Fine evenings at this time of year send me out to the old oak woods that still survive near my home in the English Midlands. There’s the final few choruses of the day to enjoy from the songbirds, although certain species, such as redstart and pied flycatcher, are sadly just a memory. There are flyover peregrines and ravens, recent colonists of the granite quarries dotted throughout the area, the corvids occasionally goading the raptors into a spectacular but inconclusive dogfight. And there are cuckoos, males mostly, their disyllabic song resonating through the still air, very occasionally answered by the wild, bubbling call of the female.
Best of all, though, there are woodcocks. In autumn and winter, when their numbers are swollen by birds escaping the cold of Scandinavia and central Europe, it’s hard to walk any great distance without flushing one, usually at the last moment before you actually tread on it, but you don’t get to see much, just a mess of browns disappearing between the trees. In May though, a little patience is always rewarded. Pick a spot alongside one of the wider paths, or on the edge of the clearings created by storm-felled trees, wait, and just as the sun dips below the hills, the utterly distinctive shape of this unique shorebird appears against the darkening blue.
Gone is the high-speed jinking of their midwinter escape flights, with flickering wingbeats instead allowing the males to slowly survey their chosen breeding territories, a process known as “roding.” The longer each bird is up there, the more successful you can assume he’s being in impressing the ladies. There’s something rather bat-like about the style of flight, but if that’s not disorienting enough, the birds utter a series of frog-like croaks as they fly. If ever a bird needed to be observed slowly and methodically, again and again, it’s this, because there’s an awful lot going on at once.
So striking is the display, that the bird has accumulated a wealth of folklore and legend over the centuries, most notably the claim that it can carry its young (and even other species such as the goldcrest) on its back. It was also often considered stupid, “witlesse” in the words of Michael Drayton, a contemporary of Shakespeare who lived and wrote not 20 miles from this wood, presumably because of that habit of allowing itself to be almost trodden on. In truth, those stories and rumours probably developed precisely because they’re such secretive birds most of the time. We know they’re there, even if we don’t see them, and we invent what we need to fill the gaps in our knowledge.
I plead guilty. My own poems involve a lot of birds, and I’m constantly torn between the desire to record things just as they are, and things as I imagine them to be. Increasingly, I’m convinced that that’s exactly why birds remain such popular subjects for poets. The elusiveness conferred upon them by the power of flight ensures there is always space for a writer to enlist them as symbols or emblems, or to inscribe their own preoccupations onto their plumage.
Over the months, I’ll look at bird poems, some familiar, some new, and what they tell us about how we view the avian world, as much as what they tell us about individual birds. To begin with, I offer a poem inspired by those woodcocks. I’ll leave you to decide which of the nuggets of information contained within are true…
Watching Woodcocks, 25.4.10
The birdwatcher’s problem becomes the poet’s.
How to remain within the frame, yet unobserved.
How to frame something that is in a moment
more bat than bird,
more branch than bat,
more leaf-mould than branch.
How to sift countless stories.
A bird witlesse enough to be trodden on
yet capable of carrying its young
away from danger on its back. A bird
that escapes the dog days
by flying to the moon.
How to use that prized pin-feather.
For fishing-flies. For fans. For removing
motes from eyes. In ancient China,
for stimulating the clitoris.
For painting woodcocks
flickering at the edge of vision.
How to make yourself
more camera than birdwatcher or poet
before you are gone
into the black bead of its eye.
About the Author
Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine (UK), and the writer of three collections of poetry - Troy Town (Arrowhead Press, 2008), hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches Press, 2010) and The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches, 2013). He lives near Leicester, England, and blogs at http://polyolbion.blogspot.co.uk