Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 3: Secretary Bird

The Secretary BirdSagittarius serpentarius:

Because it’s a bird of prey which has evolved long legs like a crane; something I think is just fabulous beyond words. They stalk across the grasslands of Africa, hunting small prey like snakes and lizards.

It looks more eccentric than terrifying, and it hasn’t lost the power of flight; but as a long-legged predatory bird, it offers a faint echo of the prehistoric Phorusrhacids which once roamed South America, crunching the skulls of their prey in their huge hooked beaks.

» Secretary Bird is © Vearl Brown and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 2: Japanese Bush-warbler

while I’m gone
you and the nightingale are in charge
my snail

uguisu torusu wo shite orekatatsuburi

Except that the uguisu is not actually a nightingale; it’s the Japanese Bush Warbler, Cettia diphone. It has often been translated as ‘nightingale’ because it has similar poetic associations; it is famous in Japan for its song (YouTube) which announces the arrival of spring.

Similarly, the ‘nightingale floors’ found in some Japanese castles, which are designed to squeak so that intruders can be heard, are actually uguisubari — named after the bush warbler.

Bashō has a poem about the uguisu designed to undercut its poetic image:

uguisu ya mochi ni funsuru en no saki

A bush warbler
crapped on the rice cakes
on the veranda.

» The snail poem is by Kobayashi Issa, 1807; trans. David G. Lanoue and found on his enormous archive of Issa’s haiku. The photo is © a.koto and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. I found the Bashō poem in the World Kigo Database, where there is lots more interesting stuff about the uguisu; including the traditional use of their droppings in cosmetics (!)

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 1: Red-breasted Goose

The first bird for the calendar is… Red-breasted Goose, Branta ruficollis. Because I saw some in St. James’s Park today and they are just gorgeous little birds.

I’ve never seen them in the wild, sadly. How’s this for an obscure neurosis: whenever I’m somewhere with an ornamental wildfowl collection, there’s a niggling worry at the back of my mind that I might actually be seeing a genuine rarity, wandered all the way from, in this case, Siberia — and I’m justassuming it’s part of the collection. It’s enough to keep you up at night.

The wildfowl of St. James’s Park was in the news recently when one of the pelicans showed a fine disregard for its comic persona by eating a  whole live pigeon. Which happens fairly regularly, but amusingly, every time it makes the news they find an ‘expert’ to say how remarkable and unheard of it is.

» Red Breasted Goose is © Wayne Dumbleton and Siberian Red-breasted Geese is © Purple Kitten; both pictures are used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.