I guess I will always think there is something magical and mysterious about flight. Not flying in an aeroplane or helicopter, but real winged flight like that of bugs, butterflies, birds and mythological creatures.
As a child I was sure I could fly, but knew this was an ability you lost as you got older. I don’t know if I thought the skill was lost at a certain age, or weight, or quite what, though remember Catherine Jones, a classmate just a few months younger than me, claiming she still retained the power when I was already grounded.
Perhaps that memory of flight, still experienced occasionally in dreams, explains the collection of insect wings and feathers I have amassed over the years. Maybe there’s an atavistic belief that if I gather enough of them I will be able to stitch my own wings and regain my lost youth.
In the park the other day I found this feather.
I don’t remember having seen one quite like it and wondered what bird it came from. Not a magpie, clearly, nor a pigeon or dove, and probably not a woodpecker. There are jays in the park, but although they have some beige feathers, I’m not sure those are the main flight feathers and I don’t think they would be barred like this.
Still, now I’ve mentioned jays, I may as well post a brief poem of other blue birds, which brought me great joy when they flocked in the trees around our house when I lived rural Spain.
The sleek black elegance of executioners’ hoods
and muted shades of beige and dusky blue belie
the rabilargos‘ raucous voice and acrobatic repertoire.
With strident glee they trampoline from twig to twig,
unfurl their summer-evening wings like fans, revealing
azure blue as vivid as the cloudless Spanish sky.
As always, when I need to identify plants or wildlife, I turned to Google to help me. So after much looking at feathers of all sorts of species, I have decided we must have tawny owls in the park. It’s not surprising that I haven’t noticed, as I tend not to go there after dark.
But when I lived in Spain, we lived in the middle of nowhere; the Milky Way arched high above our house and I was far more at home in the night. Thinking about it has made me nostalgic, so here is a slightly tweaked piece I wrote many years ago, which seems to fit the theme of today’s musings.
Wings in the night
One Saturday night in spring, when my partner was away on business, I was surfing the web; I assumed that the cat was around somewhere, probably keeping the office chair warm in my partner’s absence; as long as Tucker wasn’t bothering me, I wasn’t going to bother about him.
Then he started: “Miaow. Miaaoooww.”
Although we had no near neighbours I’d never been worried about prowlers: the house was almost invisible from the road and you had to know where the driveway was to get to it, so I tended to leave doors and windows unlocked. On this occasion, it was a mild evening, so the front door was wide open, but the screen door was latched as Tucker was brought up a house cat and even after moving to the country he was happiest indoors.
I guessed he must have seen something outside that interested him. I made some comforting clucking noises as I couldn’t believe it was more than a hedgehog. Then the ensuing conversation went like this:
“What’s up, pussycat?”
“It’s ok, Tucker.”
“There’s no-one there.” True, I hadn’t actually checked, but, as I said, the house was set away from the neighbours and I was pretty sure there wasn’t anyone about.
“Ok, I’ll come and look.” It had become clear that my platitudes were not enough to comfort him, so direct action was needed.
Still clucking reassuringly, I got up to check what the matter was. And found that there was indeed a visitor: attracted by the lights in the studio, the biggest moth I had ever seen was trying to come in. As it flustered against the screen door, I had a perfect view of the huge eyes on its rusty-brown and cream wings.
I went off in search of a camera, but it had gone by the time I got back. I was quite relieved, and so was Tucker: like I said, he was a house cat and nature wasn’t really his thing. I shut the door to keep the world out there in its place and took him back to the computer with me.
A bit later, when he had settled, I looked outside again and found the moth hadn’t gone very far: it was holed up in the empty log bucket I’d left outside the door. This time I knew where the camera was, and managed to get some photos; I was surprised it wasn’t bothered by the flash, but it just stayed there minding its own business.
I searched on Google and found that the visitor was in fact a Giant Peacock Moth, whose eight-inch wingspan makes it the largest native European moth. Close observation of the photos I had downloaded revealed that it was a female – the males have feathery antennae whereas our visitor’s antennae were fine and stringy. The females are fatter than the males, too, because of the eggs they carry, but also, presumably, so that they can live off their energy stocks as they don’t eat at all in the adult state; it didn’t sound like much of a life to me.
The next morning the Giant Peahen was still at the bottom of the log bucket, busy producing a clutch of small white eggs arranged in perfect geometrical symmetry. This moth was a mother. I’d even go so far as to say she was the mothest.
It seemed heartless to turn her away when she was fulfilling her raison d’être, but Google had told me that peachick caterpillars like to feast on cherry and pear leaves, which boded ill for the well-tended trees just coming into leaf in the orchard. I don’t like to kill any creatures, and certainly not one as big and beautiful as this, so I took the bucket up to the top of the garden by the gate as far as possible from the fruit trees.
When in doubt, procrastinate.
Around lunchtime I was feeling guilty so went to see how she was getting on. But she was no longer there.
Nor was the bucket, which the Romanian gardener had obviously found when he arrived that morning and had returned to its place in the shed. I know he considered me strange with my environmentally-friendly ideas about chemical sprays, so I didn’t pluck up courage to ask if he’d seen the moth as I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what had happened to her.
It occurred to me, though, that I’d never asked where in Romania he was from. I’ve heard there are some terrifying night-flying monsters in the Carpathian mountains.