboards to paint. I need a break before I start writing Empire’s Exile, Book III, plus there are a few other projects that have been on the back burner…and in the fall I start a new university course that will help with the background for Exile. I will, of course, keep everyone updated on the release and promotions for Empire’s Hostage, but also, I hope, some other posts…I miss it!
To my Canadian readers, have a safe and fun Canada Day weekend, remembering that Canada 150 is also Turtle Island 15,000. We have a lot to celebrate, some things not to, and a lot of work to do. Happy July 4th to my US readers: stay safe: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum; and to the rest of the world, whatever season it is, enjoy!
Fluttering against the glass windows was a young kestrel. Pursuing a house sparrow, it had flown in the open door of the patio.
Sometimes two parts of a life can collide unexpectedly. At my Monday morning writer’s group, which meets in the upstairs restaurant/bar of an independent bookstore, we had propped the patio doors open to let in the summer breezes. We’d all been working about an hour – this is a place for silent writing, not discussion or sharing – when I heard a high-pitched, rapid cry from the bar area. My writer’s brain disengaged, my birder’s brain engaged – that was the cry of a bird in fear of its life.
I and another writer ran for the bar area. Fluttering against the glass windows was a young kestrel. Pursuing a house sparrow, it had flown in the open door of the patio. The house sparrow was somewhere in the room, but our priority was the kestrel.
A sweater was found and thrown over the terrified bird. The other writer – herself experienced in bird banding – carefully carried it out onto the patio and let it go. I searched the room for the sparrow, but it was hiding somewhere.
About half an hour later someone came in from the bar area to say the sparrow was fluttering against the front windows. It was a simple matter to drop my cotton shirt over it, and carry it carefully to the patio. It vocalized the same rapid, high-pitched distress call the whole time I held it, but flew away as soon as I freed it from the confining cloth.
The chances of this happening are minuscule. Kestrels eat primarily insects, although small birds are also part of their diet; my guess is this was an inexperienced and hungry young bird that thought a house sparrow was fair game.
And when both birds were free again, my writer’s brain re-engaged and I went on to write 600 words of Empire’s Hostage.
Courting yellow-shafted flickers, the male at the top of a dead branch, the female lower on the same branch. The male drums, moves his head to the left, fans his tail. The female moves her head to the right. Back and forth they do this, the male drumming every third or fourth time, heads moving back and forth in precise time. He’s dressed to impress, every black dot on his buff-yellow breast crisp, his red nape gleaming, his tail feathers glowing gold in the morning sun. The dance goes on for about five minutes, until the male flies to another drumming perch to beat a louder cannonade. There is no visible response from the female.
A small, thin, whistle from high in the maples catches my attention. Looking up, thinking to find a small bird, I find instead a male wood duck, standing on a branch. I watch his bill open and close as the thin ‘zeeting’ is repeated. Definitely him. An unexpected sound from a duck.
Walking through Victoria Woods, a funnel of leaves rises and falls from the forest floor, rising to no more than a foot or so off the ground, falling nearly to nothing, then rising again, moving east to west. I can see the track of disturbed leaves several meters into the woods. It looks animate, or animated by something invisible – which of course it is: a small whirlwind. But the experience had an odd feel, as if I was seeing something of faerie, not this world.
I would like to know this place intimately, to understand its ecology and geology, its weather, its landscape, its history. I want to watch the seasons here, the ebb and flow of waders on the Wash, feel the wind off the North Sea in the winter, bringing hard frost and snow; hear the nightjars churring on the Fen at a summer’s dusk; see the hordes of geese returning, and leaving, autumn and spring.
Norfolk, England, May 2015
Beyond the village, west towards the Wash, flat fields of barley and wheat, latticed with ditches, lie on either side of the paved right-of-way out to the water. Once this was marsh, and from the satellite images on Google Earth, the patterns of waterflow can still be seen, like a ghost, or a memory, held in the soil.
Around the village, around its bungalows and houses, shops and pubs, church and hall, people going about their lives shopping, walking dogs, gardening, working, I see other ghosts, memories not my own underlying the quotidian. My father’s memories, and his parents, and beyond that for unknown years. Memories now at their newest eighty-seven years past, and going back for generations.
I would like to know this place intimately, to understand its ecology and geology, its weather, its landscape, its history. I want to watch the seasons here, the ebb and flow of waders on the Wash, feel the wind off the North Sea in the winter, bringing hard frost and snow; hear the nightjars churring on the Fen at a summer’s dusk; see the hordes of geese returning, and leaving, autumn and spring. I would like, as much as can be in a changed world, to know this place as my forebearers did, the knowledge of foot and sight and smell and feel. I have been making small beginnings, over the last thirty years, coming closer together over these last ten. What can I learn, this time, in a month in spring?
