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

This Morning’s Walk – Random Obervations from April 17th

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.

Reverse Migration: A Discourse into the Spirit of Place, Excerpt 2

If you missed excerpt 1, read it here.

Deeper

The frothy umbels of cow parsley along the lanes are beginning to fade, to be replaced by the brilliant white of ox-eye daisies . There is less birdsong; instead, fledglings shout from the hedges and trees, demanding food. Pheasant chicks burst from cover as I walk through Bypass Wood on my way to the village fen.

What shapes a landscape begins in its depths: the soils that lie beneath the heath and woodland and arable fields, influencing drainage, fertility, and acidity, affecting plant and animal life, human use, and even ownership. I am just beginning to see this on my walks, both around the village and further afield.

The Drift, which I walked along to reach Bypass Wood, was once access to the western sections of a much-larger Dersingham Common. The western reaches of the common were flatter than the current commons, and drier than the Bog Common. The edges of the old Dersingham Common and the edges of the sand-belt in the base soil map below follow a common line. Walking the Drift, the subtle land contours can be seen, especially at the western end, where the islands of high land rise above what once once marsh. Now only undulations in the wheat show the difference.

The base soil-map is below. Light mauve indicates coastal clays; the sand belt, running north through Sandringham and Dersingham, is avacado green. Blue is greensand, a mineral rich, coarser sand, and, moving west, the bright-and-dull greens are chalk.

bedrock mapBedrock legend

Walking east along the Drift, back into the village, the land rises infinitesimally, obvious only as the dyke on the southern edge gradually blends into the fields. Woodland and pasture lie on both sides now. These were part of the common land, but these were lands that could be put to the plough, and so, it appears, they were taken as part of the Dersingham Inclosure Act of 1797, when land-owners fenced common land for their own purposes. What was left as commons, for grazing, bracken, and wood for the villagers of Dersingham, was the common land lying on the less fertile, steep, greensand ridges that now make up Open and Shut-up Commons, and, the wet fenland of the Bog Common. This was the pattern repeated over Norfolk: the land left for the villagers was the poorest heath and fenland. (Although, deeper digging shows that some of the uses of Dersingham’s common land includes arable, grazing, and shooting rights…but the land used in this way is effectively not common land, although the revenues fund the management of what is left.)

My father’s memories of the common were of land utilized by the villagers. Pea-sticks were cut from the birches, and bracken gathered for fodder. There was a common-keeper, who slept in a shack on the common on a bed of bracken. Ponies grazed. Rabbits were taken for food. Heathland is a man-made landscape, but one so ancient it it is a valid and valuable ecosystem, habitat to flora and fauna found nowhere else. But changing ways of life changed the use of common land, and heathland was left to revert to birch and nettles, or else became pine plantations. Dersingham’s three public commons now are used primarily for dog-walking.

Heathlands may have sand, greensand, or chalk as the bedrock, but each type of heathland is slightly different. Sand heathlands tend to be acidic; that on chalk may have a thin layer of acidic soils overlying the alkaline chalk. Acidic heathlands, dominated by Erica species, were often planted to pines, especially where rabbits, warrened on the heath as a source of food, reduced the landscape to blowing sand. On the old map Sandringham Warren adjoins and perhaps includes part of Dersingham Common. Walking up the sand ridge that rises into Sandringham Park, the demarcation is a boundary ditch, crossed frequently now by unoffical paths; ‘official’ ones have bridges. This is all plantation, with an understorey of rhododendrons and other shrubs, and home to several species of tits. In early June they are all feeding young, and begging and contact calls fill the woods. Jays flit among the pines. There are no rabbits to be seen.

I feel no affinity for plantation (or most woodland, to be honest) and walk here only occasionally. But just west of here, and below the sand ridge, lies a large expanse of open heath: Dersingham Bog National Nature Reserve.

At dusk, (which is at ten p.m.) we drive to the Bog and walk out and down onto the reserve. We stand on the track, listening. From the pines edging the heath comes the churring of nightjar, a bird related to North America’s whipporwills and chuck-wills-widows. A night bird, becoming active at dusk to hunt moths and beetles over the heathland; sleeping motionless by day on horizontal branches.

Nightjar

Several birds churr, from both left and right of us. Brief glimpses are all we get as the birds swoop over the heath in the increasing dark. Dersingham Bog is low, a triangular scoop of land surrounded on two sides by the sand ridge and on the third by pine plantation: the birds do not show easily against the dark trees. Higher heaths give better views. As we walk back to the car glow-worms shine from the bracken.

In daylight, stonechat, woodlark, and tree pipit can be found here, and in the acidic bog that lies in the lowest elevation of the heath, a number of specialist acid plants – sundews, bog myrtle – grow. Butterflies and moths flit, and bumblebees (three species, told apart by the colours of their rumps and/or legs) gather nectar and pollen. In August, the heath flowers, brilliantly purple, and it can be very hot in this sheltered, sandy bowl. Like most heaths, it became significantly overgrown in the years following World War I, cleared in part and occasionally by fires generated by the railway that once ran beside it. Significant work was needed to return it to open heathland, maintained now by grazing cattle.