In Plain Sight

Walking across the campus where I work yesterday I paused by a small ornamental tree at the side of a busy path. There’s nothing particularly special about the tree, although it has attractively smooth, papery silver bark and a pleasingly twisted architecture. I must remember to ask one of the botanists in my department (or anybody else who might know) what it is.

My eye had been caught by a small fleck of something hanging from the trunk which may or may not have been an insect. It turned out to be the remains of a shieldbug (probably a parent bug Elasmucha grisea), still recognisable despite its form being obscured by a shroud of spider silk. As I inspected it, I noticed two aphids climbing the tree nearby – one large (for an aphid), pea green and winged, the other chocolate brown, unwinged, with distinct lines across the abdomen. The more I looked, the more aphids I saw, until I could see that quite a number were advancing up the trunk of the tree in several loose columns, starting right at the base and roughly reaching head height.

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Blogueuse invitée: M. Gorgebleue

M. Gorgebleue (By Daniel Bastaja, [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons)

Bonjour! Je suis très delighted to make your acquaintance.  Je m’appelle Monsieur Gorgebleue, une très jolie inhabitante de northern France. Monsieur et Madame Oiseau-chapeau et Monsieur et Madame Poisson cherched pour moi far and wide près de Calais last Jeudi, but got not one glimpse. Zey sought me high, zey sought me low. Zey sought me in the marais, zey sought me sous les arbres, zey sought me à côté de la mer. Mais zey did not catch me. For I am French! I am cunning, superior, far too clever for zese English types. Zey watched for me, crazy twitchers, but little did zey know zat I was watching zem. Come, je will tell you about it.

Tous les English twitchers, they are très jealous that fromage-munching oiseau lovers in France see me all of ze time – me, ze magnificent gorge-bleue, avec mon magnificent gorge bleue! Did je mention je suis très jolie? Zey would do anysink for to have me habite à Londres or some other stinky rosbif town. Mais, je suis très happy living dans la belle France. Why not?! For here, une gorge-blue comme moi can spend two hours having ze lunch, avec beacoup de vin, et two hours having ze nap afterwards. C’est magnifique, non? Whereas, zese stupid Anglo types are always chasing about after ze money, or ticking les oiseaux if zat way inclined, or whatever else it is zey do with zemselves. I tell you, zese Anglos are crazy!

And zese en particulier were crazier zan most. Getting up at le dawn, and catching a très early ferry from Dover (like Calais, mais wiz more cliffs and wizout le cheap wine), ze fools were full of le optimism. Avec une grande shopping list: honey buzzards, golden orioles, marsh warblers, melodious warblers – ze last two are very plain looking, hardly worth le bothering with. But zen, there was also moi. Le magnificent gorge-blueue, avec mon magnificent gorge bleue. Très jolie, I assure you. At least zey had some taste.

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Cardinals are for Christmas

(C) Judie Howie,

Granted, robins are Christmassy. English robins that is, with festive bright bobbing red-orange breasts, cheeky cheery cocked heads and a fearless approach to people (unlike their shy continental European counterparts), they are quite worthy of gracing many a Christmas card. But then, I think birds in general quite Christmassy, because I sometimes quite like Christmas, and I very much like birds. That’s a well-documented fact.

Here in America, though, I think they’ve outdone us. The Northern Cardinal is the North American Christmas bird, and it’s an absolute yuletide wonder – named for a Catholic cardinal’s robes but surely a brighter shade of beaming, beautiful celebratory red. A sizeable finch-like, seed-eating bird that’s surely been dipped in holly berry-dyed paint, whose appearance against a Christmas tree or snowy backdrop is unmatchable in its sheer ornamentality. Yes, here in these United States it’s the cardinal’s black bibbed, orange-billed face, dressed in his scarlet finery and capped with a jaunty crest of feathers that launched a thousand cards.

Even the females (sorry ladies) are quite attractive. Not blazing red like the males but a soft brownish green that is set off beautifully by deep red flight and tail feathers, and the hint of a red cap. Their duller colouring overall does at least help to illustrate what an extraordinary shade of day-glo orange a cardinal’s beak is.

Despite all this luminosity, they can be surprisingly hard to locate in amongst the dry leaves, scrub, and tangled bare branches of the American winter wood-scape. So I’m glad on this trip to have added Cardinal to my ornithological conjuring list: a bird I can identify by call (in this case, a squeaky kind of sharp ‘chip’ or perhaps ‘zipp’), and therefore anticipate from mere sound. It’s against a snowy white backdrop that this bird really would stand out (alas, a sight I have not seen this winter) and, I daresay, besides the obvious festive associations of scarlet red, the reason that it became the Christmas bird in the first place.

The only letdown in the Christmas bird stakes is in their song. Calling it a letdown is somewhat unfair, as it’s a clear, rich expressive whistle that is often startling when emerging unexpectedly from a winter thicket – at its best there’s a near nightingale-like quality and depth to the voice. Nonetheless it lacks the easygoing charm of the English robin, caroling gently into the frosty air of a country lane. And there you have the difference between many English and American birds laid out quite nicely: ours possess more subtle and refined charms; the American contenders are bold, in your face, exuberant and wild.

So depending on which side of the pond you reside, I wish you many a cardinal or robin in your garden this very merry Christmas, and an action-packed, bird-filled 2012.