To listen to an audio version of ‘The Light of Birds’ please click on the play button.
They’re returning, wave after wave of them spilling over the delta of the Evros River. The sky is streaked with sharp-winged falcons, with storks whitening the meadows when they descend, with flocks of ibis that close like black umbrellas on the lagoons. The air is awash with wings.
The delta belongs to the sea as much as any continent, and its light reflects the confluence of the two, the land shot through by both water and the sun’s incandescence. Shorebirds shimmer and then turn invisible, flashing like shoals above the shallows. The languorous white drapery of an egret’s plumes shines like crystals in the snow and isolated shrines taken on a glimmer of warm stone. The delta glows with the light of birds.
After days of rain the dark reefs of cloud have been swept away by a cold northerly and migrating birds have resumed their journeys, crossing this watery realm that clasps Greece to Turkey, the Middle East to southern Europe. Raptors rise and fade like passing smiles, brief and wheeling in the wind. Pelicans circle towards the sun, shards of white light barely visible from below. Lark song trickles down from the sky and hoopoes unfurl their frilled and regal crests. Terns screech and sail by, moving back and forth on the air like kites being pulled from whatever lands and seas they’ve left behind.
What maps I would need to chart these trajectories. And as many again to sketch the birds’ destinations: impenetrable reed beds lining the Danube’s estuary; a mist-wreathed marsh in a Polish oak wood; a scrape of sand on a Scandinavian shore. These birds stitch the hemispheres together, and within seconds many of them are gone, streaming north along invisible rivers that wend only through air. Just an afterimage of wings in their wake, and the sky hanging still.
Joshua Foer has written that “remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice” so I try to etch each moment and brilliantly glimpsed bird as if the day held no others. But there’s no hope of holding on to them all. I could twirl forever beneath this burnished sky swept clear by storms and remember but a fraction of what it contains today.
Some days out on the delta aren’t filled with moments to remember but successive waves of light and flight. You are washed and wakened by wings. Brought into the company of creatures adhering to scarcely believable rites. Enduring storms, wild seas and starvation. Following stars and winds, ancient encoded memories. They pass over this place as they have countless others along the way – pushing north according to ancestral longings and taking the warm season with them. And the light that swells over the delta seems to lift the birds in the same way as the furrowing wind. Edging them over the salt marshes and shallow pans, making them buoyant after days of wrecking weather, spinning them on across the sky.
28 thoughts on “The Light of Birds, Evros Delta”
Love the image of the birds stitching together the hemispheres!
Your point of trying to note the glimpses of each image, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, reminded me of your previous piece on the ‘ordinary’ places and the transfixion children can find in the everyday. It certainly makes me conscious of the blinkers I tend to whizz though life wearing at the moment. For a slower life!
I picked this up on my phone, but I’m looking forward to getting home later and having a good re-read of both of these. Maybe even a listen! Another great piece, as per!
Thanks, Chris! Delighted that you liked it, especially if it gave you a little breathing space in a hectic day. Slow certainly suits me! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and you can walk these hills again soon. Looking forward to it…
I fully agree with Chris. The image “birds stitch the hemispheres together” is so beautiful and really meaningful. “storks whitening the meadows”, “fade like passing smiles” … Amazing! Though many of the birds mentioned here are unknown to me I could see them all through your vivid, poetic description.
The ‘trajectories and destinations of birds’ reminded me of the little swallow in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ who gives a picturesque narration of the wonders that are awaiting him in Egypt. Here are a few excerpts for you:
“To-morrow my friends will fly up to the Second Cataract. The river-horse couches there among the bulrushes, and on a great granite throne sits the God Memnon. All night long he watches the stars, and when the morning star shines he utters one cry of joy, and then he is silent. At noon the yellow lions come down to the water’s edge to drink. They have eyes like green beryls, and their roar is louder than the roar of the cataract.”
“In Egypt the sun is warm on the green palm-trees, and the crocodiles lie in the mud and look lazily about them. My companions are building a nest in the Temple of Baalbec, and the pink and white doves are watching them, and cooing to each other.”
“He told him of the red ibises, who stand in long rows on the banks of the Nile, and catch gold-fish in their beaks; of the Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their hands; of the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the great green snake that sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes; and of the pygmies who sail over a big lake on large flat leaves, and are always at war with the butterflies.”
