I’m in England for just under a week, and Finch and I went birding on Saturday. There was a report of buff-breasted sandpipers (unusual) near… somewhere (I’m hopeless with orientation here), and we also went to the coast at Pilling to see shorebirds.
I hadn’t brought my 100 – 400 mm zoom lens, so there was no hope of meaningful detailed shots of any birds, even if they’d been close enough. So instead I played with my new 10 – 22mm wide angle, and marveled at how the salt marshes look so much like carefully tended grass. I suddenly understood how golf could have been invented on the edge of he sea.
That is all salt marsh, what looks like real “land,” but covered by sea when the tide is high. The natural grasses of the embankment along its edge looked cultivated, tamed.
We never saw the buff-breasted sandpipers, but I had four new birds — little stint, bar-tailed godwit, curlew sandpiper and red knot — and at Pilling, we saw skein after skein of pink-footed geese, arriving off the sea and landing on the water. Finch pointed out that these are the same species of geese we’d seen in Spitsbergen, where they breed and summer, and were now just arriving for the winter. They’d probably been flying all night, perhaps even longer, and were settling down for the first time.
It takes my breath away, the way ancestral memory works for birds like this. I’ve rhapsodized about it before, observing the warbler migration, but I continue to find it the most astonishing thing to know about birds. Tiny creatures, magnetically homing in on some patch of earth thousands of miles that loudly insists “this is where you spend the winter.”
I was surprised when I first learned that birds don’t “live” in their nests — that nests aren’t a little home where they bed down at night, but rather, an incubator space for breeding. Home and belonging are embedded in patterns of travel and migration, territory that lays out an array of food sources, protection from predation, space to breed. It’s an illustration, for me, of the hopelessness of applying human notions to interpreting meaning for any kind of creature — or, for that matter, across cultures. Migratory birds may have a sense of what we call home — but it’s in relationships, flocking, patterns, not in place.
Applying those ideas to my own peripatetic life, distributed relationships, love and romance across a network of jet routes, phone lines and broadband.