The stonechat is not
a stonechat. She is simply herself
on the long twig, by the stones,
no, she is not even self – it all simply
is, on this, the only possible, perfect twig.
It is look, and oh! and flit,
all sense and verb,
centred in the understood, measured height
of the present tense, where
giants, gravity-trapped, lumber at the edge
quacking Whinchat, a related species.
– Frances Corkey Thompson
You’ll have noticed that I don’t usually start these posts with a poem. That might be too much of a shock to the system for the average birder, who only really wants to get on with the important business of watching, studying, understanding and thoroughly enjoying birds. Poetry seems to work more like a good single malt Scotch, sipped gently after the main meal to help digest it.
I’ve made an exception this time, for several reasons. First and foremost is that the above is one of my favourite bird poems of recent years. Favourite ever, even. Frances Corkey Thompson is an Irish poet, living in Devon, England, and this appeared in her chapbook The Long Acre, from HappenStance Press, in 2008. You can find out more about her and it here.
Back to the poem. The first thing I love about it is the amount that it packs into a very small space. For any British birdwatcher, it quickly conjures up the very essence of a particularly handsome and charismatic species, but it does so much more, too. That opening verse, for example, considers the way we think about birds and other creatures, assigning names and typical characteristics that obliterate the individuality of any particular bird. It’s there at the end, too, with the earthbound humans more concerned with taxonomy and field guide descriptions than what makes a stonechat so marvellous in the first place.
It works, too, because real-life stonechats also pack an awful lot into a small space. Members of the Old World flycatcher family, they’re only the size of European robins, and not dissimilar in appearance, with orangey-red breasts that, in the male especially, are thrown into sharp relief by the white neck and black face and cap. As the poem suggests, though, they’re birds of almost perpetual motion, flicking their tails and wings even when they’re not flitting from bush to bush, and giving an appearance of extreme alertness. Watch a stonechat for five minutes, and you’ll feel that you’ve seen more activity and gleaned more of its character than you do watching some birds for five days.
In fact, it’s not just us that they give that impression of alertness to. Other small birds often come in to feed in close proximity to stonechats, which perch on vantage points such as fenceposts, shrubs, wires and even cowpats as they search for insect prey. At the first sign of danger, the stonechat sounds the call that gives it its name—like two stones being knocked together—and everyone gets a heads-up. The early-warning bird would, perhaps, be a better name for it.
They’re birds of the north and west of Britain, preferring coastal areas, heaths and conifer plantations, but a few years ago, I started seeing half a dozen of them regularly during the winter at an old opencast mining site near my home, which is slap bang in the centre of the U.K. They were a welcome splash of colour on grey December days, bouncing from perch to perch at a short but safe distance from this particular lumbering giant.
Then, three years ago, they disappeared. Our run of mild winters had ended, and long periods of freezing temperatures and deep snow (long by our standards, I mean; those of you in much of North America would consider it next to nothing) did their worst. Some of the U.K.’s stonechats, at least, would have headed south to France and Spain and Portugal to escape the weather, but others would have died of cold and hunger, and records suggest that the population did take a major hit.
It’s been heartening, then, to see a few starting to return to their old haunts these last few weeks. Presumably numbers have been slowly building up again, and in what has been a very warm autumn, they’ve been finding plenty of food. And that second species mentioned in the poem—the rather similar whinchat—also seems to have enjoyed a good year. For the past few autumns, I’ve struggled to see even a couple passing through my patch as they head south towards the Continent, but this time, they’ve popped up all over the place. It even got to the stage that I was half-ignoring them as they intruded into a scope view of another bird such as a wheatear.
And, three weeks ago during a trip to Portugal, both species were incredibly easy to find, becoming pretty much the default passerines in many of the habitats we birded. Some of them, the whinchats in particular, might even have been British breeding birds on their way south, but whatever the case, it was a wonderful opportunity to appreciate both species at close quarters, and for extended periods of time. Once you do that, Frances Corkey Thompson’s poem starts to look even more on the money, a recognition of the fact that each bird that crosses our path is both uniquely itself, and a construction of our own preconceptions and assumptions. Somewhere in between is where birdwatching and poetry meet, and long may that continue.
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