Ode to a Fieldfare

(Composed during the snow-thaw of last month…)

As I sit here, goldfinches glance across the skies outside the window, their ‘charms’ like the bounce of iambic pentameter written with wings. They turn towards our garden, and immediately, their syntax becomes jumbled by a shift and gather of chaffinches – with an adjunct of sparrows tumbling in like a hurried conclusion.

The sparrows twitch their claim to the topmost branches of our damson trees, whilst the goldfinches jolt another stanza back to the skies – or trickle, with a falling cadence, through the branches to our seed feeders.

The chaffinches land halfway up the trees – ponder their way, like careful prose, towards the food in small, turn-taking manoeuvres. The sparrows wait, suss things out, goad each other forward, land on the seed feeders and attack the fat-cakes, all the time saying what they think – blunt performance poets, braving out the day in their bold, sparrow way.

The previous week’s heavy snowfall continues to melt, leaving green edges and a white interior to the garden. A collared dove balances like an erratic metronome, following the perplexity of bird-rhythms now spilling into improvised jazz.

On Friday January 18th, as the garden hunkered down under the weight of the snow’s first arrival, I turned from the window (and a similar bird-scene) to shuffle some new books amongst the old faithfuls on our shelves, when my daughter – at home due to school closures – called out from the landing, “Are those redwings or fieldfares?”

Her words shook me out of my dismay at the increasingly decrepit state of an old university text book I was holding in my hands. Battered even in its youth by unceremonious travels in my overstuffed, seam-ripped student bag – now it was gradually giving up a little more of the ghost, shedding small piles of age-desiccated glue all over the bookshelf. When opened, its paperback cover gaped to reveal a crumbling spine…

I’m very fond of that book – The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, Romantic Poetry and Prose, edited by the aptly named Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling. Just to read its title brings back happy days spent studying odes to skylarks and nightingales…

If there isn’t an ode to redwings and fieldfares, there should be – they deserve that celebration. Mist-revealed spirits of winter – the chance of experiencing their sudden, soft manifestation again, galvanised me into action.

“Are there some in the garden, then?” I called back.

By this time, my daughter had reached the dining room – and I had dashed to the window, grabbing the binoculars.

“There are millions of them!” she exclaimed, “All across the tops of the damson trees!”

We counted them, taking turns with the binoculars. Not quite millions. Nineteen.

“They’re fieldfares.” I declared

“Yep!” confirmed my daughter, taking another look through the bins, “Definitely fieldfares.”

There they were, spread across the tree-sky like a sudden flowering. A winter gift from Scandinavia.

The heavy, white cloud-sag seemed to plump up at the points they touched; each bird a downy planet orbiting into a sudden, glowing constellation strung out across the branches. Smudged with ash and a splash of sunset spillage, they puffed out their chests; all facing the same way to watch the north-east, like compass needles pointing home.

Fieldfares in trees 2013

Here, in the anchorage of our own home, the presence of these shifting migrants prised open the lid of the day; made the transformation of snow complete. Last time the snow brought the fieldfares from the wider land into our garden, it tipped only one or two individuals onto our lawn. That was magic enough – but this snow-globe flurry of birds, shaken out into our winter space, seemed to tip us instead into the centre of a whirling calm.

My husband phoned a while after they had swooped away, grey billows gathered into the white folds of sky. Early that morning, the snow-bound state of our car, and the buses stuck on hills, had sent him walking the several miles into the city. Some ‘lovely, kindly people’ he said had given him a lift in their 4 X 4, thoughtfully stopping to offer transport to as many trudging pavement backpackers and hopeful bus waiters as they could fit into their vehicle. His day’s experience of community spirit shone in his voice. Now, he’d finished at work, and was going to walk home.

“And how was your day?”

“We’ve had nineteen fieldfares in the garden!” I excitedly announced.

“Yeah…right!” he laughed.

“No, we have! Honestly!”

“I want photographic evidence!” he joked.

“Already done!”

“Oh – why aren’t I at home?”

“I expect some will still be flying around here by the time you get back.” I consoled him.

And sure enough, a couple of fieldfares did oblige. And I was able to get a better photo – still from a distance and with an unsophisticated zoom on my camera and through a window – but at least it gives a glimpse of that gorgeous colouring – the russet blush on the bird’s chest, the grey dusk hovering at its back, its snowball underside – and its thinking eye.

