Each autumn, during the years of my retirement in the late seventies and early eighties of last century, was given over to worshipping the gods of migration. It was my personal homage to birds. To the birds and to the greatest wonder of my known world, VisMig, the migration of birds.
I was fortunate in being able to enjoy retirement before taking-on a life of work! Clearly, I foresaw, that life on Earth was not going to get forever better and better as the propaganda machinery of the dominant western culture relentlessly proclaimed. On the contrary anyone with any active interest in, or love for, our living planet, for its nature and wildness, couldn’t fail to appreciate the implications of information that was being divulged to us on an almost daily basis. Anyway, my departure from normal life took place in June 1977. It followed a short spell of great disillusionment, that set-in during a degree of self-imposed incarceration, at a highly respected mediaeval university in a former fen of eastern England.
Above all I recall one dull day, at the end of October 1976, on a narrow grey street in that historic city of spires, one formerly surrounded by the richest wetland in all of England. A post card had appeared in my pigeon-hole from a friend, whom I’d first met at Easter 1970 (on a Young Ornithologists trip to the Neusiedlersee of Eastern Austria). The card portrayed an aerial photograph, taken from the south, of a small island. An isle of celtic fields and heathery moor adrift in a soft blue sea. The view looked over Horse Point on Agnes in the Isles of Scilly, a tiny isle, who through no fault of her own, had become Saint Agnes. And my family had spent a ‘proper’ holiday week there, in the late summer of that same year, 1970. Anyway Horse Point happens to be the southernmost bit of land, essentially it’s a lichen-encrusted granite tor (an eminence of rounded, weathered boulders) in the whole of post-glacial Britain.
On the back side of the postcard, scripted in neat blue biro was my good friend’s annotated list of all the Scilly bird rarities he had seen during the previous three weeks. On reflection the previous three weeks had provided me with no highs at all, avian or otherwise. So that day I begged two other friends (friends not embedded in the ranks of the university) for a lift that coming weekend up to the north Norfolk coast. They agreed. It turned out to be a ‘Siberian’ Halloween, that last weekend of October 1976, and provided two lovely lifers, but that is perhaps another story.
Reading through those bird names, hand written on a card, birds so recently incarnate (some in synonyms so soon to be archaic – e.g. Indian Tree Pipit), must have unhinged what was left of my little window on success. Threw me off the ladder, and in an instant roundly freed me from a square life of framed ambitions.
So I left that University, as soon as was humanly possible, and the fall of ‘77 found me ensconced in Santa Barbara, California, birding daily, yet studying hard. Reading and rereading copies of the WFO journal in a back seat on some freeway, I would be riding with young luminaries, such as Paul Lehman and Louis Bevier. Each of us in, our different ways were attentive to the obsessive brilliance of established western bird finders, preeminent amongst them, Rich Stallcup, Guy McCaskie and Jon Dunn. However by end of the November I decided to quit the California scene, owing to an intractable melancholia, a sadness stemming from the need to surround myself with older and more familiar friends – I was pining for Old World genera – the birds of a childhood so suddenly expired.
As a result of my Pacific interlude it was not until the next year, on October 28 1978 to be exact, that eventually I made it back to St Agnes and the fabled Isles of Scilly. I stayed for two windswept weeks in a tiny cottage; called “The Hump”, perhaps because it perches on the top of Agnes; with another legendary bird-finder, a bearded sage named Paul Dukes. A man who has been in-on the finding, often there on Agnes, of more new birds for the British List than one could imagine possible.
Thereafter my fate was sealed. Each autumn I made sure I joined the other pilgrims on south-western pathways to Scilly. And my spirit was not to be turned away. Undeniably, unfailingly, each autumn birding experiences garnered there on Scilly, marked the zenith of my year. More than once in those years, in the weeks of autumn, a solemn vow was taken, (once in a force nine gale, within a swirling veil of the curly, ruby-red leaves of the now endangered Cornish elm) that one day I would try to write-down something, hopefully worthwhile, about those transcendent autumn days, the best of times. To explore the revelations we had shared, many outside the scope of what is generally regarded as mainstream birding. Such revelations were common, in those increasingly distant days, for many in my age-class. And so, falteringly for All Souls’ Day and Halloween in 2007, more than a score of years after the events, I decided that the writing should at least begin.
