The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.
I heard it as soon as I swung the car door shut: a dizzy, fever-pitched fizz more like an insect’s song than a bird’s, slicing through the cool Midsommar night. The meadow in front of me, glowing in the eerie illumination of a June’s-end one a.m., looked no different from so many others here. What covered its slope was a dense mat of close-growing, un-gardened stalks of the humble wildflower that is known in English as cow parsley, and which in Swedish goes by the even more embarrassing name of hundkex: dog biscuits. There was no sign that this was a place where you might find something rare.
Stefan and I had just spent several hours feasting with his family on pickled and fermented herring, potatoes, roasted pork, and all manner of breads and cheeses, and with both beer and cool, sharp snaps in my belly I had been ready for bed a long time ago. Instead, we were drawing out the longest day of the year in a sleepy haze beside a village road. We had come to the dog- biscuit meadow to see a single, very special, vagrant.
A vagrant is a bird that has, by some mistake of birth or meteorology, strayed far from the path it was meant to follow in its life. Vagrants are also called accidentals, and both names go some way toward capturing the pathos of their situation: not only lost, but alone. Somewhere in the meadow’s stalks perched such an individual. It was a male lanceolated warbler (träsksångare). As songbirds go, the lanceolated warbler is not particularly flashy; it lacks the jewel-like colors of a bluethroat or a goldfinch. It is, however, marked by a beautiful series of dark striations on its breast, crown, rump, and flanks. To look more closely is to see that the lines are formed from tiny lance-like shapes, each one a thin oval tapering to a point. It is these that give the bird its name.
In looks and song, the lanceolated warbler is rather similar to the grasshopper warbler, a relative that spends the spring and summer breeding in this region. But compared with a grasshopper warbler, a lanceolated warbler will have more—and more distinct —streaking, a higher voice, and a well-defined, as opposed to a diffuse, border between the dark center and pale edge of each of its tertial feathers. I could not have identified these subtle differences on my own. But they had not gone unnoticed when the little warbler appeared here some nights earlier, and a rush of expert Swedish birders had already given their say-so to the characteristics that separated it from its common relative. Let us say that if this bird had been aspiring to sainthood, it would have been five times confirmed by the highest of priests.
Because we knew its provenance, Stefan and I also knew that as far as we had traveled to see it—150km from the observatory in Handöl to Östersund, where Stefan lives; 32km from Östersund to Nälden, where we had celebrated the holiday in a tiny lakefront cabin with his family; another 27km or so from Nälden to Bleckåsen—the tiny bird in the meadow had come much further. A lanceolated warbler within its normal range can be seen throughout Siberia, on the lower slopes of Russia’s Ural mountains, and in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Japan. At this time of year, a male of the species ought to have been nesting with a female in a wet, shrubby meadow somewhere perhaps a thousand or two thousand kilometers east or northeast of the spot where we stood. This one was calling for a mate it would never find.
It’s a bit like a sewing machine, Stefan had told me three mornings earlier, after his first pilgrimage to this spot in Bleckåsen. The sound coming from the meadow wasn’t, in fact, so far from what he had described—notes of metal whistling and punching, whistling and punching, at speed. It was an obsessive little racket, the kind of sound that might come reeling at midnight from beneath the door of a red-eyed tailor in a fairytale, running stitches through cloth faster than his hands could keep up. This was the voice of instinct, I thought—the voice of conviction in the face of loss.
We saw the source of that voice as soon as we descended the makeshift path that dozens of eager birders had trampled over in the past few days. The warbler had alit on a branch in the midst of the hundkex blooms, singing with its bill so wide open that I imagined a great stream pouring from its mouth. As it sang it turned its head fastidiously from one direction to another, throwing its call to all points. And the singing lasted for minutes on end. This was unusual behavior for its species.
I hate to anthropomorphize; I hope I manage to avoid it here. But witnessing this unabating, probably futile summons (futile, anyway, unless a female vagrant happened also to have been blown here), it was hard not to feel that it resounded with a note of desperation.
To many birders—especially the ones who make a fetish out of each new species, but even those who don’t—vagrants are objects of fascination. It’s no trivial thing to be able to look upon a creature that you’d otherwise never expect to see. Real though they are, vagrants are so out of place, so unexpected, and so carefully inspected for signs of authenticity that seeing one is perhaps the closest any of us will come to seeing a unicorn or a mermaid.
Even if you can relate to it, though, you might dismiss this motive for visiting a vagrant as thrill seeking. That’s why, when Ulla first heard about the lanceolated warbler, she resisted making the effort to see it. Her serious heart didn’t want to think of itself as longing after the unusual and the rare. But days later, when the warbler failed to leave, Ulla too drove up to the incandescent meadow late at night. She listened, and she felt her heart contract.
Ulla didn’t have to explain why. What runs beneath the urge to see a vagrant is something more powerful than the desire to collect a rara avis. The wonder we feel, I think, is centered on the knowledge that this creature once had a plan—had an object, had a bone-deep, gene-deep map to follow—and somewhere along the way, got lost.
Since I have spent most of my life in search of such a map, the vagrant’s fate is bittersweet heartache to me. I cannot tell you how often I have found myself envious of another creature’s indelible blueprint. I have coveted the existence of periodic cicadas, which lie years in the buried dark readying for one great emergence, and somehow know exactly what to do when that day comes.
But I never realized how devastating certainty can be when it comes undone. There’s very little use in having a blueprint if you cannot follow it, and small comfort in a well-planned route if you find yourself so far off the map that you cannot return. It wasn’t until I heard the vagrant in Sweden that I understood my good fortune. I happen to know I am wandering; I understand there’s no such thing as a home that doesn’t change with you. And so, I now believe with all my heart, I can never be lost.
We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.
—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” 1862*******
P.S. As most of you know, I’m writing a little book of essays about my summer adventures. In case you were wondering what that might look like, consider this post—which will appear in the book, with revisions—a preview. And thank you, as ever, for reading.