(Photo by etm21)
Contemplating Phragmites reedbeds is an unsettling experience; though beautiful, vast expanses of reeds mess up one's head. Unlike deserts and open water, they're not inimical to supporting human life. Except in a literal sense. You can walk across deserts, foot by foot. And you can't walk on water at all. With reedbeds, who knows? Those stalks are spiky and soft all at once, and reedbeds do—in some places—become islands, as in the Danube delta, and sail off in matted arks of rot and life. They're delicate, different and rather dangerous places. Let no-one underestimate the effect on human psychology of not knowing whether the ground underfoot is ground at all. Unless you have special, local knowledges, reedbeds are as forbidding and as lethal as mountains.
So I’m looking across this beautiful uncomfortable reedy world on a cloudy early morning a day or so ago. It is a special reedbed, because it's artificial. It's one of the largest in Britain, and only a few years ago it was carrots. These reeds were bought, brought in, and planted by volunteers in a rewilding exercise that (for megafauna at least) has been wildly successful. I'm looking at this mosaic of reeds with patches of unreflective water between them, flat pools with surfaces of milky pollen-dust. Tiny froglets scramble and push their way to safety as I walk along the path. The ground is running with little, urgent amphibians, and I’m trying so very hard not to tread on any.
And then, a pinging sound, and four or five small, long-tailed birds are flying in little musical slurs across the water and land—as if they were little spherical burrs—splat—in the reeds right front of me and my birding companion P.
Bearded tits! A phragmites native, a bird utterly reliant on reedbeds.
This was a party of juveniles. The adults have at least a couple of families a year, and these were the adolescents let loose on the reeds. And they were dressed in their adolescent garb. Adult male bearded tits are legendarily glamorous, with long moustaches like this:
See those awesome mustaches? But these youngsters weren’t in grown-up dress. They dress like this:
Those pictures fail to show how glamorous these small birds are. They look like they're made of cashmere. Very very expensive cashmere. And are wearing long, black velvet evening gloves. Their tiny waxen beaks resemble the heads of all-weather matches, and set in the thumb-smear of sooty kohl are strange, pale eyes that catch the light oddly as they clamber among the reeds.
And they clamber in fantastic ways. They're built for a world of verticals. Their legs are long, and black and glint like obsidian — and their feet are huge. Huge, cartoon bird feet. I'm watching these little cashmere balls bounce up and down in the reeds, and see that quite often, a bird hops from one reed stem to two, grabbing one stalk in each foot, and sit there happily doing the splits while it picks insects from a reedstem.
Right, enough with the Bearded tits. Enough! Can you guess where I am? Yes, I am in weirdland once more!
I was there to watch orioles, again. Like an idiot, I left the house at 3am in a ratty old suede jacket and t-shirt. Blast my stupid inductive reasoning “it’s not rained for two weeks, really, so it won’t rain in the next few hours”. As I drove past the gates of the air force base the car was filled with a strong smell of herbage and rain and then, out of the indigo sky, blatter blatter on the windscreen. Oh no!
But it stopped, and half an hour later, I'm staring through a telescope at an oriole nest. Which adheres to poplar branches the way papery Burnet Moth cocoons adhere to grass stems. Imagine a half coconut woven carefully into a hammock of thin grasses slung between two whippy branches sixty feet up in the air. That’s better. Like this, only more so, because the one I'm looking at isn't a photograph.
It is like no nest I’ve ever seen before. Actually, for quite a while I couldn’t see it at all. I’m staring through the eyepiece of P’s telescope, and its still so early in the morning that the darkness is still caught in the poplars. But a while later it’s light enough for depth and modelling to appear, and then it’s like looking into a circular Magic Eye picture. There’s a circle, and in it are a thousand angles of stalk and leaf and scraps of shade and at various distances too, and every straight stalk or branch is obscured and revealed alternately as the wind blows. I actually start feeling seasick watching it. and then magically, as magically as a Magic Eye stereogram suddenly reveals a rubbish Triceratops or a dog chasing a rubbish hare, the muddy patch just off centre resolves itself into the nest.
The nest! Ha ahaaha! I am so excited. But — now I’ve seen the nest, I am incredibly tense. It mustn’t deresolve. I mustn’t lose it. I think the focus is slightly out for me, so it requires a little physical effort to keep it from derealising into patterns again. And I watch it for AGES. And nothing happens. I’m willing a big yellow bird, or a big greenish bird to leap onto it, and little oriole mouths to start yelling for caterpillar food, and perhaps little oriole wings flapping too. I’m baffled by the scale, and I can’t work out why I can’t see anything; if there are indeed birds inside, and they’re close to fledging, why can’t I see them move at all? They’d be restless, surely, at this hour?
The reason nothing happens is that there’s nothing in the nest. It was very windy the day before, and we hear no oriole noises, so there is a worry that they may have fallen out of the nest? My companion, who has permission to do this, let me emphasise, leads the way. We are going into the wood itself, to check under the tree.
And this is where we leave tameness behind. The wood is five foot deep in nettles. Nettles! Nettle virgins should understand that the experience of being stung is best described by housemate C’s famous, unbelieving yelp when she first encountered a nettle:
That plant BIT ME!!!.
I’m used to nettles. I spent a summer hawking rabbits in nettle beds beneath vineyard slopes in Gloucestershire. I have been stung so many times I developed some immunity. The only way to treat banks of big nettles is to wear reasonably thick clothes and not give a cuss for them. Wade and be damned. It’s like some Red Sea thing — they sort of part in front of you, if you have the right attitude. But what I’m not used to is nettly swamp.
It’s nettly swamp, in the wood. True, there are rushes and wood grasses, growing all etoliated through wet black mud. And in places the ground is bare of vegetation, because it’s so wet: wet as to be quickpeat, if such a thing exists. But mostly it’s nettles, five foot high, so densely packed you have no idea what is beneath them. Exciting. In fact, on the way into the wood the branches are low enough to permit you only a tiny tunnel of head clearance between the top of the stinging nettles and poplar twigs and leaves. It feels like you’re doing river caving; a foot and a half of air between water and rock. It’s mildly claustrophobic.
And it feels like nowhere in England. Louisiana, maybe? Ivorybill country? Mosquitoes everywhere. Big mosquitoes whose delicate stripes and long pluvialis-eating faces drift purposively past my nose.
We stop under the nest tree and hear orioles. But not up the tree: a hundred yards away. And we stand very, very still. Clouds of mosquitoes descend. I slap them away one after another from my bloodied, binocular-holding hands.
These calls aren't the otherworldly musical ones, but rasping oriole catcalls. Then, very softly, a little hoot hoot hoot contact call of at least one youngster, and the glorious sweeping flute of the parents as they sweep in to feed. The male was making little forays over the wood, and returning every five minutes or so with food.
I saw him! Finally saw a male oriole in good light. Of course, it was a complex joy, because I saw stamped-out sections of him. Small sections, like jigsaw pieces of bird. Only moving, like one of those flicker books. Or more like one of those "What the Butler Saw" mutoscopes. Side, tail, leaves. Flank between branches. A flick of wings, and another glimpse — head only— between leaves. Nothing like field-guide pictures. But much, much more spectacular. Mentally, the scene resembled this:
Nor did I expect the joyously extravagant way this oriole leapt into the air between feeds, the enormously decisive movements, always, and the little dots that flared along the edge of his spread tail. It amazes me that I am talking about views, in my binoculars, in which he was never more than the size of a fingernail at arms length. I can't believe he was so tiny. But then a fingernail at arms length is, I guess, exactly the size of the visible sun.