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bird migration

Samhain and the Vagrant Mind

Gugh’s sandbar at low tide links it to St Agnes, Isles of Scilly (UK)


Each autumn, of my premature retirement in the late seventies and early eighties of last century, was given-over to worshiping the gods of migration. Non-human migration that is. It was my personal homage to birds and to what I consider the most beautiful wonder of the known world – perhaps best evoked (in most birders today) by the expression ‘vismig’ – visible migration.

I was indeed fortunate in being able to decide to enjoy my retirement BEFORE taking-on work! Well you know, so far as I could see back then, life on earth was not going to get better and better as the propaganda machinery of our dominant western culture relentlessly tried to proclaim. It seemed to me that anyone with any attachment to our living planet, to nature and wildness, could not fail to appreciate the dreadful implications of shocking information, encroaching horrors, that were being shared by the mass media on a daily basis. Yes folks, even back in the 1970s our present pandemonium was there for all to imagine, it was written tall upon the wall!

And thus my departure from a normal life took place in the “clash summer of 77”. That jubilee exodus followed a period of great disillusionment. Depressions that set-in during my partially self-imposed incarceration at a globally respected medieval university in eastern England.

I can still vividly recall one dull day at the end of October 1976. On a grey street in that lauded city of towers and spires, a city once surrounded by the richest wetlands in all of England, (far away now in space as well as time), a postcard appeared in my hands. It was from Chris, a birding friend, whom I had first met at Easter 1970 when we were on a Young Ornithologists trip to the Neusiedlersee in Eastern Austria. The postcard was an aerial photograph, taken from the south, of an island of tiny celtic fields and heathy moor adrift in a soft blue sea. And there in the picture in my hands was Horse Point on Agnes, an isle who had through no fault of her own come to be known as Saint Agnes, in the Isles of Scilly. Here our family had spent a proper holiday in the late summer of that same year, 1970.

Horse Point happens to be the southernmost land, a lichen-crusted granite tor (tor is an eminence of rounded, weathered boulders), in all of post glacial Britain.

On the back of the postcard, written in neat blue biro, was my friend’s annotated list of all the rare birds he had seen there in the previous three weeks. My three weeks previous had yielded no highlights, avian or otherwise. Overtaken by a terrible restlessness I begged two birder friends (not embedded in the ranks of the university) for a lift up to the north Norfolk coast that coming weekend. It turned out to be a really great weekend, providing two lifers (new birds), but that is another story.

So then and there, in a street called Sidney, those bird names on a postcard, names of beings so recently incarnate, (including names archaic now – like Indian Tree Pipit), unhinged what was left of my window on success and in an instant released me from a square life of framed ambitions, climbing that ladder to nowhere good.

A year later, having left the university, “fall of 77” had me secreted in a suburban street in Santa Barbara, Southern California. Now I was birding every day and yet studying hard. I was swotting-up Nearctic birds. Even when cramped in the backseat of a soft brown Cougar, out on the freeway, with two young birding luminaries Paul Lehman and Louis Bevier, each attentive to the fabled fieldcraft of notorious local bird finders Guy McCaskie, Jon Dunn and Kimball Garret. Nevertheless I decided to leave California in early December owing to a certain avian homesickness – specifically the need to surround myself with older friends – I was pining for Old World genera and species – skylarks, dunnocks and a host of what some might call decidedly drab warblers.

And thus it was October 28 of 1978 before I eventually made it back to St Agnes and the fabled Isles of Scilly. And there I stayed for two windswept weeks in a tiny cottage, which was called “The Hump”.

The Hump because it perches on the crown of rounded Agnes. I stayed there with an older bearded birder named Paul Dukes, a man who has found, there on Agnes, more new birds for the British List than one might imagine possible. Thereafter my fate was sealed. Each autumn of the decade that followed I conspired to join with other pilgrims on the pathways to the Isles. And undeniably, unfailingly, each and every autumn those birding experiences, garnered on Scilly, formed the zenith of my year.

More than once during those years, in those autumnal weeks, a solemn vow was taken, (once in a force nine gale, within a swirling mass of curled ruby-red leaves of the now endangered Cornish elm) that one day I would try to write something hopefully worthwhile about such brilliant times. Specifically about the revelations, many of which might seem outside the scope of mundane mainstream birding. Visions that appeared in those now distant days to many seekers in my age-class.

And so, falteringly for All Souls’ Day and Halloween (firstly in 2007 and then again in 2018, and now in 2021), thirty years and more after the events, I suppose it should be at least begun (continued).

