18.1.18 Pied wagtail, community centre.
There is a John Clare poem that begins, "Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain" and I love it because if you say it when you see one, the beat beatbeat beat of the little bird's tail will keep your rhythm.
One came to the community centre window today and all work was lost for a while. Scuttle and bob bob, scuttle and bob. They are special birds of my heart: the pied wagtails of Great Britain. It is, I think partly, because they are birds I get to see often enough to know them well, but not often enough to have inadvertently tuned them out. They're a stop and look down sort of bird. An always-surprise. A pay-attention stutter in your sightline.
It is their run that does it. Oh, that run. Low and furtive, always just under your gaze at first. The hop hop hop of trying to pull up too-tight trousers and move at the same time - late, late, late, I hope no one notices - and then the short-legged, many-footed dash that comes with them still only halfway up your thighs. You cannot help but stop and watch because you are sure they will fall on their face at any moment, and yet the scuttle holds straight and tight as an arrow. Until, wait. A missed beat. They pull up short as if they suddenly realise they meant to go in another direction entirely. About face and go again. And all the while, the pat patpat pat of that long black tail. Black-bibbed, sharp-beaked, their legs as delicate as fine handwriting. Their call, when you catch it, is the wet squeak of a window cleaner's squeegee on glass, and they save it for when they fly, rhythmic, nervous, gurgling pips marking the peaks of their undulating flight, as if every wingbeat is taking them somewhere they don't want to go: oh oh ohno.
Precise and flustered Polly Washdish, wide-eyed Willy Wagtail; the old names follow them along the ground as they peck insects from low cracks, leaving sudden wakes in puddles. You will find them everywhere, in almost every place on this island, darting across playgrounds and car parks and riverbanks and estuaries, and yet I rarely hear anyone refer to them at all. They seem to be a missed bird. A gleeful sort of secret.
The best secrets are shared. Here, let these words be a whisper in your ear. Look, down there. Look look.
Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain,
And tittering, tottering sideways he neer got straight again,
He stooped to get a worm, and looked up to get a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.
Little trotty wagtail, he waddled in the mud,
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water-pudge, and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.
Little trotty wagtail, you nimble all about,
And in the dimpling water-pudge you waddle in and out;
Your home is nigh at hand, and in the warm pig-stye,
So, little Master Wagtail, I'll bid you a good-bye.
John Clare (1793-1864)