I was in Luxembourg on Monday night. This might seem like something of a non-sequitur with which to preface a Blog post about birding. Luxembourg, after all, is not noted for its bird life, or for anything else very much apart from the discreet and profitable processing of other people’s money.
|Luxembourg in the daytime, from Kirchberg. A dreadful photo, but it captures the bourgeois tranquility well enough.|
So it was that I came on this visit having unusually decided against bringing my binoculars with me. My boss and I decided to have a quick drink outside our hotel. It was quiet, cold and starlit. Despite its boring reputation, the city is in fact quite pretty, but our minds were on the job, and on a meeting for which we were preparing in the morning.
And then the night was full of noise – not the noise of a city, but the noise of the wild arctic; Common Cranes (Grus grus) migrating invisibly overhead, calling to each other through the darkness.
The first time I ever heard this noise was not in fact in the wild, it was in music; the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, subtitled as a "Concerto for birds and orchestra". It's a haunting piece of soaring symphonic phrases, dissonant but melodic, with arctic birdsong, including Cranes, played on tape behind the orchestra. Below is a Youtube link so you can listen for yourself. I heard this piece for the first time on the radio while driving back with a mate after a drunken weekend at another friend’s place in the Scottish Borders – a tiny cottage with Redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) in the garden, Dippers (Cinclus cinclus) nesting under the bridge down the road and an excellent pub in stumbling distance down the road in Kirk Yetholm.
I first saw a Crane at Otmoor in Oxfordshire around 2006 or 2007 at a point when relations with my family were strained, for a variety of reasons. But Dad and I still went birding, and for both of us this was our first Crane. Perhaps it was the maudlin atmosphere, but after a moment of delight I was suddenly struck by the fear at the time that this would be our last new bird together. It wasn’t – we’ve gone on to see our first Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) together in Montenegro and a host of new species for both of us at Naivasha, when Mum and Dad visited us in Kenya, and hopefully there are many more to come.
But our Oxfordshire bird didn’t make a sound, so it was years after my hearing of this bird through music that I finally heard it in the wild. Having found a route from a back road over the levees and into the riparian forest on the banks of the Danube outside Belgrade, I was pursuing early Spring passerines and woodpeckers when I disturbed a flock of Cranes using the river’s shoreline as a stopping-off point. I heard them before I saw them, and the sound made the hairs go up on my arms, but I couldn’t place it. Then they soared up and over the treetops as I gaped at them.
And now, here I was, outside a hotel in Luxembourg, and there they were, streaming overhead, over our heads, over our wine and our politics, on and on, hundreds of them in the darkness, ploughing on to the South.
My boss is not a birder. Not by a long stretch of the imagination. But he was caught up in my wonder and excitement and he grinned, and for a while we talked of things other than work, of the more important things in life – family, friends, books, food, the wild. It took a flock of birds to bring us to our senses, but then Cranes are special, as Peter Matthiessen knew when he chose them for the subject of his Birds of Heaven, in which he travelled the world trying to see all the species in the family, Gruidae.
What’s the moral of this? I suppose there are multiple ones. The first, and most obvious, is that you should never judge a book by its cover. Luxembourg may not have a reputation as a birding Mecca, but, thank goodness, there’s no such thing as a place with no birds. In short, I should have brought my binoculars. As if to rub that point in the following morning I took a short walk around the old fortifications of Kirchberg after our meeting and was greeted by a mixed flock of small woodland birds, including a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Drybates minor) – my first of the year, as my Cranes had been.
|The fortifications at Kirchberg, looking towards the Haute Ville. Learn from me and bring your binoculars.|
The second point, though, follows and to an extent contradicts the first; surprise is a wonderful thing. I’m glad I didn’t expect the Cranes. They made me feel alive in a way that a bird I’d sought out never could. This was the world moving on around us as if we didn’t exist, and it’s that sort of wildness that’s particularly pleasing.
And then there’s the effect of that wildness. Hearing these birds lifted us higher, made us think of higher things, made us momentarily less selfish. To people who don’t “get” nature, that might sound absurd. But, as I mentioned, my boss is an urban creature, and he got it. He lived the moment, because I did and he enjoyed my enjoyment.
But, finally, it’s about memories. The sound of those birds brought them all back, good and bad; Luke and me on that long journey, both knowledgeable about music but both bowled over by a piece we’d never heard before (the element of surprise, again); my Otmoor Crane with Dad, quietly lifting the veil of strain between us, and then replacing it with a different, more existential one; my lonely excitement outside Belgrade, and ringing Dragan Simic to tell him about it; now this, which will surely be a central memory of my boss in this job, long after he and I have both moved on from it.
For everyone, specific foods, or drinks, or songs, or pieces of music – not to mention smells, of course – are unconscious hooks and triggers for memory. But for us birdwatchers we have birds too; the sight and sounds of different species bring back memories separate from all those others. So next time I’m asked why I birdwatch, I think in addition to all my usual answers, I think I’ll try answering this way – “Because it helps me remember my life” – and see how that goes down.