Diary

Christopher Nicholson

When, as a boy of eight or nine, I began to watch birds with some seriousness, I kept lists. The RSPB sold little grey notebooks with lists of British species, and I kept a life list of all the birds I had ever seen, and a list of birds seen in our suburban garden, and a list of birds seen each year. I’d taken out a subscription to a monthly magazine called Animals, and in one edition, I think in 1968, a thrilling article by the ornithologist John Gooders described how he’d seen two hundred species of birds in Britain in a single calendar year. I never got anywhere close. There were so many more birds that I hadn’t seen than I had. I often tried to turn common birds into uncommon birds. Those house sparrows that haunted the privet hedge by the road: surely one of them was a tree sparrow?

In my head there was also a list of ‘magic’ birds, birds that I yearned to see but knew that I never would unless I was extraordinarily lucky. Among them were wryneck, hoopoe, waxwing, bluethroat and cream-coloured courser. A few years later, in my late teens, studying The Return of the Native for A Level English, I was struck by a particular sentence: ‘A cream-coloured courser had used to visit this hill, a bird so rare that not more than a dozen have ever been seen in England; but a barbarian rested neither night nor day till he had shot the African truant, and after that event cream-coloured coursers thought fit to enter Egdon no more.’

The cream-coloured courser is a small and beautiful plover, just over ten inches tall. The colour of its plumage is a complicated mixture of whites, buffs, greys and browns that shade smoothly into each other and perhaps give the impression of cream, or pale sand. Its beak is black, its claws are brown; it has black wingtips and a dark streak leading from the back of each eye. Its legs are often described by observers as ‘milky-white’. In the early 19th century there was some experimenting with different names, among them the cream-coloured plover and the cream-coloured swiftfoot, before agreement settled on cream-coloured courser. The word ‘courser’, from the Latin cursor, a runner, was primarily used to mean ‘a swift horse’, and when disturbed the cream-coloured courser tends to run away at speed, rather than take to the wing.

Its home territory is open, dry semi-desert, chiefly in North Africa, with a range extending east to India; but on extremely rare occasions – once every five to ten years, perhaps – an individual turns up in Britain. I’m not alone in putting it in the most exalted category of rare birds. ‘One of those exotic species that somehow belong to the realm of The Arabian Nights rather than to everyday reality,’ wrote the observer of a cream-coloured courser that appeared in East Lothian in November 1965. ‘It is hard,’ he added, ‘to imagine any more exquisite addition to a seasoned ornithologist’s life list.’ In May 2012, the last courser to reach the British mainland – the first since 1984 – settled on a golf course in Herefordshire, and attracted many hundreds of excited birders. This is not the only such record: a cream-coloured courser was seen on the links of Minehead Golf Club in Somerset in late September 1941. Perhaps, to a courser, the fairways of a golf course bear some resemblance to the arid sands of North Africa and the Middle East.

Early British records are as follows:

1. 1785, month unknown. Shot near Wingham in Kent, at the seat of William Hammond, Esq.; sent to the ornithologist Dr John Latham, author of A General Synopsis of Birds (1781-1801).

2. 1793, month unknown. Shot in North Wales by George Kingston of Queen’s College, Oxford; became part of the collection of the botanist Dr John Sibthorp.

3. 1816, April. Shot near Wetherby, Yorkshire, by the keeper of one Mr Rhodes.

4. 1825, month unknown. Shot near Leeds, Yorkshire, by Lord Harewood’s keepers.

5. 1827, 15 October. Shot in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire; became part of the collection of the Rev. Thomas Gisborne of Staffordshire, known for his 1797 book, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. Exhibited, along with a Baillon’s crake, at a meeting of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastlein 1828; drawn by the engraver Thomas Bewick.

6. 1828, 3 October. Near Aldeburgh, Suffolk, probably the bird shot by ‘an old shepherd on a piece of waste ground near the village of Snape … [it] appeared to be perfectly tame and fearless of man.’ Passed into the collection of a Mr Hoy of Boyle’s Court, Essex.

7. 1828, month unknown. Shot at Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, Yorkshire, by the keeper of Lord Charles Stourton.

8. 1840, month unknown. Caught in a state of exhaustion near Marshchapel in North Lincolnshire.

9. 1841, 21 December. Shot at Margate, Kent, by a boy ‘employed in keeping crows’; sold to a dealer for fourpence, then exhibited in Margate Museum.

