Where found? Scotland. Island of North Rona.
Where, more precisely? The north-pointing peninsula called
When found? Early July.
I pressed “submit,” and the form went o= on its own mysterious flight, leaving me with the questions not asked:
Smell of bird? Mysterious, musky, like an unguent.
Where found, even more precisely? Under an earthfast rock, on a
patch of gravel, almost at the point where the vegetation expires
altogether, and the waves pound ashore.
What kind of day? A lively, companionable summer’s afternoon, with a sun bright enough to glint on a tiny metal bead and
make us notice it, the only man-made object in all that place.
it Was the t Wentieth centuRy before it was ascertained
that birds do actually migrate; it seemed so improbable that swallows, for example, flew all the way to southern Africa. They obviously vanished in autumn and reappeared in late spring, but some
folks thought they just hid, or hibernated in the bottoms of ponds.
Gilbert White frets around the subject of migration; he hedges his
bets. When he was writing this letter of 1769, all options were open:
When I used to rise in a morning last autumn, and see the
swallows and martins clustering on the chimnies and thatch
of the neighbouring cottages, I could not help being touched
with a secret delight, mixed with some degree of mortification:
with delight, to observe with how much ardour and punctu-
ality those poor little birds obeyed the strong impulse towards
migration, or hiding, imprinted on their minds by their great
Creator; and with some degree of mortification, when I reflected
that, after all our pains and enquiries, we are yet not quite
certain to what regions they do migrate; and are still farther
embarrassed to find some do not actually migrate at all.
Hybernaculum is his word for the winter quarters a swallow
repairs to, but where was this hybernaculum? His other words
are interesting too. Embarrassed and mortification almost suggest
that the Enlightenment just then dawning, all that science and
discovery, might have been driven not by the will to master and
possess nature but out of chagrin. As human beings, our ignorance was beginning to shame us, because we didn’t know the
least things, like where swallows went in winter.
the bRitish MuseuM passes the forms on to the British
Trust for Ornithology (BTO), which organizes bird ringing in
the UK. So in due course a computer printout arrived from the
BTO. It informed me that the storm petrel had been ringed
twenty-four years previously, not on Rona, where we’d found it,