Winter Birds of the Apocalypse, Number 2 – The Bohemian Waxwing

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The Bohemian Waxwing

Named for their exotic appearance, but not so known in Bohemia, where loucheness is blamed on the gypsies instead, this poshed-up monicker replaced their previous colloquial name of the Devil Bird.

Medieval folk witnessing dramatic occasional appearances of flocks of two types of unusual birds into their manor felt it natural to regard their appearances as omens. Since one type had beaks which made the sign of the cross and the other a gaudy, debauched appearance it was obvious which was going to get the bad press..

Waxwings arrive in flocks as the light fades in late autumn. They clump in the upper branches of bare small trees, where in winter sun, their plumage can seem almost fluorescent. Eye stripes , gloss-painted wing bars and an exaggerated quiff complete the satanic(or new romantic, depending on your era) appeal.

Waxwings have taken to frequenting supermarket car parks during the Winter Shopping Festival. Crowding into weedy ornamental sallows they offer an ongoing commentary on events, like clockwork Jeff Koons installations, or brightly painted cousins of the singing crows in Dumbo.

Either way the devil -birds seem to observing something..

And waiting.

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Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No3 – The Jack Snipe

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The Jack snipe is a bird I ‘ve never seen. I have been in places where they have been but not seen them, and perhaps I never will.

In late autumn as the ice sheet moves south across Scandinavia Jack Snipe (Old English for half – snipe) leave the marshes where they have spent the summer and , travelling by night fly south and west.

Many land in our isles and disappear into the reeds and rank grasses that surround other swampy places. These retain names of antiquity and dialect Fairbourne Ings, the Ouse marshes, the Lurgies. The left overs of the map.The Jack Snipe, fawn and beige patterned , diagonal striped back uppermost in foliage,  suggesting the presence of, well.. , nothing at all, is designed to skulk in such places.

There it tunnels through the tussocks in search of mud-living invertebrates with its long prehensile beak, half as long as its diminutive body. This beak has taste, scent and touch glands at the tip to seek its prey. It does this at night, and may not fly for days on end, unless it needs to find another source of food, or if it is flushed, when, unlike other snipe – which call and fly a diversion pattern – it dives immediately back into deep cover and vanishes.

It is occasionally photographed, usually at dawn in hard weather at the edge of ponds once smaller,  remoter runnels have frozen.

Is it possible evolution could yet allow this bird to become even more wary? It is possible that some part of the population are already physiologically adapted to reabsorb water as many waders do on migration-  and thus they may avoid risky exposures at watering holes. They might also become wholly nocturnal to avoid day flying predators, or to develop tunnelling habits which would allow them to submerge into soft mud as  successfully as they do into vegetation . All these developments would be invisible to us , and remove the birds further and further from our sight. It is thus possible that over time, selection would allow the Jack Snipe to disappear.

We would not then know if they had become extinct or merely submerged..

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No4 – The Pintail

The pintail is a long tailed duck, but not THE long-tailed duck.

No, it is one of the many medievally-named ducks discriminated originally as menu items for potlatch feasting Tudors. While their enemies and vassals starved at their doors,  large-bellied despots bought loyalty with annual meals of prodigious meatiness,  largely sourced from the watery places that fringed their feudal domains. While the swan, the goose, the pike, the roach, the gadwall, the shoveller, the widgeon, the pigeon, the dace and the plaice may have had the fecundity to survive the appetite of the British ruling classes, the pintail did not and discretely declined.

It now appears seldom, singly, or in pairs, on the fringes of garrulous displays of wildfowl.

At the show-grounds of the Wildfowl Trust ancestors of the Tudors feed the ducks their own prodigious potlatches. The birds display themselves shamelessly by floodlight- human appetites for spectacle, and,perhaps, penance , are simultaneously met.

At the edges of the feast are ghostly pintail, the narrow white stripe on their facial plumage – indicating perhaps a trace of archetypal trauma- their streamlined svelte shapes pointing contrast at the gross, tubby ducks belching around them,  as they seek, among the detritus of food pellets and breadcrumbs, the last few freshwater shrimps choking amongst the algal blooms.

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No.1 – The Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan are the only bird commonly known by their Gaelic name. And with a classical Greek spelling for it, more common vernacular transcriptions having failed the early ornithologists’ need for affectation.

‘Tarmachan’  is Gaelic for croaker, and these birds truly lack affectation.

In the strange cosmologies into which we young ecologists were inducted there were niches ( ‘nitch’ as my professor insisted , presumably to distinguish the term from the classically affected statue space it had metaphorically escaped from). These were ecological spaces – Into each niche evolution would squeeze  out something unique to fit .

The ptarmigans niche, then, would be the last bird to survive before the Big Chill on Snowball Earth.

At the moment thousands of these birds cling to the upper slopes of the Cairngorm plateau, cowering under rocks on top of mountains, using their lee for protection. When the wind drops they fly uphill to the exposed ridges to harvest the few dry shoots that have been scoured out by the wind-blast.

At other times, and in other places,  they dig down under the snow and stay until daylight returns. This may be for some weeks in Svalbard, where they tough out the winter in a state of torpor.

Their biggest predator is frost, which can seal them into their snowholes if it freezes a cap on the top.

They have splayed feather-covered toes, which act as insulated snowshoes, as, neck withdrawn for extra insulation , they sidle across the frozen lands like refugees from South Park.

They will outlast us without needing to ask why.

Blindwells

‘There is a large hole in East Lothian, psychogeographers are looking into it…’

For those of you who don’t know it –  Blindwells is a classic piece of ‘Edgeland ‘ between Tranent, Prestonpans and Cockenzie which has been zoned as a new town development site for as long as most of us can remember. The problem with that is its former existence as a large scale opencast coal mine, meaning that toxicity and subsidence periodically grant it a reprieve and a transient existence as a wildlife site and unofficial (and frankly often illegal) recreational space..

Mike Windle has just completed the video edit of our trip to Blindwells this spring , and you can find it here

You will also find my commentary to the video below (although for those of you who want to enter the spirit of the dérive, can I recommend you try You Tube subtitles attempting to decipher my mumbling monotone into the kind of language it feels we should be using )

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In April this year the site was supposed to be closed again for further landscaping and testing of ground stability but when I visited last week to check up on my bog (well the unwanted bog- which I now know is not actually a bog but a ‘wet grassland’) nothing had changed except the bird life and a new crop of water forget me nots and orchids had grown..

PS- In case you didn’t notice my deliberate mistake it is the back of the  cock reed bunting which is chestnut – its head is a dark chocolate colour..