Thursday, July 05, 2007

Of birds and death

I've had a fever, mad dreams and aches and pains, so my mind has inevitably wandered down the morbid pathway to the subject of death. Here are a couple of stories, one very short, one a bit longer and stranger.

When I was a boy, I was lying in bed one night listening to the rare sound of a Tawny Owl's mournful hooting. The phone rang downstairs and before my mother answered it I knew, because the owl told me, that it was a call telling us my Great Uncle Dick (a great bird man) had died.

Two early Julys ago it was sunny here. On Saturday July 2, 2005, I watched all of Live 8 on the box on an emotional knife-edge, as I knew my mother was probably going to die that weekend. The music was extra poignant and I was particularly taken by the performances of two bands I previously couldn't give a stuff about - Keane and Snow Patrol. I was also very conscious of how my sister, Alison, wouldn't be watching, as she was nursing my mother.

The next day, I wanted to be somewhere away from people, distracted by wildlife in the sunshine, while I waited for the likely call from Alison. I went to Bedford Purlieus, a bit of ancient woodland in Northamptonshire, and wandered about looking for insects, beautiful, distracting ephemera to photograph - White Admirals and longhorn beetles. Somewhere, miles away from my position in the middle of the wood, I fancied I could hear a Quail.

I strolled down the road leading along the edge of the forest and, clearer now, came the unmistakable song of a Quail. I'd never seen one of these most elusive of birds but, having heard a few, knew that if you get close enough they sound quite different from the distant, middle-of-the-field typical experience. For example, you hear the real detail of the gruff 'ruuu ruuugh' warm-up breath before the clichéd sad request 'wet-my-lips'. The bird was singing from a field of grain with a path leading alongside, so I walked as close as I could to it.

When I got there, I found I was closer than I'd ever been to a Quail. It was just a few yards away, hidden in the crop, but so near you could tell when it was moving. I spent twenty minutes or so walking up and down a small stretch of that path to see if the singing Quail would reveal itself, perhaps in between the rows of grain, or even appear at the edge.

My phone rang and Alison gave me the news I'd expected, my mother had died in the last half-hour.

About a minute after I finished talking to my sister, the Quail flew up gracefully like a spirit, called at me once mid-air, and drifted another twenty metres before dropping hidden down to the earth.

A few days later, I was talking to Alison and she asked me if I'd heard about the strange bird my brother Graham had seen in his garden in Bedfordshire. On Sunday July 3, 2005, at precisely the moment my mother died, and as I stood a few metres from the first Quail I ever saw, Graham was photographing a Quail in his flowerbed.

Quail, Toddington, Beds, 3.7.05, by Graham P Weedon

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