I am walking in what I am arbitrarily determining as the boundaries: the old marshes west of the A149; the three commons of Dersingham; the footpath on the old railway line as far north as Ingoldisthorpe; Sandringham Park and Dersingham Bog NNR. The first walk was to and from the Wash.
A century ago my great-grandfather built a tiny wooden bungalow, a beach cottage, on the shingle beyond the marshes. I do not know exactly where. Between Dersingham and the Wash were the marshes, and, the first part of the lane which is now the bridleway from Station Road, which is recorded on Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk. There was (and is) also the Drift, a droveway to move sheep on and off the marshes.
What lay between the edge of the village and the Wash I imagine to be much like the shooting marsh beside Titchwell: a mix of rush and sedge and ling, cut with hundreds of channels and small ponds, rich with wildfowl, water vole and waders. Perhaps not, though; perhaps it was grazing marsh, diked and drained, wet meadow. And perhaps it was a mix of the two; I suspect this is the most likely. Some of the drains, or sluices, are on Faden’s map, so drainage had begun in at least the 1700s. At some point in the 1920’s, my grandfather, Percy, and one of his brothers-in-law, Sid or Eph, walked out from the Drift to the bungalow, across the wet land and the unbridged waterways. Because this story was still being told eighty years later, I think they arrived very wet, very muddy, and to a good telling off from the women.
Now the bridleway and some of the side lanes are paved, huge, tilting slabs of concrete pavement. I am not sure when this was done: either before the war, when the shingle from the pits at the Wash’s edge was being removed, or after the floods of 1953. To the south of the bridleway, the land belongs to the Sandringham estate; to the north, to (mostly) another landowner. The land is arable, planted to cereals for the most part, but also managed for wildlife, or at least for shooting. Weedy headlands, broad buffer strips on either side of the waterways and around each field, some fields left to grass fallow, strips and clumps of trees: all give shelter not only to the pheasant and red-legged grouse, but to other wildlife. The first morning we walked out there were hares everywhere. Marsh harriers hunted over the fields and the marshes; whitethroat, dunnock, robins, blackcaps, and reed and sedge warblers sang, along with finches, green and gold, and linnets. Songs I do not know, songs to learn, to become part of the tapestry.
A few greylag geese are raising goslings in the fields near the Wash, along with several Egyptian geese. Oystercatchers and ringed plover nest on the beach. Goldfinches twitter from the tops of the blackthorn. Cuckoos call from the woodlands. A whitethroat sings from every bush or tall reed along the ditches, it seems; some will be raising cuckoo chicks, unwittingly.
But while the land has changed, two things have not: the sky and the sea. The vast Norfolk skies, the ebb and flow of the tide over Ferrier and Peter Black Sands, and the birds that belong to both: in May, oystercatchers, dunlin, knot and grey plover, feeding at the edge of the sands, moving with the tide, or taking to the skies in huge wheeling flocks, sometimes put up by a peregrine, sometimes by seemingly nothing. And along with waders, black-headed gulls, nesting on the rocks and islands of the pits, or out on the remnants of the shingle gantry, a structure that was built in the 1930s to load the beach pebbles onto boats, and has withstood the storms of 1953 and 2013.
I am drawn to this flat and open land. There are several walks through woodland available to me, but my instinct is to go west, out into the fields, or the fen. I explore different routes: there is a permissive path that runs north from the Station Road bridleway, over to the edge of Ingoldisthorpe Common: I try that. It loops around two fields: the part that parallels the A149 is loud with road noise, and a few birdsongs from the belt of woodland between the road and the fields, but the western side is quiet. I watch buzzards hunting, one coming down repeatedly into the uncut hayfield beside me, but I see no evidence of success. But it’s an adult bird, so it knows what it’s doing. A kestrel hovers over the same grasses but does not dive. In the distance a cuckoo calls, and the ubiquitous wood pigeons beat across the fields.
Another time I access the fields a bit further south, from the Drift. The Drift runs, for much of its length, between a thick hedge or woodland on the south and a ditch on the north, edged first with houses and then with fields. West of the A149 the southern side is a mix of field and woodland, but the boundary is still treed. Good songbird habitat; lots of blue tits, robins, dunnocks. Wildflowers grow on both sides: yellow flag iris in the ditch, kingscup and buttercup, all yellow. On the woods’ side a creeping purple mint – heal all? – and a starry white flower colour the grasses. I need a book. Or an app.