So it goes on. The 15th record comes from Dorset in 1853, with an account appearing in the third edition of John Hutchins’s The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset (1861):

In the year 1853, the present Lord Digby, while following the hounds, observed, with the practised eye of a sportsman, a strange bird on Batcombe Hill. The late Earl of Ilchester next day sent his keeper Walton (still living) in search of it, who killed it. The bird proved to be the Cream-coloured Courser, and is in the possession of the present earl.

The author of this account was not Hutchins, but the Reverend John Mansel-Pleydell (1817-1902), a naturalist and antiquary, who later wrote the first history of Dorset’s birds. Of the other characters involved, the Earl of Ilchester was Henry Stephen Fox-Strangways (1787-1858), who lived at Melbury House near Evershot, in west Dorset. Built in the 16th century, Melbury is a grand English country house with formal gardens, lakes and an extensive deer park. Lord Digby (1809-89) was Sir Edward St Vincent Digby, the earl’s son-in-law. Walton, the gamekeeper, was William Walton; according to the 1861 census, he was born around 1800 in Somerton, Somerset. Mansel-Pleydell informs us that Walton is ‘still living’, a detail perhaps included for the benefit of sceptics. If people doubted the veracity of the account, Walton was alive to tell them that he had indeed shot the courser in the way described. For anyone in need of further proof, the bird was ‘in the possession of the present earl’ – that is, presumably, stuffed, mounted and on display in a glass case. To have a rarity such as a cream-coloured courser in one’s bird collection would have been, for a mid-19th-century aristocrat, a matter of some social prestige.

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Exactly when Thomas Hardy lit on the story of the courser we do not know, but his links to the Melbury area went back for generations. His mother was born in Melbury Osmond, and as a young woman she worked in service for the Earl of Ilchester’s uncle, and later for the earl’s brother-in-law. She and Hardy’s father were married in Melbury Osmond Church in 1839. As Hardy grew up he must have listened to many stories of Melbury life, and one strong probability is that, at some time in his childhood – he was 13 when the courser was shot – he heard mention of this exotic specimen. Less likely but still possible is that his parents and William Walton were acquainted. In his early novel Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), Hardy gives a portrait of a head gamekeeper, Geoffrey Day, a man of ‘quiet grimness’, that may just have been based on Walton. The most plausible model for Day’s master, the fictional Earl of Wessex – a title now held by Prince Edward, who is supposed to have chosen it after watching Colin Firth play a character called Lord Wessex in the film Shakespeare in Love – is the Earl of Ilchester.

Whenever Hardy first heard of the courser, the critical fact is that in his library he had a copy of the two large leather-bound volumes that comprise the 1861 edition of Hutchins, and we know from one of his notebooks that he was reading them in the spring of 1876, when he was living in Sturminster Newton. We also know it was in the following months that he wrote the first draft of The Return of the Native, which would be published in 1878. It is tempting to see Hardy at his desk, pen in hand, occasionally glancing up to his copy of Hutchins. Perhaps it wasn’t quite like that, perhaps he was writing quickly and it was just the memory of Hutchins that floated into his mind, with its opening account of the cream-coloured courser: ‘This bird is a native of Africa …’

By this point in Hardy’s career, the idea of Wessex – which he would later describe as a ‘partly real, partly dream-country’ – was well developed, and his treatment of the courser is an interesting example of how he worked out of fact and into fiction. Batcombe Hill, where the real bird was shot, lies some four miles south-east of Melbury House; it is an area of open downland that, in the 19th century, would probably have been grazed by sheep. In The Return of the Native, Hardy relocates the scene, shifting it some ten miles further south to Egdon Heath, the fictional name he gave to the tract of heathland that once covered a large part of southern Dorset. However, the hill visited by the courser is identified as Rainbarrow, which is a real place: a prominent landmark on Puddletown Heath, only a short walk from the cottage in Higher Bockhampton, where Hardy was born in 1840. So he brought his cream-coloured courser, this non-native, almost as close to home as was possible.