“Scilly”, as she became to us birders, is an archipelago in the north-east Atlantic straddling the imaginary forty ninth line of latitude, between 27-35 miles west southwest of the British main island. The islands lie on the very edge of Europe, in an equable climate that is maintained by the Gulf stream. They face America and, like nearly all pre-eminent vagrant traps, they have a full 360 degree catchment area (in this case sea, but it can also be dry desert) from which to gather their migrant birds. Frost is rare and the vegetation, imported and nurtured by more than a century of dedicated human activity, is in places quite lush and almost always green. Consequently birds that arrive on the islands find cover at least, and maybe some food, so they frequently survive long enough that they may be found – all the more likely if there is a veritable army of keen observers searching for them from dawn to dusk.
Every year between 1978 and 1991 from late August until mid November, (rarely we arrived a week or so earlier in summer and more frequently we were dragged away even deeper in the dark times), the irreverent band of the punkish RBC (Recession Birders Collective) might have been observed (by satellite and now by drone) each day somewhere on the isles. Spotted easily when quite exposed, on one of the motor launches that connect the big island of St Mary’s to the four inhabited off-islands: Tresco, Bryher, St. Martins and Agnes. Less easily identified when we were haunting the rustic waysides, the willow copses and gorsy headlands that fringe the busiest island of Saint Mary’s. Perhaps we might have been ‘scoped, whilst dodging across the Higher or Lower Moors – boggy areas that fill the two widest valleys of the island. Myself I could have been slipping, secateurs in hand, into the forbidden tangles, clumps of old Goat Willow – perhaps on a quest for some rare Phylloscopus. Oh! yes, you had to be furtive even then, there was no right to roam on Scilly, the islands being part of the Duchy of Cornwall, the land remained in thrall to the laws of an alien monarchy, potentially to the obscure needs of one slight man, Charles, Prince of Wales.
During the day I was definitely peripheral to the birder throng. In the evenings however the lure of the pub, (hopefully you might find rather more women there!), and much less often the log, could prove compelling. During daylight however, even if a really good bird was showing-well, I would only be, at best, on the margins of those tangled knots of greenish-brown masculinity that surged erratically along the little lanes, or leaned in bedraggled lines against old dry-stone hedges peering into tiny fields, completely clogging the narrower tracks. At that time woolly hats and sour-smelling wax jackets, Barbours, were the uniform of many in Britain’s fast-lane twitcher militia. This was a body whose ranks swelled massively during periods of active vagrancy. At such times, suddenly, briefly, they would descend on Scilly, choppering-in and choppering-out, on board the red white and blue of a British Airways Sikorsky. These umbies (my term – upwardly mobile birders) would assuredly appear on the islands, in the wake of any major migrant fall-out. Typically the first would arrive “as things were found” in the clear slot, of a nor’westerly, some hours after the eastward passage into Biscay of a major Atlantic cyclone. Less often they would drift in on a grimy south-easterly breeze, wafting warmly out of the near-continent, out of the European mainland to the south of a Baltic High (a blocking anticyclone). In a good autumn there would be a really major twitch, such as this, on three or maybe four occasions.
Umbies, whilst being for the most part, excellent observers, were first and foremost dedicated to enlarging their already big British (and later World) lists. Therefore, as the eighties culture of increasing affluence reinforced such drives, more and more of them chose to remain at work, and at home, throughout the October Scilly season. Ready by the phone, at work in cities and towns across the British mainland; rather than wasting valuable holiday time sitting out a duff spell on Scilly. Which would likely be quite good somewhere else. No longer stuck on Scilly these birders could rapidly redeploy themselves (often overnight) to whichever island or headland ‘came up with the goods’. Often remote places, where a stoic yet rapidly growing band of dedicated birders, likely trained on Shetland and in Scilly, had become dedicated workers of a more local patch. Once in a blue moon they might strike lucky and discover a major national rarity. A bird that by definition almost everybody needed – perhaps even a first for Britain, and on the mainland too! Such species, by definition utter cripplers and/or blockers (not seen for many years or only seen by very few) in those cold, post- or pre-war days; such birds have subsequently become known as megas in the more cool world-speak of our PC-screen detachment.
Yet I know that most of the other birders, whenever they were there on Scilly, were benefiting just as much as I felt I was. Benefiting not only from the blessings of bearing witness to what was often the finest annual assortment of “Sibes and Yanks”, anywhere outside the Bering Sea, but also from the chance of finding their own rarities at this annual jamboree. I believe that the chase, the sport of hunting-down rare birds, of searching for, finding, identifying and most important of sharing the experiences of rarities in the field (undertaken on foot, almost entirely without private motorised transport) was a unique and daily challenge for us all. A great joy and real privilege that most of us longed for each year, as the month of October gradually drew near. Certainly for well over a decade Scilly remained the best and most enjoyable, the most sociable, place in which to play the delightful game.