HI IAM NAHILA.
I really disappointed.your way of thought and mind are differ from others .Ireally like your article.today on wards I will try my best to protect the nature .I considered you as my role model
Thank you, Nahila! There are a great many people out there doing remarkable things on behalf of the natural world so I’m honoured that you’re interested in these articles. My deep appreciation for you taking the time to read…
My best wishes,
Thanks very much for the kind words and compliments, Bindu! It’s a delight to read your comment and thanks for introducing me to Wilde’s Happy Prince, a story that I’ve never read. But reading the sections you’ve included has interested me greatly, and I’ll have a look for the book next time I have a chance. Thanks for sharing this with me!
A really life affirming and exhilarating piece; I can feel the wind and taste the salt..Amazing Landscape and I love the image of the tiny orthordox church..wonderful stuff! Thanks..
Thanks, Sid! You’d love the delta, I’m sure. A vast, open, watery place full of birds and wild light. An amazing terrain to explore. Looking forward to our next wanderings……thanks for reading!
On that whirring note I’m off to walk in the woods with my eyes on the sky, more finely conscious of the lives above me and the poetry of their movement — I love your writing not only for the way it seems to caress its topics but for the things it makes me get up and DO! Thank you for this morning’s inspiration — a perfect start to my Sunday.
My thanks to you, Jenny, for such a wonderful compliment! Like you, I take a lot of inspiration from other writers so it’s a delight to hear that this post began your Sunday walk in the woods. Hope the wander was full of richness…and thanks again for the kind words.
You are a master of evoking poignant imagery with your words, Julian. This delta reminds me of our own marshes here along the lake. We sit along the Mississippi flyway and thus are witness to throngs of birds moving back and forth between north and south.
Migration has always fascinated me. I wrote a review paper in the fourth year of my undergrad on both the endogenous rhythms triggering it and the ways they and other migratory organisms navigate. It’s truly fascinating and so much as been learned since that paper (which I can believe was done over 10 years ago!).
Anyway, you’ve painted a truly inspiring picture with this post.
Thanks also, for pointing me in the direction of your article on a karst landscape. I will definitely go check it out.
Thanks for the very kind and generous words, Heather! I’ve read over the years about the Mississippi flyway and would love to visit your neck of the lakes one of these days. It sounds a deeply attractive place, and I adore marshes of any description.
Migration is an entrancing topic – whether witnessed in the air or read about in books. And as you so rightly point out there is much that is still being learned, and perhaps even more that mystifies. A friend recently gave me a gift of Ian Newton’s book ‘Bird Migration’, which is the latest in the terrific New Naturalist series. Though I’ve only dipped in so far, it promises to be a rewarding read and might be something that would interest you.
My pleasure regarding the article. Terrain.org is a fantastic online journal concerning the natural and built environments and there’s a lot of interesting work in each issue. Hope you enjoy!
Best wishes and thanks again,
I just got around to reading this post and I’m glad I waited until I could fully appreciate reading it (I admit–sometimes I just skim quickly over the many posts that I subscribe to–but not yours!)
I am so lucky to live in a wooded area where the migration of birds brings a different song and hungry mouth to my feeder with the changing of the seasons.
This morning it brought a ruby throated hummingbird to my Mexican tulips. I had to stop in the middle of cleaning my windows (thank goodness) to watch it flitter from flower to flower looking like an overgrown bumble bee!
Lovely to hear form you and so glad to hear that these posts get such a thoughtful reading. Much appreciated!
I love what you write about a “different songs and hungry mouths” at the feeder depending on the seasons. It’s an amazing thing noticing these changes all around us, and I smiled at the thought of a hummingbird resembling an overgrown bee! We don’t have hummingbirds here in Europe but I remember them from growing up in Ontario, and now settle for the hummingbird hawkmoth which behaves in pretty much the same extraordinary way! Thanks again for reading and leaving a little tale from your part of the world!
Hi Julian —
I, too, lovedloved the line about stitching the hemispheres together. What a powerful image! Although my knowledge of birds is surface at best, I’ve always enjoyed watching them, and I admire how you distill this process, turn it into an exercise in being present.
Like Jenny said above, this post makes me want to get outside and turn my eyes up. Cheers!
