Lost (December 2014)

At the tip of Portland — an island that is not an island — is a garden that sits just back from the cliff top overlooking the English Channel. A cold wind blew under deceptively blue skies. In the garden was a Barred Warbler, a young bird that got lost on leaving Eastern Europe and ended up clinging to the last bush in Dorset. And stayed there, not trying to relocate to the rift valley of Eastern Africa where it belongs at this time of year. A wintering record in Britain is almost unprecedented. 

The first glimpse I had was of a disembodied bird in the back of a bush. Against the light, haloed and fragmented by twigs, I could make out the stout bill and tip of the tail surprisingly far apart. I was expecting a grey bird, but found a delicately silver one instead, with a keenly staring eye. It hopped out and the stout bird turns graceful, clinging to the thin twigs and contorting its body to dismember the fruit donated to it by local birders, which it vigorously guarded from the local sparrow flock. Over the course of about an hour’s observation it revealed a subtle charisma; a behaviour more akin to a bolshy thrush than a small Sylvia warbler.

We laud birds for their migration feats and characterise them as epic and heroic. With that though comes something quite human; they got lost. Whether by winds, misfortune or a misfiring migratory impulse, they become transient visitors, a temporary taste of somewhere exotic in the bleak last bush in Dorset. If an interest in birds is built around a pan-animal empathy, I empathise most strongly with these birds. The lost and the awkwardly out of place.

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