Gradually we came to recognise that the majority of these rare birds, each autumn, were doomed first years, disoriented or misdirected juveniles, of globe spanning migrant species that by ill-fate became any particular region’s super rarities. Birds from far distant and, in those days, enduringly mysterious lands, inaccessible, they hailed from human nations not at all like ours. These included nearly all the “Accidental” species which were given only a cursory treatment right at the back of Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom – the original Field Guide in those ignorant times.
That we should finally clap eyes upon such vagrants and extreme vagrants, that we might first have heard about in a sixties childhood, seemed almost unbelievable. A fancied glimpse of any one of which might have occasionally graced the dreams of our birding apprenticeship in those earlier years.
The fact that almost all of these individuals, especially the mirror-image vagrants from Russia, presumably somehow searching for Indo-Chinese jungles in the sun, and the typically dazed-looking cuckoos and thrushes blown-over from North America, would soon drown in our cold northern ocean, or starve to death in some leafless wood added a haunting pathos to the experience of finding and watching these most highly desirable of avian vagrants.
However one can choose to look at this whole rarity-hunting phenomenon in quite another way; one that is both less sporting, less fanciful and yet to me more encouraging. That the birds, at least collectively, are not in any way doomed and that we are celebrating the annual revolution of life itself when we search for them. Autumn avian vagrants, of any species, appearing in any part of the Holarctic are representatives of a vanguard of pioneers who, whether via genetic idiosyncrasies or by falling victim (occasionally en masse) to the vicissitudes of changing weather patterns and climatic realignment, may find themselves one dawn flying over seas and land into places where very few, if any, of their ancestors have travelled before.
Ever changing environments very occasionally enable some of the pioneer minority, somewhere way off course, to survive the winter (the non-breeding season) and return whence they came or establish a breeding site in a different part of the globe. They are therefore both part of the great seasonal sacrifice and a measure of the success of a species in any one breeding season. They are the harvest and yet potentially they are also part of the seed crop.
Therefore searching for and finding these autumnal waifs and strays on remote islands and headlands, oases and deltas around the northern hemisphere each October seems to me a worthy pursuit in itself. It is a great tribute to the beauty of the birds and to the aliveness of our own people, our birders. A pursuit as alive and meaningful as any human activity can be. In fact I now feel that this pursuit is about as close as we can get, in the British Isles and Atlantic Europe (and elsewhere) to an unselfconscious participation in the annual celebration of that most important Gaelic festival Samhain. Samhain marks the disappearance of summer, of evident plant growth, and the arrival of the dark half of the year. Evidence of this festival stretches back into the times of our early Brythonic ancestors. And of course at that time doubtless it existed among almost all the diverse ethnic groups of the northlands. Undoubtedly in form, if not in name, it was practiced farther back, through the vastness of the Bronze Age and Neolithic times, and farther still even into the very emergence of our communicated awareness of the seasons and our place within the chase – to the dawn of our humanity.
Thus we – the birders – celebrate in the run-up to All Souls’ Eve, to Halloween, our own extended harvest festival, which marks the decline of summer and the onset of winter. It is our version of the Gaelic Samhain and of ever more ancient ecological rites still hiding in the mists beyond.
In so doing we may receive an in depth education in birds, in bird lore and birding, and in much else besides. As these streams pour into the Gulf stream currents of our collective memory, onto our tribal consciousness, they help sustains us. Helping us to recall, relive, and recreate the thrill of the hunt, a chase dressed here in fairly benign but not in passive garb, connecting us to some of the essence of being fully alive.
Twitching in its active form, as bird rarity hunting was, and for many it remains, no matter where on Earth we are at present, an extremely rewarding investment of our free time and of any spare energy. I hope my memories of those several seasons searching for autumn vagrants on Scilly, in my late youth’s retirement, and latterly on occasion in Shetland, in western Spain and even here in Africa, will remain with me always. Remain as dearly cherished memories.
Dedicated patch-birding, although in truth surely everywhere you bird should be – at that moment – your patch, and rarity-finding demands a certain kind of discipline, requires training and provides fulfillment, all of which many birders continue to find compelling even in later life. Despite it often being, by then, somewhat erratically pursued. As all too frequently our continued training is interrupted by adult responsibilities. Nevertheless it seems that it remains a fiery, wayward core inside an ageing heart.
And thus my friends I propose a toast, in the run-up to this Boreal Samhain of AD 2014. Let’s make a toast to all of those departed, birds and birders both, and to the unquestioning return of Spring-Our-Queen! Yes! a toast to all the birds and birders been and gone, and all those yet to be, to life’s eternal revolution!