Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Poor Sam, Poor Me

Here's a blast from the past: an article I wrote for IOTON or AN TIRISDEACH back in 2003 0r 2004.


Gordon D. W. Scott

I wonder which of the twitchers was first to speak and what he or she said after a rare visitor to these shores, an American robin, was suddenly taken and eaten by a sparrow hawk in Grimsby? If I had been Graham Appleton of the British Trust for Ornithology, the man responsible for telling everyone to come see this miraculous sight, I think a few choice Scottish expletives on my part would have sent the faint hearted amongst the observers stampeding back to their four-by-fours.

By great coincidence, on the same day as Turdus migratorius got a taste of British hospitality (or, perhaps more accurately, our sparrow hawk acquired its taste for American cuisine) I had a birdie encounter many miles way over land and sea which resulted in the use of a little bad language.

Admittedly, here on the Isle of Tiree I was some three four miles removed from the scene of said encounter when I took out the front driver’s side wheel of my Fiat Punto.

Nevertheless I maintain a link of causality, and more: for me what happened on Monday morning has acquired cosmological significance. I got what was coming to me. Maybe some of twitchers in Grimsby that day shared a similar fate.

Everything was going well until I came across the dying herring gull (that’s Larus argentatus, if you’re interested). The morning was sunny, with hardly a cloud in the sky, and the southerly wind, although strong, was refreshingly invigorating. As I set out for a lap of the island on my mountain bike my mood was light and my feelings for mankind in the ascendant.

Up ahead of me on the single-track road I see this seagull lying on its back and I think, road kill, what a shame.

No hardened country dweller, me. Although I’ve now lived on Tiree for something in excess of 10 years I remain in essence a townie – moreover, a wimp of a townie even by townie standards.

As I cycled slowly past its head turned and it looked right up at me. No other part of its body moved, just the head, as if the body of the bird was being imperceptibly absorbed by the tarmac beneath.

I know it is a psychological weakness on my part which led to me to interpret that look as meaning anything. People tend to interpret the looks of their pets in terms of human qualities. But surely few people have anthropomorphising a dying seagull on the road.

Here’s how I interpreted that look:

‘Will you look at what’s happened to me?’ And then, ‘Out for a cycle are we?’

I was not ten feet past poor stricken Sammy (OK, it could have been a Samantha) when the guilt set it in the form of an inner conversation:

‘You’re not just going to leave it lying there in terrible agony are you?’

‘It didn’t look too distressed to me ...’

‘The only RSPB member in the country who can’t spot the difference between a crow and a rook (and probably that of a hawk and a handsaw when I come to think of it) feels he is able to determine the signs and symptoms of distress in a bird that’s just recently been smacked by a couple of tons of guided missile on wheels?’

‘Well since you put it like that …’

‘It can’t move below the neck, Eejit!’

For the benefit of relatives who reaching for the telephone to have my (perhaps) long overdue committal finally put in motion I would point out that I am merely restating the confused jumble of thoughts and emotions going through my head at the time.

The bit about the RSPB is true, though: I joined because I like the idea of birds, I think they are nice too look at. Apart from sending the RSPB money every quarter, however, I cannot think what else to do about them, to do with them, except appreciate them. I suppose that’s basically the difference between someone like me and a ‘twitcher’. I like birds for just being what they are while the twitcher obsessively pursues sightings of the rare and exotic in much the same way as a train spotter is enthralled by sightings of a previously unrecorded locomotive number.

The twitcher is the anorak of the ornithological world.

I looked back. Poor little Sam (there, why didn’t I think of that before?) was craning his neck to view the large flock of seagulls currently circling not far above him. The namby-pamby in me wanted to believe the hue and cry the new arrivals were setting up could be interpreted by an expert birder as shouts of encouragement directed to a stricken friend.

‘Come on Sam, stand up and pull yourself together. You’ve had a little knock but don’t make a meal of it.’

But the realist in me said that they were more likely to be debating who would get the eyes.

I would have to do something to end this birds suffering. But what?

In these circumstances could someone be excused for wringing poor Sam’s neck? Since that day I have wondered if it is against the law to do this. But even if I knew the technique the pedalling pansy would not have been able to do the deed.

I got back on my cycle again and carried on my less than merry way - for maybe another 50 yards.

I stopped and looked back again. The diners club of the air had yet to partake of their feast.

Now I felt compelled to do something even if it meant overcoming my long nurtured squeamishness.

I saw a car coming along the part of the road I had just cycled. Hope sparked within me. If the car simply ran over the top of the seagull it would all be over in an instant.

To my amazement the car slowed and drove around the bird. From the driver’s seat it would be very difficult to recognise the fact that the bird was still alive. The only way I’m able to explain the driver’s reluctance to drive over the bird – and it meant quite a manoeuvre on his or her part – was revulsion at the thought of that slight bump he or she would feel as the vehicle ironed it flat.

I thumped the saddle of my bike, turned it around and cycled back to the bird, without pausing this time. The little head stirred again but I quickly looked away, somehow embarrassed. I would have to take matters into my own hands. So I cycled quickly home – a matter of about a mile - and jumped into my own car determined to do the deed.

Oh the bright day, the promise of springtime, just around the corner, or so it seemed that morning. The young calves gambolling in the fields, the good clean Atlantic air pouring in through the car’s open window.

The soon-to-be flattened pancake of a dead seagull, its innards glistening in the late morning sun …

Just round the bend I would see my target, the ‘hit’. I would do the deed and drive on, try manfully to forget what I’d done, maybe even exult in the melancholy duty I had this morning performed, pondering the mysteries of life and death as I watched the waves crashing against the rocks at Scarinish.

But the seagull was gone.

Not only was the seagull gone but also there was no trace of it ever having been there. Not so much as a feather. I was puzzled, perplexed, double checking that this had indeed been the spot where my stricken friend Sam had been.

As I drove on I didn’t feel relived. In fact if truth be told I felt rather disappointed. This caused me to fall into a period of deep reflection.

I drove on.

Did I really feel just a little cheated that I hadn’t got to enact my projected mercy killing? If so, why?

As I pondered these deep matters driving home I hit a rock at the road side which took out the tyre, the tube, the wheel rim but thankfully left the tracking intact. As I got out my cheque book at the garage I couldn’t help but think I deserved it. It was instant karma, cosmic payback time.

Why had I felt so compelled to hasten Sam’s end?

Here’s what I think: I wasn’t really so interested in ending Sam’s suffering as much as I wanted to end my own. My suffering, instigated by not knowing what to do.

Oh well, I got what was coming to me. The bill for the wheel, tyre and tube was severe. Someone up there taught me a lesson - and I don’t mean a seagull or, for that matter, a sparrow hawk.

This brings me back to the Twitchers of Grimsby. No doubt they were appalled by what they witnessed. They’d come all this way to see a certain rare bird. What they got was a bonus: they saw the rare bird being snatched and eaten, and by one of the most beautiful of predators of the skyway, the sparrow hawk. They couldn’t have had a better display of nature red in beak and claw in their wildest dreams and they know it. Some of them will dine out on the story at ornithological meetings for years to come.

But don’t expect any of them to admit it. Instead here’s hoping none of them took time to reflect deeply on the way home: Range Rover wheels are rather expensive, I believe.

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