In Hardy’s version, this quiet country is a sanctuary for rare birds. ‘Feathered species,’ he writes, ‘sojourned here in hiding which would have created wonder if found elsewhere. A bustard haunted the spot, and not many years before this five and twenty might have been seen in Egdon at one time. Marsh-harriers looked up from the valley …’ Much of this seems to be informed by Mansel-Pleydell’s general comments in Hutchins on the rarer birds of Dorset, in which he not only mentions the disappearance of bustards, but also describes the threatened status of ‘various members of the feathered tribe’, among them raptors living ‘daily in danger of annihilation, through the destructive agency of the game-preserver’.

Hardy saw birds as symbols of innocence and vulnerability, and in many places in his fiction and poetry he expresses his horror at their cruel treatment. He hated the caging of birds, and he was strongly opposed to the large shooting parties organised by wealthy landowners like the Earl of Ilchester. In The Return of the Native, the cream-coloured courser is pointedly identified as an ‘African truant’, Africa being the continent that, in the 19th-century European imagination, was associated with primitivism and savagery, while the killer of the courser is ‘a barbarian’. The Romans described all those who lived beyond the frontiers of the empire as barbarians, but from the 16th century ‘Barbary’ was the name that many Europeans gave to the land occupied by the Berber peoples – that is, a large stretch of coastal North Africa, comprising what is now Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. In other words, cream-coloured courser territory. And indeed, in his 1862 book The Illustrated Natural History – Birds, the Rev. J.G. Wood, the David Attenborough of his day, states that the cream-coloured courser ‘seems to live chiefly in Barbary or Abyssinia’.

In the late 1860s, with the publication of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, the word ‘barbarian’ acquired a new resonance. Arnold loosely divided English society into three classes, the Philistines (the middle classes), the Populace (the working classes) and the Barbarians (the aristocracy). In his exploration of the similarities between the aristocracy and the barbarians of old, Arnold wrote that the barbarians ‘had the passion for field-sports; and they have handed it on to our aristocratic class’. Hardy, who had surely read Arnold, sets aside the fact that the bird was shot by the gamekeeper, Walton, and instead pins the blame on the Earl of Ilchester. The word ‘barbarian’ would stick in his mind; in a letter of 1904, he wrote that ‘the prevalence of those sports which consist in watching a fellow-creature, weaker or less favoured than ourselves, in its struggles, by Nature’s poor resources only, to escape the death-agony we mean to inflict by the treacherous contrivances of science, seems one of the many convincing proofs that we have not yet emerged from barbarism.’ (This ponderous sentence is followed by a much lighter one: ‘In the present state of affairs there would appear to be no logical reason why the smaller children, say, of overcrowded families, should not be used for sporting purposes.’)

As I prepared for my A Level exam in 1973, I wrote possible questions on the inside cover of my paperback copy of The Return of the Native. ‘Hardy’s novels are full of a kind of poetry – analyse.’ ‘The Return of the Native is full of intimate conflicts – discuss.’ ‘The irony of fate. How does this work in The Return of the Native?’ I don’t know whether, in answering this last question, I mentioned the cream-coloured courser, but the novel is one of freakish coincidences and unhappy mischances, and the senseless death of the courser stands for the senselessness of the much larger tragedy that affects the human actors, notably Eustacia Vye. Eustacia is a dark-haired beauty with an Italian father; in terms of social ethics, Hardy tells us, she ‘approached the savage state’. She is a stranger in Egdon, ill at ease and exposed to public gossip. The courser, likewise, is a non-native, far from its African home: ‘a strange bird’, as Mansel-Pleydell put it. This is ‘strange’ not in the sense of ‘odd’, but ‘foreign’. Later, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), Hardy would remember the phrase as he conjured a haunting winter scene on the exposed uplands of the Wessex countryside: ‘strange birds from behind the North Pole began to arrive silently … gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes – eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror.’ These birds are unidentified; they are fabulous, spirit-like beings.

The cream-coloured courser of The Return of the Native is also mysterious. Readers are not provided with any descriptive details, and its power lies in the sheer poetry of its name. The creaminess suggests smoothness and richness; if it were called ‘the sandy plover’, it would not possess quite the same allure. I suspect this may be why Hardy decided to mention the bird at all, and also why, as an eager little boy living on the edges of suburbia, I chose the cream-coloured courser as one of my ‘magic’ birds. No other bird on the British list, with the possible exception of the semipalmated sandpiper, has a name with such wonderful alliterative properties.