“Scilly”, as she became to us birders, is an archipelago in the north- east Atlantic straddling the imaginary fiftieth line of latitude, between 27 and 35 miles west south west of the British main island. The islands lie on the very edge of Europe, in what has been an equable climate benefitting from the Gulf Stream, and as such they face the Americas. And like the other preeminent vagrant traps they have a full 360 degree catchment area from which to gather migrant birds. Frost is rare and the vegetation community, largely devised and nurtured by a century of dedicated human action, is in autumn lush and attractively green. Consequently birds arriving there quickly find cover and more importantly in most cases they find some food. So they survive long enough, even when “well out of range” that they may be discovered – especially if there is an army of keen observers out there searching for them.

Amphibious landings (almost) can be a feature of birding in Scilly as here, for the Common Yellowthroat, on the island of Bryher in 1984

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 forced to drag ourselves away, deep into the dark times), my close companions and I might have been observed each day somewhere on the isles. Most easily seen when quite exposed on one of the motor launches that connect St Mary’s to the four inhabited off-islands of Tresco, Bryher, St. Martins and Agnes. Otherwise far less easily, whilst haunting the rustic waysides and scrubby headlands that fringe the busier main island of Saint Mary’s. Or perhaps we might have been ‘scoped from a road whilst dodging across the Higher or Lower moors, rank wet areas which occupy the two valleys on this island. In my case likely diving, shining secateurs in hand, into some forbidden tangled clump of Goat willow – probably on a quest for some rare Phylloscopus. You had to be furtive even then, for there was no right to roam on Scilly, the islands are a part of the Duchy of Cornwall, so the land remains in thrall to the estate laws of an alien monarchy, and the obscure requirements of one Charles, The Prince of Wales.

Whatever, during the day I was most definitely peripheral to the birder throng; though in the evenings the lure of the pub, and less often the bird-log, might prove compelling. In daylight even when a really good bird was “showing-well” I was always at the periphery of those tangled knots of steaming greenish-brown masculinity. Wary of their ways, those periodic surges along narrow
walled lanes, that communal leaning in lines against old stone hedges (walls) peering into tiny fields, and clogging deeply the smallest of lanes. Their woolly hats and sour-smelling wax jackets were uniform for Britain’s fast-lane twitcher caste, whose ranks multiplied massively on Scilly during days of active vagrancy, when suddenly and briefly they would descend on Scilly. Choppering-in and choppering-out on board the red white and blue of a British Airways Sikorsky.

Thirty years ago and hardly a grey hair to be seen. Don’t look back.

For the ambitious umbie (upwardly mobile birders) would only and always appear on the islands, in the wake of a major migrant fall-out, or upon the arrival of a major Yank. Typically umbies would arrive on the scene just as other birds were being found, in the clear nor’westerly sector, a day or two after the eastward passage of an Atlantic cyclone into Biscay. Less often, they came on a warm and grimy south-easterly breeze drifting out of the depths of continental Europe, on the southern flank of a major Baltic high (a blocking anticyclone). In some of the best autumns there would be such dramatic arrivals on three or even four occasions.

Umbies, whilst being for the most part highly competent observers, were primarily dedicated to enlarging their already swollen British (and later, we now know, World) lists and therefore, as the ascendant commodity culture of the increasingly affluent eighties reinforced such drives, more and more birders opted to remain at work throughout October. By remaining at work in cities and towns, on the British mainland (rather than wasting valuable holiday time on a duff birding spell in Scilly), they could rapidly redeploy themselves (often overnight) to other islands and headlands of Britain, some near yet more often far. Places where individuals of a patient and rapidly growing band of dedicated patchworkers would, once in a blue moon, strike it lucky and discover a major national rarity; a bird that by definition almost everybody in those days “needed”, it might even be a first for Britain – sometimes a first was found on the mainland – for heaven’s sake! Known as cripplers or blockers (i.e. a bird on very few folk’s lists) in those seemingly cruel cold-war or post-war days; such birds have become known as megas in the cool new parlance, of a worryingly warmer world. The language of our ‘politically correct’ detachment from the truth.

I imagine that many if not most of the birders, whenever they were there on Scilly, were benefiting just as I was. Benefiting not only from the blessings of bearing witness to the best 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 chasing rare birds, of searching for, finding, identifying and, most important, of sharing the experiences of finding rarities in the field (on Scilly this was undertaken on foot, entirely without private motorised transport) can be a unique yet daily challenge. And it was a great joy, a real privilege. One that many of us eagerly anticipated each year. The arrival of the month of October, we felt it increasingly as the time drew near. For well over a decade Scilly remained the best, the most enjoyable, most sociable place in all the world, in which to play this delightful birding game.

