Beijing, 22 March 2014
A few days ago, as I was walking to work along my piece of canal, I saw, sitting on the lower branch of a willow tree, a small bird which I had never seen before. I’m not a birder by any means, but I do appreciate a beautiful or graceful bird when I see one. This bird had a wonderfully variegated plumage, really very handsome. By the shape of its head and bill I was guessing it to be a member of the woodpecker family. Intrigued, I sidled forward to have a better look. The bird cocked its head, kept a wary eye on me, and finally decided I had invaded too much of its private space. With a quick flip of its wings, it was off, dipping and lifting across the waters of the canal. I finally lost sight of it among the willow trees and buildings on the other bank.
The internet is a wonderful thing, really it is. Yes, there are dark corners where bad, nasty people show and say bad, nasty things, but overall it is a great global market square into which you can wander of an evening and, like young Marco Polo sauntering along Venice’s wharves, hear tales fantastical of faraway lands and pick up information from the furthest reaches of the globe. This burst of appreciation for the internet at this particular moment in my tale comes from the fact that at home that evening, on a whim, I typed “birds in beijing” in my search field to see what I could find. And I immediately stumbled onto the site Birding Beijing! I salute its author, Terry Townshend, a Beijing resident like myself and a dedicated birder, who has put together this wonderful site.
Terry’s site gave me the answer I was looking for. The bird I had seen in the morning was indeed a woodpecker, the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) to be precise. This photo is from his site
Here is another from a UK site
which I chose because this woodpecker has a range which stretches all the way from China across Central Asia and Europe to my home country. It gives me an odd sense of comfort, that: part of home in Beijing.
Terry’s site gave me the answer to one more ornithological question which has been nagging me for the last few years, the identity of another bird which I have often seen here. It seemed to me quite like the magpie, although with much more delicate colouring in its feathers. It seemed to fill the same ecological niche, too, as far as I could gather. Well, Terry’s site tells me that it is indeed a magpie! (although a different member of the family, to be sure). It is the azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus). This photo of it is also from Terry’s site
but this one comes from a Russian orthinological site
which I include because the range of this magpie covers East and North-East Asia (so including Siberia).
I’m not sure “azure” really describes the wonderful shade of blue which this bird sports in its wing and tail feathers. A long hunt through various other internet sites makes me think that cornflower blue might better describe this particular shade of blue. The internet also tells me that this colour was one of the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer’s favourite colours. Is the blue in his painting Girl with a Pearl Earring the same?
Perhaps it is a slightly darker shade of blue?
Flush from these two successful identifications, I went through the rest of the bird gallery in Terry’s site, to put a name to what else I’ve seen in Beijing. He mentions the the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), which I’ve had cause to write about in an earlier posting. It seems more common than the azure-winged magpie; I certainly feel that I see it more often. Terry does not include a picture of this magpie (too common, no doubt), so I add here a photo from another site
Terry mentions the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus). I’ve seen that, of course, who hasn’t?
I think I might once have seen another bird he mentions, the eastern great tit (Parus minor)
I’m almost certain I also saw a Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) once. I spotted it during a particularly boring teleconference for which I was a passive participant, sitting at my desk and staring out of the window while the others droned on. I was glad for the lovely distraction of its diving and swooping around my office building.
These wonderful photos move me to cite here three poems about birds which I particularly like:
The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
And yet I’m worried. Last Christmas, when we were in New York, we visited the Metropolitan Museum. On our wanderings through the galleries we bumped into four of these hanging on the wall of a corridor:
They are capes, from Peru. They are 1,000 years old, made with the feathers of the blue-and-yellow macaw.
How many of these magnificent birds were killed to make these capes? Such needless, selfish destruction! Nowadays, it’s not killing for their feathers that’s killing off birds, it’s destruction of their habitat. But it’s still the same: needless, selfish destruction.
Great spotted woodpecker-1: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/great-spotted-woodpecker-small-1.jpeg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Great spotted woodpecker-2: http://www.worldbirds.co.uk/images/oakes0/photos/image298.jpg [in http://www.worldbirds.co.uk/lesser_spotted_woodpecker.aspx?key=60%5D
Azure-winged magpie-1: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2013-12-28-azure-winged-magpie.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Azure-winged magpie-2: http://onbird.ru/img/photo/golubaya-soroka/golubaya-soroka foto 4 (onbird.ru).jpg [in http://onbird.ru/opredelitel-ptic/golubaya-soroka-584/foto%5D
Girl with a pearl earring: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Girl_with_a_Pearl_Earring.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer%5D
Eurasian magpie: http://birdsofkazakhstan.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Pica-pica-bactriana-adult-Zhabagly-South-Kazakhstan-province-Kazakhstan-16-September-2009-Rene-Pop2.jpg [in http://birdsofkazakhstan.com/eurasian-magpie-pica-pica/%5D
Tree sparrow: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2013-10-03-tree-sparrow.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Japanese tit: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2014-01-23-japanese-tit.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Kestrel: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2009-09-14-kestrel2.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D%5D
Peruvian featherwork cape: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/470_Peruvian-Featherwork.jpg [in http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/27107%5D
Blue and yellow macaw: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Blue-and-Yellow-Macaw.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-and-yellow_Macaw%5D