The Thing with Feathers

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.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

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.

Fieldfare

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.

Photo credits:

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

Reverse Migration: A Discourse into the Spirit of Place: Excerpt 4

Did my Saxon ancestors come this way?

Movement

The great chalk arable uplands of Norfolk have very little of wild left, being intensively farmed to wheat and barley, rapeseed and sugarbeet.  But even here, hedgerows, lanes, and verges have life, and many farms are part of stewardship schemes, leaving ‘weedy’ margins, not cutting hedgerow and lane verges, putting up nestboxes.

The bird I notice most ‘up’ here (up being by Norfolk standards only) is the yellowhammer, singing its ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song. (To me, it sounds more like ‘see me see me see me please’.)  It’s a bunting (ammer means bunting in Germanic (Saxon?) dialect, so, yellow-ammer = yellow bunting) of dry, open country, and these wide fields suit it well.  I am walking, on a  warm and sunny day, a section of the Roman road known as the Peddar’s Way, running north from Thetford to Holme.  It’s a lane here, bordered on both sides by hedges, with occasional opening s to the fields.  A hare lopes toward me:  it hasn’t seen me yet.  In every spot of shade it stops.   Eventually it realizes I’m here, although I’ve stopped and am as still as I can be, and it disappears into the hedge.

round barrow
Bronze Age round barrow near Anmer

The land slopes slowly down, south and west, to the valley of the Babingley.  On the highest ground are several Bronze Age barrows, round, slightly conical hills.  On the lower slope would have been the fields, and below that, closest to the water, some industry.  The barrows were ancient when the Romans – or more likely, auxiliary troops from somewhere in the Empire – built this road nearly two thousand years ago. There is a good chance they were from Pannonia, a Roman province lying south and west of the Danube, based on a military diploma – a document granting citizenship after twenty-five years of service – found in Norfolk a few years ago. Walking away from Pannonia to service in Rome’s most northerly province, they would have heard yellowhammers singing along the road.

***

If I continue south, I will come to the B1145, the old Saxon road running across Norfolk west to east, from the port of King’s Lynn to Aylsham, north of Norwich, where it meets a north-south road. If I walk north, I will come to the road from Flitcham to Docking called the Norman Road. I can find no documentary evidence to tell me this is truly a Norman road, but the name is tantalizing. Roman, Saxon, Norman roads, intersections of time and history.

In the triangle of land bordered by the Peddar’s Way, the Norman Road, and the by-way from Anmer to West Rudham lies another Bronze Age burial mound. This one is reputed to have had a second use: that of the moot-hill for the hundred, the administrative unit of the area in Saxon times. Moot-hills were the location for the courts and administrative debate and rulings and were supposed to be as close to the centre of the hundred as practicable. I walk by it on on a sunny January day, the track beneath my feet muddy and rutted. Did my Saxon ancestors come this way, to hear judgment at this ancient hill, walking in the same mud up from what is now West Newton?

Roads are not static things: they come in to being and they disappear. Sometimes traces remain only as cropmarks seen from aerial photographs and as earthworks on the ground, or even only as excavated archaeology, as is the case with some of the oldest trackways across the fens. Changes in land ownership moved roads; villages were deserted in medieval times by plague or by planned changes by the landowners and roads fell into disuse; enclosure of common lands removed access. But many of the roads shown on old maps of this area are still in use, as bridleways and footpaths. East of Castle Rising the old road from the village to the watermill on the Babingley is now a footpath leading to the bus stop on the A149.

Partridge run from the side of the track; here, they are mostly grey partridge, the native bird, and growing rare in most of Britain. Management practices on the two huge estates bordering the Peddar’s Way here have allowed it to maintain reasonable populations; the same practices allow the yellowhammers to flourish. Harriers – marsh, hen and this winter a vagrant Pallid Harrier – are winter hunters over these upland fields, joined by barn owl and short-eared owl, common and rough-legged buzzard, and little owl. Once, a road, extant on the 1797 map, ran across the Peddar’s Way to the hamlet of Flitcham, where an abbey stood before the dissolutions. No trace of the road, even as footpath or cropmarks, remains west of the Roman road, although it continues in use as a footpath to the east. But were it there, and I could walk it to Flitcham, I would come to Abbey Farm, where the remnants of the fishponds and water management canals of the abbey are now overlooked by a bird hide, and a huge old oak is home to a pair of little owls. These tiny owls – they are about the size of a starling – might have been known to the Roman soldier, but not from here. Nor would my Saxon ancestor have known them (although their first Norman overlords, born in France, might have). Introduced to England in the latter half of the 19th century, they are a bird native to Europe and Asia. It is just possible that my father, as a boy, would have seen them hunting mice over the pastures.