I’ve been travelling, far from South Florida, finding myself looking at birds and rivers and weather patterns through the lens of my subtropical adopted home. So the once mundane, homely wildlife of England (where I grew up) has become exotic, marvellous, lush, and larger than life: those wood pigeons, so enormous, what keeps them up in the air?! Those blackbirds, one of the commonest birds in England, how uncommonly beautiful are their songs? Come to think of it, what a beautiful, unending cacophony of birdsong is a southern English back garden! Those chaffinches think nothing of starting their day at 4 am. It was almost a relief, I tell you, to find something familiar from Florida: moorhens—so common on the Coral Gables canals—nesting in the reeds of the River Stort not far from my childhood home …
In England, too, I discovered that Richard Mabey has written the most wonderful book about the ways in which nature thrives and survives in urban spaces, The Unofficial Countryside (1973), republished by Little Toller books in the UK. Strolling motorway verges, sewage plants, and rubbish dumps on the outskirts of London, Mabey finds plants that have grown from tons of discarded birdseed, Scandinavian wading birds that seek out the secluded ponds near Heathrow Airport, as kestrels hover everywhere he goes and foxes root through bins. Forty years on, and the landfills have been closed down but the unofficial countryside is even closer to home: was that a kestrel on the side of the M25 orbital motorway? (It was: I had plenty of time to look, since the motorway was moving at an average speed of about 10 mph.) Was that a fox strolling jauntily along the pavement half a mile from my parents’ house as darkness fell one evening? Certainly it was.
In the high desert of Central Oregon the birdsong was equally loud and varied: vireos and redwing blackbirds and kingbirds. (South Florida birdlife makes up in color and raucousness for what it lacks in melody, apparently.) I saw red-tailed hawks and golden eagles and, once, on the highway rising up out of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, a bald eagle — the first I’d ever seen. The magpies, though, reminded me of England, a concrete link between the houses of my parents and my parents-in-law; and the flocks of starlings — was there ever a more successful, more ubiquitous bird? — reminded me equally of Miami and England. The highlight, though, was the great horned owl we saw each evening heading out of the barn, and that my wife captured in this great shot with wings outstretched backlit by the setting sun:
Everywhere I went people wanted to hear about manatees, those homely-but-exotic creatures of my Miami home. The closest I came to them was this fossil skeleton of the manatee’s ancestor, the pezosiren, which lived 50 million years ago in Jamaica, on display in the exhibit Dans l’ombre des dinosaures (In the shadow of the dinosaurs) at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.