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A report in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 13 March 1857 notes that ‘the Earl of Ilchester has presented to the Dorset County Museum two wagon-loads of stuffed birds, beautifully prepared.’ Two wagon-loads sounds like a lot of birds, but for whatever reason the cream-coloured courser was not part of this consignment. The earl may have been reluctant to part with such a prize specimen. It remained at Melbury House for the rest of the century, and only on 3 November 1908 did it (and a hoopoe) go to the museum in Dorchester.

A cream-coloured courser

This raises the possibility that, one day after 1908, the elderly Thomas Hardy paid a visit to the museum and set eyes on the bird that he had written about, so eloquently, some thirty years earlier. I doubt that he would have been that delighted. His dislike of the ill-treatment of birds seems to have intensified as he grew older, and times were changing, too; both taxidermy and the practice of shooting very rare birds would soon fall out of favour. One of the 19th-century arguments had been that shooting was the only way to be certain of identification (‘what’s hit’s history; what’s missed’s mystery’), but cameras and binoculars were now available. The ornithologist T.A. Coward, writing about the cream-coloured courser in 1920, put the case clearly: ‘If there is no error about the facts – that the birds were seen in the flesh is not absolute proof – what is the excuse for the slaughter? Why may a man shoot birds which, so far as any one can tell, might nest?’

One day, in my quest for the Batcombe courser, I drove to the County Museum in Dorchester. Standing on the town’s busy high street, and built in 1881 to replace the earlier museum, it’s a splendid example of Victorian Gothic architecture. It houses a vast number of archaeological artefacts, and a replica of Thomas Hardy’s study, though the main visitor attraction last spring was the cast of a dinosaur skeleton, ‘Dippy the Diplodocus’, on a nationwide tour. I was taken round the back of the museum, to a quieter street and an unmarked green door. Inside, in a cluttered storeroom that smelled of camphor or some other insecticide, was the natural history collection. The walls were mounted with stags’ heads, and a brown hare stood beside an albino badger on a wooden cabinet, but what caught my eye was the glass-fronted cases within which species of rare birds had been arranged by Victorian taxidermists in supposedly lifelike poses: storm petrels, little auks, a Kentish plover. In one tableau, a chough perched on a rock, its wings frozen in mid-flap; in another, a black-throated diver sat on a fake nest. A few feet away, wrapped in thick plastic from which its dark beak and a portion of head were visible, was a whooper swan.

This is only the beginning; according to Geoff Turnock, a volunteer who is cataloguing the collection, there are more than a thousand birds in the store. Most are skins, packed in big cardboard boxes. A box of puffins. A box of jackdaws, a box of cuckoos, a box of turtle doves and stock doves. One box was labelled ‘Hoopoes and Kingfishers’. I took it to a table and lifted the lid on a jumble of little birds sealed in plastic bags. The hoopoe – just one hoopoe – was lying on top of the kingfishers, its crest, that wonderful, expressive crown of feathers, half-crushed. It had a single glass eye; the other an empty socket. It was shot on 3 September 1840, which encouraged me in the hope that it might be the bird that accompanied the cream-coloured courser to the museum in 1908; but Geoff checked the records: this is a different hoopoe.

I picked it up, nonetheless. How light it seemed; how shrivelled, how desiccated. Flying, feeding, preening, singing, birds live lives of driven intensity and lyric grace, they are the bright angels of our world, and for them to be reduced to these husks, plumage faded, claws curled, is utterly sad. With a sinking heart, I checked the other boxes. No cream-coloured courser. Maybe it was moth-eaten when it arrived at the museum – maybe that was why the Ilchesters had finally decided to hand it on – and the museum’s curator threw it out with the rubbish: who knows? The fate of the bird shot in 1853 on Batcombe Down, and that made its way into one of the most evocative novels about the English countryside, remains unclear.

I’ve still never seen a cream-coloured courser in Britain, and now I’m not sure how much I want to. I don’t keep lists any longer, and I worry about very rare birds. The freak cream-coloured coursers that appear here every few years and arouse such excitement are not regular migrants, like swallows and swifts; nor are they romantic wanderers that have, on a whim, chosen to visit these shores. They are aliens: disorientated and lost, both geographically and in the more profound sense that the reason for their existence is all but gone. Unable to find their way back, they have little chance of survival, let alone of meeting another of their own kind. If I am ever to watch cream-coloured coursers, I very much hope that it will be where they are in their element, in the dry countries of North Africa and the Middle East, their native home.