Fieldfare, Turdus polaris - January 2013

Fieldfare, Turdus polaris – January 2013

Since then, I have checked in The Poetry of Birds to see if it contains a poem about this magical snow-bird…

Picture of The Poetry of Birds book

The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee. Published by Viking

There isn’t a section devoted to the species (the book is arranged according to taxonomy) but in the fragment included from The Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer tips his hat to ‘the frosty feldefare.’

Then I checked the ever reliable close-chronicler of birds and nature, John Clare

Picture of book, John Clare, Selected Poetry

John Clare, Selected Poetry, published by Penguin

– and sure enough, he mentions them (of course he does, I should have known – what in the natural shiftings of his Northamptonshire homeland did he ever miss?) but fieldfares are not the main focus of the poems in which they make an appearance.

In Emmonsails Heath in Winter, he writes:

Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread
The fieldfare chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again

‘Bumbarrels’ is a lovely and earthy colloquial name for long-tailed tits – and here Clare deftly snags with words their busy, fidgety ways – and arrests us with that audio-visual image of ‘the whistling thorn’ and its close, orchestral collaboration with the fieldfares, for whose movements ‘rove’ is the perfect description. John Clare also mentions fieldfares in Schoolboys in Winter, when the boys on their ‘morning ramble’ pass by the hedgerows, ‘plucking haws on which their fieldfares feed.’ And also in The Shepherd’s Calendar – March:

And flocking field fares speckld like the thrush
Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush
That come and go on winters chilling wing
And seem to share no sympathy wi spring

Migrating around the internet, I alighted on a poem by Ada Cambridge which, though perched at the ‘mawkish not hawkish’ end of the scale (to approximate a phrase from Tim Dee’s Foreword to The Poetry of Birds) – overbalancing, for me, on its melodramatic symbolism and sentiment – does contain some caught essences – and provides a great handle for the birds in its title, The Winged Mariners. It begins:

Through the wild night, the silence and the dark,
    Through league on league of the unchartered sky,
Lonelier than dove of fable from its ark,
     The fieldfares fly

For a while, I paused beside Fieldfares by F.W. Moorman – in which the poem’s voice addresses the ‘Fieldfares, bonny fieldfares’ from a sick bed, finding melancholy reflection in their presence; a bittersweet reminder of the universally ever-turning (and personally ever-diminishing) cycles of time:

Noisy, chackin’ fieldfares, weel I ken your cry,
When i’ flocks you’re sweepin’ ower the hills sae high:
       Oft on trees you gethers,
       Preenin’ out your feathers,
An’ I’m fain to see your coats as blue as t’summer sky.

And then I found enriching food along the way, courtesy of Fieldfare by Polish poet Julian Kornhauser, translated by Piotr Florczyk, which captures a mood of intrigued admiration heading into memory – and a freeze-frame beyond grasping – when ‘like a newcomer from the underworld’ a fieldfare arrives, and its identity is only discovered after it has flown away, not to return:

Its hollow name, a title to glory,
hung on a branch like a snowflake.’

Simon Armitage, in his Afterword to The Poetry of Birds, muses about why poets ‘have written about birds from the very beginning’:

‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level [birds] are also our souls. Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.’

In his Foreword, Tim Dee points to how, in our own time:

‘Close attention to the seen world and putting such looking into words remain as necessary as ever.’

He ponders the finest contemporary bird poetry written in English by the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Michael Longley and Peter Reading – and describes their work as:

‘Open-eyed meetings that are crammed with ornithological acuity and capture the direct experience of looking at birds today, giving us comparable quickening to that which leaps up around any encounter we have with the real things.’

If I were a poet, I would try to write an ode to fieldfares; to these birds of our nights and winter cloud. I would attempt to pay my own full dues to the poem-that-they-are. But, as it is, this post will have to be my offering…

– Not as a good as an ode; but, as far as my own words are able to stretch to evoke the spell the fieldfares cast over our winter garden, it will have to do…

Breakfast with a ‘Long Pod’!


Picture of a Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus - a breakfast-time visitor!

The other day, whilst eating my breakfast and winding down from getting the kids off to school, a sudden flurry of movement outside in the garden grabbed my attention. Minutes earlier, I’d been watching two long-tailed tits as they clung to the bird feeders in our damson trees – but was soon dropping my spoon into my muesli, as I realised they’d appeared again; this time in a bush much nearer to the house. A lot nearer than they usually venture. I could hardly believe it when they then flew down to the patio, and fidgeted and fluttered along the fence, immediately outside the window.