‘Blackpoll’

Of course we knew that the majority of these rare migrant birds each autumn would be doomed first years, disoriented or genetically (mis)-directed juveniles of potentially globe spanning species that by ill-fate became another region’s super rarities.

Birds from far distant and, in those days, incredibly alluring and mysterious lands. Inaccessible, they hailed from human societies not at all like ours. These included nearly all the “Accidentals” species which were given only cursory treatment at the very back of “Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom” (the first book, the Field Guide of those early global times).
That we could see such vagrants and extreme vagrants, birds that we had first heard of in our sixties childhood, seemed almost unbelievable at that time. A fancied glimpse of any one of which would have delighted the dreams of our birding apprenticeship in those early disconnected years.

The fact that almost all of these individuals, especially the mirror-image vagrants from Russian Siberia, searching for Indo-Chinese jungles bursting with nutritious invertebrate life, and the often dazed-looking cuckoos and forest thrushes whisked in hours over an infinity of waves (from North America), would soon drown in our cold northern ocean, or starve to death in some leafless insect-empty wood, added haunting pathos to the experience of finding and watching these, the most highly desirable of avian vagrants.

The Ovenbird of 2004 (long after my ‘retired time’ on Scilly was up)


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. The vagrant birds, at least collectively, are not by Nature in any real way doomed, and we are celebrating the annual revolution of life itself when we go out and search for them.

Autumn avian vagrants, of any species, appearing in any part of the Holarctic (Northern Hemisphere) 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, find themselves one dawn flying over seas and land where very few of their ancestors have traveled before.

Ever changing environments occasionally enable some of the pioneer minority, somewhere way off course, to survive the winter (non- breeding season) and return whence they came or very occasionally to establish a breeding site in a different part of the globe. They are therefore both a part of the great seasonal sacrifice yet also likely a measure of the success of a species in any one breeding season. They are the harvest and also part of the seed crop.

Searching for and finding these autumnal waifs and strays on remote islands and headlands, in oases and at deltas around the northern hemisphere each October seems to me a very worthy pursuit in itself. It is a great tribute both to the special beauty and vitality of the birds and to the aliveness of our own people, our birders.

A pursuit as alive and meaningful I think 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 along the Atlantic coast of Europe (and doubtless elsewhere) to an unselfconscious participation in the annual celebration of that most important Gaelic festival Samhain.

Samhain marks the end of summer light and of evident plant growth; the beginning of the dark half of the year. Evidence of this festival in the British Isles stretches back into the unwritten times of our early Brythonic ancestors. And of course at that time doubtless it existed in a similar form among almost all the wondrously diverse ethnic groups across the northlands. Undoubtedly in form, if not in name, it was practiced even farther back, out 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 of things – to the pre-dawn of our speciose humanity.

Thus we – the birders – we celebrate All Souls’ Eve, the Halloween, our own extended harvest festival. We pay tribute to the decline of summer light and mark the dark embrace of winter. It is our version of the gaelic Samhain and of ever more ancient rites hiding in the mists of myth and magic beyond our worldly ken. In so doing we may receive an in depth education in birds, bird lore and birding (and in much else besides) which as it pours into the gulf stream currents of our collective memory, or tribal consciousness, helps sustains us. Enables our recollection of the thrills of the ancient hunt (a chase now dressed in seemingly benign if not in passive garb) and connects us to the essence of being alive on this Earth.

Rarity hunting was, and for many it remains, no matter where we are, an extremely rewarding investment of our free time and of any surplus energy. Memories of many seasons searching for autumn vagrants on Scilly; in my late youth’s retirement, and latterly in Shetland, western Spain, in Africa and elsewhere; hopefully will remain with me always as dearly cherished memories.

Patch-birding at its height; for in reality everywhere you bird is – in that unique moment – your patch; and rarity-finding requires that certain commitment of energy, of discipline and training that many continue to find exciting even in the later years of life. Despite it usually being by then, at best, somewhat erratically pursued. As all too frequently our training, or mine at least, is interrupted by various adult responsibilities. Nevertheless it remains a fiery core inside an aging heart.

And thus my friends, a toast at this Samhain – AD 2021 : “To the birders who have departed, to the coming of spring-our-saviour and a future for avian (via invertebrate) evolution!”

There were four bars in early ‘80s Hugh Town frequented by the birders: the Club, Atlantic Hotel, the Bishop & Wolf and as here, the Mermaid (nearest to the quay). Only three birders were semi-resident in those distant years Martin, Will and to a lesser degree James.

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