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Winter Guests

Encounters with wild birds

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

The finch lay utterly still. Already her eyes were closing. She must have flown into the window. Fluffy grey head, charcoal wings and a breast orange as the winter sunset already spreading behind the village, she was a brambling. I picked her up from the frost. Still warm. She was a long way from home.

Bramblings breed in the far north of Scandinavia, crossing fjords and heavy seas in an annual autumn odyssey to spend the cold months in our milder climes where winter’s famine is a little less harsh. This tiny bird’s odyssey was over. She would not fly back north in spring. She wouldn’t fly anywhere ever again. Born in the great birch and pine forests of the subarctic, she’d never seen a window before. Now all that was left of her was the ghostly imprint of her impact dusted on the pane.

Cupped in my hands, the brambling weighed no more than a fistful of child’s crayons. I closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them, she was peering back at me. Maybe her neck wasn’t broken after all! Merely stunned, had she been revived by the warmth of my hands? I hurried back into the house.

The fire I’d been working beside when I’d heard the bump on the window was still burning brightly, and the contrast with the bitter cold outside stole my breath. I knelt before the hearth. The brambling remained still for a few seconds more then began to beat in my hands like a heart. Suddenly flying free, she made for the woodpile. Did she think she was back in her native forests? She fluttered to the hearth and danced for a grip on the mantelpiece before heading for the curtains. I strode over and opened the window. The life force that had brought her so far was undimmed; beating wings shot her through the aperture. The winter guest had left.

Most of us are familiar with the cuckoos and swallows that visit us each summer, and perhaps the house martins, chiffchaffs and willow warblers too. They gladden the heart and the ear with their uplifting songs. But winter too has its arrivals, minor keyed though they be. I was still leaning out of the window peering into the dying light of the day when I heard, high above the houses, that familiar chacker-chack of a large, loose flock of fieldfares.

Like bramblings, fieldfares leave their breeding grounds in the old Viking saga lands of Iceland and Scandinavia to spend the cold time in the warm wormlands of the British Isles. They weren’t journeying alone. In amongst the fieldfare’s hyena cackles, the quieter, wistful piping of their travelling companions, the redwings, could be heard. Redwings are named for their underwing, a welcome flash of colour in winter’s blanched whites, beiges and browns. One of its alternative names, ‘swine pipe’, is due to the plaintive, musical sound of its call, which resembled the reed flutes played by young pig-herders in pre-industrial days. As well as being mini poems, bird names are often the most intimate of history lessons.

I listened at the open window a little longer, despite the cold. ‘Redwing listening’ has become something of a connoisseur’s delight: some people relish marking the first redwings of the autumn in the way they do the first cuckoo of spring. They can be heard even in our largest cities: redwings are recorded every year over such places as London’s Russell Square and Birmingham’s Bull Ring.

As well as members of the finch and thrush family, a grand cast of waders, geese, ducks and wild swans visit us each winter. Many resident species have their numbers boosted by migrants: song thrushes, blackbirds, chaffinches, and blue tits. More starlings arrive too, bringing with them their murmurations — those wonderful, shape-shifting, twilight flight murals. In fact, as night lengthens and the world seems to shrink, a great tide of feather and call is flowing ceaselessly overhead. They come from a different world to the swallows and cuckoos: if our summer is carried on sunny wings from Africa, winter arrives from the North. Often travelling in the darkness, and heading for unpopulated wetlands and reserves, many of our boreal migrants remain mysteries, rumours in the night.

A week after the visit of the Lazarus brambling, I had another dramatic encounter. The weather had grown yet colder and the land was frozen. I was out on the bridle way when I heard the cries. Beginning as the distant tooting of a toy trumpet, as it came closer the sound grew deeper and more resonant, briefly resembling a fanfare of baroque sackbuts before resolving into a full-voiced flight of wild swans.

I looked up. There they were, a great shifting rune of whooper swans writing winter over the sky. They too were arriving from Iceland. With a bridewhite wingspan of up to nine feet, it’s not hard to cast a flight of whooper swans as a chorus of angels. Small wonder our folklore imbues these ethereal animals with mystery. Like the Gaelic folk tale of the skin-shedding seal, or Selkie, the swan maiden can fall in love with a human and have children, but she will always yearn to return to the sky.

The reality is just as mysterious. How do they find their way here so faithfully every year, and at such staggering altitudes? (Wild swans have been tracked at up to 29,000 feet.) Research suggests they are expert navigators. These ‘bird brains’ are capable of altering course depending on the time of day. In other words, they use the sun and the stars as a compass. They steer also by sea currents and landmarks, following rivers, mountains, roads and even pylons. All of this presupposes that they have some sort of internal mapping, a kind of collective memory capable of assimilating new information — or, in less scientific terms, a culture.

I listened until the wild swans had gone, leaving only the sudden, vast silence of an empty sky. What happened next will always stay with me. As I turned to head for home, I found myself ducking instinctively. A whistle of wings and a breath of displaced air kissed my cheek. When I straightened up, a lone swan stood before me in the winter wheat. Hunger and fatigue must have forced her to take the ultimate gamble in the migrating bird’s survival tactics — leave the flock and look for food independently.

Such gambles do not often pay. Growing even more reckless, she toddled towards me; in what is always a wild animal’s last resort, she was appealing for human help. No high-definition David Attenborough documentary could provide such a sharp image. Breast glinting like a glacier, eyes orange, the wick of her yellow bill burned in the frost. The tiny cry she gave now was just a broken blow on a tin whistle, but it reached deep inside me. Wildness tamed by need, she gave another cry. I brought out an energy bar. Even before I had scattered the pieces, she was eating them out of my hand.

To the human ear, our winter guests might sing in a minor key, conjuring wistfulness. Even the resident robin’s December song is tinged with sorrow. Likewise our folklore surrounding hibernal migrants is also chiefly melancholic — on his deathbed, the great Socrates failed to persuade people that although swans sang before they died, it was a happy sound. But as I watched the wild swan, who having finished the cereal bar was now feeding on some nearby stubble, I smiled. Only winter offers us such intimacy: to feel a brambling beat in the hand, to feed a wild swan used to the wiles of polar bears and Arctic foxes.

Our winter guests also give their hosts a chance of seeing ourselves through different eyes. The British climate is much maligned. People boast of wintering in the sun. And of getaway cruises. But it’s our climate that draws all these wonderful birds. We aren’t just a few damp, overcrowded fields headbutting a morose, grey sea, as I remember a poet once putting it. We’re also what the wild swans, the bramblings and the skeins of duck and geese see: a misty archipelago of wonderful wetlands, remote inlets and worm-filled fens and glens. The destination of choice for many of the world’s wildest things. Every winter, we entertain angels.

Jonathan Tulloch hopes to live long enough to hear a corncrake from his back door.

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