Delighted that you liked it, Emily, and thanks for the kind words. Likewise, I love your phrase “turn it into an exercise in being present!” It’s precisely what I enjoy about reading your own work, the distillation of an experience. Looking forward to more….and getting outside soon!
I really enjoyed listening along as I read, Julian. So true that “remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice”. This delta sounds like an incredible place to be this time of year and your powerful descriptions bring it alive for us. Thank you for another great post.
So pleased you liked the reading as well as the post, Cait. I’m trying the audio out as a way of bringing another element, or angle, to the posts so your thoughts are much appreciated. The delta is quite remarkable; this was our second visit and I believe it could take an entire life just to learn a few of its secrets. Thanks ever so much for reading, as always, and your kind compliments!
The turquoise boat is calm and lovely in this setting.
There is something especially soothing about the combination of colours and light, isn’t there? Thanks for taking the time to read, Georgette.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I thought I’d say how much I’ve appreciated your last several posts – staying closer to the ‘near’ half of your blog’s title for you, though a bit far from where I currently am. Through your pictures and words, you’ve been amazingly eloquent in evoking the emotions brought by the changes you observe in these forests and waters. Like the birds stitching together the hemisphere, you’ve again demonstrated your gift for making us feel like we’ve experienced the larger pictures through small details – the fire damage on trees, the animals that visit or live in a place, an intersection of land and sky.
Great to hear from you, Matt! Sorry I’m late in replying but these last few days seem to have vanished before I found time to write. I’m really delighted to hear that you’ve been enjoying these posts. Likewise I loved your recent ‘flyover’ country and will be stopping by to add my thoughts to it soon.
Perhaps I need to amend the blog’s title; something like Notes from Near and Far and Sometimes in Between! The Evros Delta is about a 7 hour drive from us on the border with Turkey, so I’m unable to spend time observing it closely enough to become intimate with it. But at the same time it’s not so far away that I don’t ‘know’ something of its cultural, political and topographical background, which adds an interesting facet to the approach of place. When we’re neither close nor far, but can observe with new but affectionate eyes.
I’m honoured by your generous words, Matt. And pleased that you’ve found something in these words that speaks to you.
Best wishes and hope you’re well,
A keenly rendered tribute to wild phenomena, especially how water and birds work their magic. My Upper Mississippi is kin to your delta.
Keep scribbling and snapping those beautiful photos. You lift all of our spirits with your posts.
Thanks kindly, Jeff, for the thoughtful and generous words! Much appreciated.
I only wish I could live in a number of these places at once, to follow them all closely. With the Evros delta being about 7 hours drive away I only get to dip in briefly now and then. But a few days of that remarkable place last me quite a while!
Take care and speak soon,
Just back in for a re-read this morning (I find new pleasures on the second go-round) and I realize I did not stop before to thank you for this post. I love how your images compliment the writing. The birds are so vividly evoked with your descriptions that the experiences can be lived by stepping into the images of setting at will in a different, more interactive way than one would if the images were of the birds themselves. Then, closing the eyes and listening to the narrative truly transports me and I can smell the delta and hear the avian symphony. Thank you for the natural experience, Julian, and for the literary inspiration.
BTW. I do love the audio. Hearing you read lets me close my eyes and take it in through different paths, or just wander into the images with your words to move me along. If it doesn’t slow you down too much (I don’t know how much time goes into creating the audio file), I hope you’ll continue to include it.
Thanks ever so much, Cindy! I’m overjoyed that you like the audio as well as the words and images. I’d hoped that it would add another layer to the posts, another chance of finding a way in. It does take longer doing the recordings (though that’s mostly because I’m not easily satisfied when it comes to the quality of my work and tend to practise versions in the garden where I’m sure other villagers wonder what the heck the crazy foreigner is doing!) but I hope to include them as often as I can. I have a feeling some posts will be left without the audio as it seems to suit some better than others, but we’ll see.
I’m quite sure that you’d love the Evros Delta, Cindy. Though I’ve only been there twice now, each time in different seasons, I came away with the sense that I’d experienced a world apart. And as you quite rightly point out, photographing the birds (even if I had the right kind of equipment) would, I believe, have lessened something of the “avian symphony” – that intangible essence that streaked the air. I’m honoured that you even think the words did the experience justice. Thanks again and best wishes to you,