January 30th (Firecrest)

The cloud of uncertainty looming fretfully over 2019 began to burst into precipitation, perhaps even earlier than I feared. I felt some days as though it would drown me. There was little to feel positive about, even as I considered my relative good fortune compared to many of the world’s poor and marginalised. Somehow our minds don’t do rationality as much as we might like to. When I could, I took myself away to the woods or the lake. A cold, bright late January afternoon tempted me outside, but by the time I finally left the shelter of my office grey clouds had scudded in on the easterly breeze. A few pellets of graupel, that curious polystyrene-like soft hail, made it through the oak canopy to bounce on the path in front of me. I made my way through the Reading Wilderness towards the gate where firecrests have wintered for most of the last seven years, the hail picking up as I approached the spot. I took shelter under a laurel to wait out the storm.

I’d already tried this corner of the Wilderness for firecrests several times this year, as well as other places I’ve seen them on campus in the past, hoping for the little lift these dazzling little birds always give me. Firecrests are in some ways the perfect birder’s bird: just scarce enough to be challenging to find; just common enough for you to chance on at least once a year—or more regularly if, like me, you are blessed with knowing a regular wintering or breeding haunt. They are, of course, also quite beautiful; I would say objectively so, their eye stripes and bright lemon-green plumage giving them a stylistic edge over the more common goldcrest. Perhaps it is my imagination—along with the intense sternness of their expression compared to the more demure goldcrest with its short moustache—but everything else about them seems bolder too. Firecrests have a louder and sharper call and song, and their quick, precise darting movements through dense foliage are particularly tricky to follow.

Shortly after ducking into the shrubs I heard an insistent three-part call from a nearby holly. Hoping I was identifying it correctly, I broke cover, the shower now receding anyway, and caught a glimpse of movement ahead. There indeed was a firecrest, sheltering closely within a few holly bushes with occasional forays into a low patch of rhododendron. Every minute or so it let out a short burst of song, a rising series of notes to match the lift in my mood. I almost audibly sighed with relief—relief that firecrests were still among us, that I had been gifted this small moment of transformation. A foolish response, for just one little bird? I don’t think so. It truly is the most wonderful mystery, that a simple encounter with a fellow wild creature can bring such a dose of uncomplicated joy. That isn’t to say that to fix all our problems all we need to do is go birding. But it might be a bigger part of the answer to life than we often suspect.

P1060202 (2)

Firecrest wintering habitat on Whiteknights campus, busy Wilderness Road just beyond.

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