Sunday, 9 December 2012

Ferally we roll along

The kindly man I met on the cliffs at Sheringham yesterday said to me: Go west, young man. Actually that was Horace Greeley, encouraging white US citizens of the mid nineteenth century to colonise the Native American territories of central and western North America. The hideous doctrine of manifest destiny, which lay behind the white expansion to the west, led of course to the death and displacement of uncountable thousands of Native Americans.

Chivington became violently angry at them and brought his fist down close to Lieutenant Cramer’s face. ‘Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!’ he cried. ‘I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.’

Dee Brown
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

But I digress, further perhaps than I’ve digressed at any point this year. For this is a blog about nature and in particular now about three last birds. What my cliff-top interlocutor meant, and what I already knew, was that the bulk of the birds which I could still see before the year is over are to be found in West Norfolk. (Though if I did follow Horace Greeley’s advice I could probably add the odd rosy finch to my list, and perhaps a Ross’s goose or a phainopepla.)

Today I journeyed once more to West Norfolk, listening as I went to Strauss’s Four Last Songs, never performed until after the great man’s death. As I went, his soul-rending music in my ears, I reflected on the many ashes in the hedge, doomed too soon to go the way of all things.

So isn’t this turning out to be a cheery blog post?

At Titchwell the sea was a craze of gulls. Among hundreds of common, black-headed and herring gulls were plenty of kittiwakes, a few little gulls and a Mediterranean gull. When did kittiwake and little gull become winter birds in Norfolk? Did I miss something? And when did long-tailed duck become so difficult to see? The same goldeneye (or ones that looked just like them) were on the sea today, and the same masses of sanderling and knot on the beach, but I saw no long-tailed ducks and none of the scarcer grebes.

I resolved to make a last attempt at golden pheasant: to sit by their favourite patch of rhododendrons at Wolferton until dusk fell or I saw one, whichever came sooner. I drove the short side of the triangle first, where the pheasants are less often seen. As I turned onto the longer stretch, the better stretch, I spotted a patch of roadside grass where I could park. At the same moment I spotted a golden pheasant cock, tiptoeing on slender legs through fallen leaves. Seconds later he was joined by another.

If you’ve never seen a golden pheasant furtively materialising from beneath a blackish-green wall of rhododendron in the last hour of a December day, you must. These birds are of a dazzling beauty which defies description. (They have red bellies and blue wings and golden ruffs with black bars and their tails are very long…)

But should I count these breathtaking birds on my list? The arguments against are as follows:

1)     The golden pheasants at Wolferton are of the form known in captivity as dark-throated and it’s very probable that they have some Lady Amherst’s pheasant genes swilling around their DNA. Thus they are most likely not a pure population of any single species.

2)     According to the rules of my list I’ve been counting feral vertebrates all year, though they make up a very small proportion of the birds I’ve seen. Even accepting this, the Norfolk, indeed British, population of golden pheasant is dwindling to nothing. They’ve vanished from some of their traditional sites in the Brecks and declined in the rest. Here in West Norfolk there are very few left and in a few years there will probably be none. Theirs is no longer a viable population.

On the other hand, there are significant arguments in favour of counting them:

1)     Though it’s likely that there are some Lady Amherst’s genes swilling around in them (I’m not implying Lady Amherst herself did anything untoward with a golden pheasant but you catch my drift) this is nonetheless a long-established population of Chrysolophus pheasants that phenotypically is overwhelmingly golden.

2)     The birds themselves didn’t seem too het up about their identity.

3)     I have been seeing golden pheasants at Wolferton for almost twenty-five years. It’s quite obvious that for that time, and longer, the population has been self-sustaining and that the birds I saw today were hatched wild (well, feral). Should they disappear in the next few years it will be sad but that takes nothing away from their wildness now.

4)     I just love golden pheasants and if you’ve been following this list since the start (have you really nothing better to do?) you may remember that rule eight is that I may bend the rules whenever I see fit. To date, though we’ve seen 129 mammals, 997 birds, 76 reptiles, 23 amphibians and 12 fish, I’ve never once bent the rules. Today, on behalf of the gorgeous golden pheasant (which in any case I think counts), I am bending them.

5)     As I watched these exquisite birds emerging from a bank of rhododendron, with them was a muntjac, and I felt more as though I were in China than in West Norfolk. (I’m not sure that helps my argument but it was jolly evocative.)

6)     In a strange, round-about sort of way, golden pheasants at Wolferton set in train the whole series of events that, via a doomed faerie story and a cow with a crumpled horn (there’s always a cow with a crumpled horn), brought this daft blog and list into being. There is poetry to golden pheasant joining the list now, so near its end.

So the ayes have it. Golden pheasant. 998. Two cock birds. Yes, two cock birds. No wonder the poor things are becoming locally extinct. At least they’ll die out in the knowledge that they have Boris Johnson’s full support.

New today in the last hour of light


golden pheasant
Chrysolophus pictus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 998
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12

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