Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Oriole windows

About 45 minutes drive from here is a part of England I have come to love very much indeed. It's where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It's a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered roadsigns and US Air Force bases. Having lived in the home of a methamphetamine addict in Idaho, and in a Plymouth Brethren house deep in the Forest of Dean, I like to think I have a handle on what peculiar is. Trust me. It's peculiar.

There are ghost towns here. Houses crumbling inside numbered blocks of pine forestry. There are air-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve foot fences. Tattoo parlours, too. US Air force golf courses. Rabbits everywhere, and planespotters. F-15s doing circuits overhead. It really is noisy: constant plane traffic, gas-guns protecting local pea crops, nightingales shouting over the traffic. "Why is the tattoo parlour painted such a vile shade of purple?" asks one local on his village internet message board. Now, that's a good point. This—from the same message board—isn't:
I would be very interested to know why the planes fly the way they do. It seems so wrong to me they do these strange maneuvers in the skies over our heads. Apart from anything else the noise is staggering when they turn using power. If only they could take off and land in a straight line, my life for one, would be a lot better. As a previous post said, the old F-111's never caused all this aggravation.
Ah, the old days of F-111s and straight-line tacair training... Anyway, all this is sufficient, perhaps, to give you an idea of this fantastic world. And it's flat. Very flat. Last Sunday morning, a bare few miles from the chainlink fences of the USAF base, I stood looking out over flat, flat land, with the sun glowing faintly behind stratus. Those shapes resembling buildings on the horizon were neither hangars nor grain dryers: they were stands of poplars. Bryant & May intended to make matchsticks of them, years ago.

This particular poplar plantation is famous, because it holds a very few pairs of fantastically rare birds—rare in Britain, that is—Golden Orioles. I was there courtesy of the wonderful man who gave me the swift boxes. He's also in the local Oriole Group—and I was being taken around the site by a chap from said group, who turned out to be a fantastic guide and birding companion. He'd been sleeping in his car all night on site, ready for dawn, which came with a Bittern booming from the reeds and the first calls of his Orioles. I, of course, being a terrible lightweight, arrived hours later. I am so embarrassed about this. What kind of birder am I? Tsk.

And it took hardly any time at all to understand why these Orioles are so addictive. They are bright. Crayon bright: the colour of the legendary, lost London Fancy. They are extraordinarily rare. The pairs here are pretty much the only ones in the country. They are also loud, and their calls have an extraordinary timbre. They're intensely, immediately evocative. The calls remind you of something or somewhere important you can't remember. They're fluting, melodic phrases, which cut across distance and the rattle of leaves and the loud chatter of reedbed warblers as if they were calls from another world. Yes, yes, blah blah as usual... pluvialis is doing her thing again; no, I'm not on drugs, writing this, and I know it sounds like the worst naturalist's hyperbole, but if you trust me on the weirdness of this part of England, trust me on the orioles, too.

So hearing orioles is easy. Seeing them is a different matter. Poplar plantations resemble scaled-up table-top cardboard theatre sets. Looking into them is like looking into a stage set. Lots of perspective tricks and traps. A green carpet on the ground, and across it, rows of equally-sized columnar trunks, diminishing to vanishing points. Poplar branches start high on the trunk, so the arches where the leaves meet between tree rows are all prosceniumy and cathedrally. And it’s noisy. The rattle and clatter of poplar leaves is near-continuous, because these heart-shaped leaves are arranged in little fists of long, flexible petioles that mean they twist and flap like flags in the least wind. The whole forest looks like it’s made of torn paper, and in this torn paper are orioles.

And they're nigh-on impossible to see. Orioles call, move. Call again, fly to a distant tree, call again, call, make a different call, a sharp cat-call hzzzt! move, call, and then move again. They stick to the very, very tops of the trees, and they seem to be able to throw their voices. Meanwhile, starlings dive in and out of the leaves, and to the ignorant eye (mine) they fly very like orioles. Grr. We stand there for a long while, binoculars raised, cricked necks, listening very hard—and are rewarded with a brief glimpse of the male slipping from one poplar top down to the far edge of the stand. It was thrilling, even in silhouette.

More on this strange landscape later I suspect. Not least the goshawk we saw rowing over about thirty seconds later. But I have to sign off. Here's a picture of one of these British orioles. I took it from the Oriole Group site. Ahem. But I hope they'll let me keep it here.



strangetruther said...

I can't believe no-one's commented on this!

Very evocative - or it must be for people who've experienced the spirit of that place. For the rest of us, extremely wistful.

I wasn't disappointed by the complete absence of windows from the piece, as I was only here for the orioles!

Does your blogware allow sounds? Perhaps you could pinch a song; Bushnell's video recording binoculars would have served you well on that day!

Don't stop.

PF said...

My MOST favourite bird!

They are rather common out here - South East Asia. But not easy to spot. You see them flying only from tree to tree. I've never ever seen them rest on concrete, metal or anything other than leafy trees.

They are so beautiful. Thank you for writing about them.