Where the Drift ends at a cross lane – a Sandringham estate farm lane, and at least to the north open to walkers to make a connection with the bridleway to the Wash – I stop, and look west, thinking of my grandfather’s walk. To do that walk today, were it possible, there are at least three waterways to be crossed: Boathouse Creek, a drain, and the River Ingol, challenges in themselves. What is gone is the vast web of minor channels between them, and the right to access.
I watch the fields for a while. Gulls circle and scream at the edge of the Wash, a kilometer or so distant. Pheasants call. To the south, in the woodland called Gogg’s Whins and firmly signed as to no public access, there are feeding stations for the gamebirds: these are birds for the shooting.
A gamekeeper and his black lab begin to walk a field north of me, paralleling the Drift. As I turn and walk east again, we keep pace with each other. When he reaches a small woodland, I hear the shotgun. I can’t determine what he’s after – possibly wood pigeon, more likely one of the Corvidae – crow or magpie. I hear half a dozen shots as I continue east.
Back within the village boundaries a gate opens off the Drift and into a woodland marked on the maps as Bypass Wood. (Unless a woodland or other landscape feature is very old, it will tend to have a practical name: Bypass Wood edges the A149 bypass of the villages of Dersingham, Ingoldisthorpe and Snettisham, and does not appear on the 1992 Ordnance Survey map.) I follow the path round and through the woodland, hearing long-tailed tit, and enter the village fen at its western end. The village fen (once known as Bog Common) is one of the three commons of Dersingham, and would have once been grazed, the reeds gathered and the birches cut for fuel and peasticks; now it is managed as a nature reserve.
I watch a family of robins in one clump of birches, and a single female blackcap. The path branches and I cross the Lynn Road and enter Sandringham Woods, immediately turning left and back up the hill (well, small rise, but this is Norfolk, so it’s a hill), crossing at some point onto Shut-Up Common. More long-tailed tits chatter from the birches which dominate the common now: once it was open heath and bracken, kept that way by the large population of rabbits, and the commoner’s right of wood gathering. Myxomatosis reduced the rabbit population, and most villagers don’t gather wood now. I follow the track across to Heath Road and onto Open Common, and come out on the Lynn Road. From here it’s a ten minute walk back to the cottage.
Had I chosen to walk up Heath Road, I would have passed the house my great-grandfather had built, known then as The Retreat. From this house, it’s a twenty-minute or so walk through Shut-Up Common and across what is now Sandringham Country Park to Sandringham House itself, a walk (or perhaps a boy’s run) my father did frequently in the years he lived here, sent to Sandringham with a message for his grandfather. When he and I and my sister came back, he was in his early 80s and had not made that walk in seventy years, but he unerringly took us across the overgrown common with its branching paths, and onto the estate, the memory of the landscape lying deep within the hidden neural networks of his mind.
These two poems reflect just a little of the awe and joy watching birds has given me over the last forty years.
Lucifer, and, Terns at Hong Kong Harbour
These two poems reflect just a little of the awe and joy watching birds has given me over the last forty years.
Lucifer (Sterna paradisaea)
Arctic Terns live almost entirely in light for their entire lives. They fly 30,000 km each year, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. Their return – south or north – heralds the light, and spring.
I often go walking when I’m working out plot points, conflicts, or scenes, and today was no exception. I’m reaching a fairly pivotal plot point in Empire’s Hostage, and I needed to think about it. However, I’m also house-and-cat sitting for my sister this week, and so am close to the birding mecca of Point Pelee National Park. And those of you who’ve read my bio on various sites know I’m also a birder.
It’s fall, not the intense migration of spring with birds (and birders) in hordes. So I figured I could walk, look at a few birds and think about plot at the same time. Ha! Warblers everywhere. Thrushes everywhere. Sparrows everywhere and all the Eastern Phoebes in the world, it seemed. I’d walk a few paces, thinking… “if Lena does this, how will Cillian react?” and would just start formulating a scene and ‘What’s that? A black-throated green? Yes, juvenile male….ok, where was I? Cillian doesn’t like…..Now what? Kinglet…which one…golden-crowned, should be a ruby-crowned in this bunch somewhere…”
This went on for my entire two hour walk. I can’t turn my birding brain off; it’s just not possible. I wonder if Margaret Atwood has this problem? (Canadian writer extraordinaire and also a birder, in case you’re unsure.)
However, at the end of the two hours, I had seen a ruby-crowned kinglet along with a lot of other birds, and had more or less worked out the next couple of scenes, albeit in a very fragmented way. So once I’ve got today’s records entered in e-bird, I’ll go and write for a couple of hours. Away from the window and the bird feeders.