Monday December 16th
There exists in American birding lingo a condition known as ‘binocular neck’, which is the result of spending too long in the car with – as the name suggests – binoculars weighing heavily around one’s neck. This being a vast country criss-crossed by often near abandoned highways, American birders are masters at birding from a moving car and it seems they’re prepared to risk even their spinal health to get that drive-by tick.
On Britain’s twisty roads packed with traffic, I wouldn’t dare attempt to drive with binoculars so close at hand, and prefer to keep them on the passenger seat (or perhaps tucked under the driver’s seat if I’m not alone) ready to grab once the car is safely stationary. Though I still must confess to having been called out on occasion for watching the birds, not the road. But what if one day it actually is a honey buzzard, identified even as I veer all over the carriageway? All that risk-taking might just pay off.*
It’s Christmas. (In case you hadn’t noticed.) Which, especially this year, seems to mean it’s time, in the best spirit of seasonal love and peace, to harangue each other for our beliefs about what it all means. Even the name of the season is a point of contention, such that I daresay I’ve set somebody off on a rant simply by typing the word ‘Christmas’. So I’m here today in my self-appointed role as referee of this philosophical slugging match, to call time on the fight. Secularists, atheists, humanists, whatever you call yourselves – yes, we know. We know that Christmas is a borrowed festival, shoe-horned by the Romans into old pagan rites to encourage people to convert people to Christianity. But let’s face it: the religious elements you dislike aren’t going to go away anytime soon just because you made a few snarky comments on somebody’s well-meant ‘Merry Christmas’ Facebook message, or retweeted something clever that a celebrity atheist said.
For that matter, Christians: knock it off. Yes, you’ve been on the scene for a long time now and deserve to be heard. But you don’t own festivals that celebrate light coming into darkness. Jesus may be the reason for this particular iteration of the season, but he didn’t invent it. And do bear in mind that there are at least two narratives of his birth presented in the New Testament which just about flatly contradict each other*, even to the point that it’s not even clear he was born in Bethlehem (Nazareth seems more likely). Whatever purpose these stories were written for, it’s unlikely to have been as factual historical accounts. Try focusing less on what supposedly happened, and more on the deeper meaning that lies beneath and you may discover a more radical, less divisive Christmas.
Sunday, December 15th
The first successful sighting of a bird on my target list was almost too easy. I’d stepped not a half pace onto the damp field behind Cedar Ridge Community Church when a loose group of small birds dropped in and scattered across the puddle-strewn grass ahead of me, subtly attired in warm beige and brown and gently peeping as they came. Pipits!
The buff-bellied pipit (Anthus rubescens, known here as an American pipit) strikes me as combining features of several of the pipits I’m used to back home. Their dark legs and relatively dark plumage call to mind the predominately coastal-dwelling rock pipit (indeed, the two were once considered so closely related they were lumped together, with water pipit, as a single species), but the American species’ affinity for grassland most resembles the habitat preference of meadow pipits. And, like meadow pipits, these are charming, active little birds, an underrated plus of winter birding in the lowlands.