Heaven in Ordinary

Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise.

(George Herbert, 1593-1633)

Before Thursday, it had been a little while since I’d had a proper day-long bird outing, a proper brilliant one — where rarities and scarcities reveal themselves after just a few minutes’ searching, and common birds vie to see which species can offer me the most revealing view. This was a day touched by the kind autumn air and still revelling in the season’s great voyages and crossovers: swallows weaving the air and making final preparations for Africa above freshly arrived flocks of chattering Brent geese from the far north. A day that feels full of possibility and makes you glad to be alive, and, more to the point, glad to be using that life to go a-birding.

I was led to Christchurch Harbour in Dorset to find a red-breasted goose. I’d missed one back on one of winter’s dipping days, struggling vainly through each flock of Brent on the Keyhaven marshes in Hampshire. To miss a bird once is unfortunate; to miss twice, unforgivable — so I didn’t have a lot of choice. And it’s not like twitching one of your archetypal brown jobs of legend. This is a fine figure of a goose, a small Branta with an orange-red washed front and a square of the same colour on its cheek, edged with white. And though vagrants are normally of little conservation relevance, it is pleasing to see a red-breast find refuge on the English coast — things aren’t always so peaceful on its regular wintering grounds far to the east, where it’s as likely to be shot as anything else, and rapid land use changes might be hammering the population numbers. As usual there’s a large slice of uncertainty to serve up with that story, so its endangered status is precautionary and research is ongoing.
But back to the more mundane matter of Thursday October 20th, where the only shooting going on in Dorset was of the photographic kind. A kindly gentleman leaning on his camera’s mono-pod pointed out the Brent flock behind a distant island, with which cousins my quarry had flown just out of visible range. He warned of a potentially long wait for the incoming tide as he prepared to leave, but we hadn’t even finished this conversation before a small goose flew in, along the marsh edge and down to rest in a nearby creek. “You lucky so and so!” he exclaimed, deciding to stay on a few minutes and share what were superb views.

So far, so good. What more rare treats lay in store? I started back to the car, and very soon heard a quick trilling sort of ‘peep’, and ahead of me a flash of blue slowed up and alighted on a streamside wall. Kingfisher. I must confess to occasionally sneering at the idea of kingfisher as a favourite bird. It’s too obvious, isn’t it, too gaudy, a most un-English sort of show-off. But then, I’m also an idiot. Perched in the afternoon sun, this particular bird burned with unmatchable glory. After two unsuccessful dives for fish it turned its back on me, and I swear I can still see the outlandish blue of its tail seared into my retina every time I blink. Then with another lightning flash a second bird zipped in from upstream. The two sat together, occasionally turning to each other and bowing, or facing in opposite directions, one facing forwards, one back as if to better display the whole range of colours kingfishers have to offer. In between fishing trips, the two took little waddles onto a footpath, to indulge in a little more head bobbing and tail waving — something I’d certainly never seen before.

I tore myself away only when the birds were likewise rent from their rest by an unsuspecting rambler on the path. But round the next corner, a magpie got in on the act. He, or she, perhaps jealous of the attention paid to kingfishers, whilst its kind are often scorned as thieves, held out its long tail — nearly blinding me with a burst of iridescent green. Sitting up, its wings then turned azure blue before it flicked away, muttering in triumph to itself. Then, starlings. Intrusive, bold, bizarre in their clicking, squeaking, spectacular clamorous noise, fully occupying the bushes I was walking right past and refusing to fly. Instead, they simply showed off in the sun. And oh! What purples. What jet black, what royal gold, and emerald green. A million colours and more — one starling being quite as glorious, when really seen well, as the million-strong flocks normally considered this bird’s sole great spectacle.

Eventually the spell wore off, as spells by clichéd convention must. Golden hours of birding never last. But for a short while, the sacred and sublime was revealed around every average, ordinary corner. I set out to list, to see things I’d never seen before by seeking out new forms of aves, to see rare birds from the furthest reaches of the continent. And I did. That goose was a wonderful bird, and as they say, a ‘fantastic tick’. But I teased out the freshest insights and keenest moments of wonder from the obliging ‘regulars’. For all of these birds, in their own ways, are mere ordinary things. To a kingfisher, there’s nothing extraordinary about being a kingfisher. It just is. Those starlings and magpies are regular parts of the ecological fabric of this corner of the western palearctic. But to the receptive Homo sapiens they offer a window to something outside of ourselves — little glimpses of paradise.

A handsome beast. But more so than a kingfisher, or even a starling? Well OK, it is fairly rare.

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