Less than an ounce, far to fly

Walking across the field by the Palm House today, the swallows and martins still made their presence known, swooping and diving for late afternoon insects, despite the falling temperatures and gales of the past few days.  You’d think they would have got the message by now: it’s over, time to head south for the warmth and the sun.

This morning in The Guardian, Mark Cocker writing from Norfolk of last week’s storms in the Country Diary, also notes the incongruity of the swallows as the season turns:

It was hard to square the swallows with this place. Three or four of them swooped low across the river Yare, and were almost blown back with the force of the opposing airstream. Somehow they picked out narrow fissures in that cold bluff of wind, and slowly reached the other side. They then arced down over the fields, flying almost sideways, as if resting on one wing, using the left briefly as a flail to paddle against the blast. By the time I’d turned for home the sun had gone. Rain started pounding down in diagonal sheets. Against the collar of my coat, which I raised to protect my glasses, it made a brittle sound like snapping twigs. When I got home I was completely soaked, cold trickles of water running down my shins. I thought finally of those blue birds. They weigh about 22g (less than 1oz), which works out roughly at one gram of wing muscle and sinew and hollow bone for every 450km of their forthcoming journey.

Less than an ounce!  Coincidentally, Stephen Moss in the same newspaper’s Birdwatch was fascinated, too, by the mystery of migration, focussing in this case on wheatears:

The wheatear is one of more than a dozen kinds of migrant songbird, including flycatchers, chats and warblers, which pass through our parish at this time of year. They don’t hang around for long: once they have built up their energy reserves – in some cases doubling their weight – they will leave under cover of darkness, taking advantage of following winds and clear skies to help them on their way.

They navigate by means of the Earth’s magnetic field, the position of the Moon and stars, and natural landmarks such as rivers. But however much I learn about their incredible journeys, I remain in awe: how can a bird weighing less than an ounce travel so many thousands of miles, especially when, like this young wheatear in front of me, it has never done the trip before?

Of all the writers who contribute to Country Diary, I most appreciate Paul Evans, whose missives usually concern the countryside around Wenlock Edge.  Last week’s was an outstanding piece, beginning with autumnal apple falls and the impending storm, before concluding with a powerful sense of the strangeness  of a land where ‘mile after mile, village after village, there was no one working in the fields or gardens or walking the byways, only traffic on the roads…’

When ripe apples fall and no one picks them up, then this is a strange land. Chiff-chaff, riff-raff, mis-hap, go-back, this was the last day the chiff-chaff called from Windmill Hill. Summer was being blown like straw from a lorry-load of bales and the chiff-chaff, clinging to an ash tree, waited for the coast to clear and the wind to die down before striking out on his southern journey. There was a storm coming and the air was electric. Rags of cloud, agitated and spectre-grey, churned around the sky, leaving a bright blue eye-patch overhead. Far hills were misted out when a band of swallows flipped in as fast as peas off a spoon from The Wrekin in the north. Half a wingbeat above ground and catastrophe if they touched anything, the swallows slipped by under the wind and death’s radar.

A pocketful of hazelnuts lay on the path. Each nut had been hollowed out through a neat hole cut into its shell. This gave the empty nuts the feel of artefacts – painstakingly crafted using skills passed down over millennia. These were made like gifts, precious beautiful things, the work of dormice. In the dark, up in the arching hazel boughs, the dormice ran their invisible paths collecting nuts, cutting through and hollowing out, feasting on their harvest and dropping these empty shells in the same place. In daylight they would be asleep somewhere in the trees, wound up in their tails inside a nest of dry grass, deep in their dreams. What did these ginger elfin rodents of the woods dream? Did they imagine this land, where no one seemed to stir?

Mile after mile, village after village, there was no one working in the fields or gardens or walking the byways, only traffic on the roads. Where was everyone? The chiff-chaff was leaving, ripe apples had fallen from a tree on to the roadside and no one was going to pick them up. What a strange land this was.

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