They were pecking at the crevices underneath and between the railings – I think possibly gathering spiders’ webs, which they use in their nest building. It’s now the time when the winter flocks of long-tailed tits have broken up into breeding pairs – and I’m wondering if this pair may be nesting very nearby. They’re certainly spending quite a bit of time in and around our garden lately, and one (I presume the male) seems to be getting very territorial on our patch. A couple of times this week, we’ve seen him pause in his feeding to tussle with his own reflection in the shed window – possibly mistaking his mirror image for a “rival.”

Now – as I sat wide-eyed, watching them – this fascination with his own reflection may have taken over again, because he suddenly flew away from the cobwebby fence and even closer to the house – so close, he actually perched on the window frame! From there, he looked into the room for a moment, before fluttering earnestly at the glass. Thankfully, for his own safety, he gave that up as a bad job very quickly!

I always keep the camera to hand whilst wildlife watching from the house, and so managed to capture the above photo when he darted on to a garden chair – again extremely close to the window. Long-tailed tits move like super-fast little gizmos, never staying still – flick, flit, flick – so it was a matter of point, focus, click – and hope for the best! I missed a lot of split second opportunities to get better shots (it would have been great to get his super-long tail in full view) – but just couldn’t get the camera to focus in time, before this tiny, exquisite bird shifted again.

After the birds left, I was left with a huge smile on my face. It really was one of those set-you-up-for-the-day wildlife moments. As Simon Barnes writes, in his warm, wonderful book How to be a Bad Birdwatcher – in such moments there is ‘the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected.’ The Long-tailed tit is one of my favourite birds, and always brings its own special day-brightening magic with it. For me, meeting with a flock of these delicately colourful birds, is one of the speciality treats of winter-time. When out on a chilly walk, or in the garden, I love to catch the hustle-bustle of their calls, and to look up and see them jinking from tree to tree, see-sawing their long tails like little trapeze artists, as they swing-flit through the branches.

Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, lists the many vernacular names for this beautiful little bird; a list that rings with a wonderful, old-time rustic mixture of gleeful spade-calling and joyful wordplay – like something tumbling from the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel. Names such as ‘bum barrel,’ ‘bush oven,’ ‘feather poke,’ ‘hedge jug,’  ‘jack in a bottle,’ ‘poke bag,’ ‘pudding bag,’ and ‘long pod.’ Plus, Birds Britannica adds, there is the lesser known Cornish name, ‘patiney’ or ‘patteny paley.’ Many of these names stem from the oval, domed shape of the long-tailed tit’s nest, which Birds Britannica goes on to tells us ‘comprises an intricate mix of wool and moss bound and felted together with spider’s web, camouflaged with as many as 4000 lichen flakes.’

Other fond, and brilliantly appropriate, pseudonyms I often hear amongst modern day devotees of this species are ‘flying lollipops,’ ‘flying flumps’ or ‘Gizmos’ (as in Gizmo from Gremlins!) It’s a favourite bird of many a birder and wildlife watcher – and John Clare, the nineteenth century naturalist poet doesn’t let us down in providing a poetic tribute to Aegithalos caudatus. Inspired by his local ‘bumbarrels,’ he wrote this poem, full of closely observed detail – and a lovely, vivid sense of these busy little birds, which truly do ‘hang and hide along’:

Picture of book, John Clare, Selected=

                                  Bumbarrel’s Nest                                                       

The oddling bush, close sheltered hedge new-plashed,
Of which spring’s early liking makes a guest
First with a shade of green though winter-dashed –
There, full as soon, bumbarrels make a nest
Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied
And warm and rich as feather-bed within,
With little hole on its contrary side
That pathway peepers may no knowledge win
Of what her little oval nest contains –
Ten eggs and often twelve, with dusts of red
Soft frittered – and full soon the little lanes
Screen the young crowd and hear the twitt’ring song
Of the old birds who call them to be fed
While down the hedge they hang and hide along. 

                                                                       John Clare.

Picture of The Poetry of Birds book

(Bumbarrel’s Nest is one of the poems included in the anthology, The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee – more on this book later!)