The sun began its descent on the horizon, part of its journey hidden by the towering trees and crumbling human ruins. The air took on a hazy, orange hue and the muggy warmth of the day gave in to the coolness of the encroaching night.
I hopped from tree to tree, swishing my tail from side to side in anticipation for what was to come.
For tonight was the night.
I could hear and see my brothers and sisters fluttering around me and I hopped onto a low hanging branch to wait for the last of them to arrive.
One of them landed near me and tweeted merrily. I tweeted back, wishing him luck on his journey. The sun finally set and all was darkness.
Now was the time to fly.
By some unspoken cue, we all lifted ourselves into the sky, a raucous noise erupting from our beaks.
It was time. The days were getting shorter here now, and the food a little more scarce. It was time for more young to be born into the world in the cool forests of the great Northern Land.
Our great flock lifted up high into the air, our black feathers blending in with the night, our yellow ones almost gleaming in the darkness.
We flew across the darkened treetops where most other creatures were asleep. The wind was pushing us towards our goal, lifting us up as we fluttered our wings purposefully onwards.
This was my second migration and I could feel the bubbling of life in me. Last year I had had five chicks, all of which had now grown and scattered throughout the forests. Perhaps some were flying with me in this great flock, perhaps some had died. I didn’t know.
The night passed uneventfully, and I watched as the moon traversed along the sky and the stars shimmered above. I had managed to grab a few insects along the way to eat, but I was looking forward to roosting for the day as my wings were slightly aching from the long use.
Just before the dawn broke, the whole flock alighted in the tangled trees and scurried down to the middle of them, safe from the sharp eyes in the sky and the lurking eyes below on the forest floor.
I shared my roost with two other birds, one male and one female. I instinctively puffed up my already round, plump chest and wagged my black and white tail at the female, showing off the long, beautiful white, black-tipped feathers. She seemed uninterested and simply tucked her head under her wing to sleep. Never mind. I was sure to find a lady in the North. For now, sleep. Tomorrow was the crossing of the Great Water that would take us an entire night and almost a whole day to traverse. Then we would be at the bottom of the Northern Land.
Dusk was fast approaching and there were clouds that covered some of the setting sun.
“I do not think the weather will be good for travelling,” I said to one of my brothers beside me.
He, like me, was chubby with body fat and a black and white mask and a grey crown. He wagged his tail back and forth thoughtfully.
“The whole flock flies tonight. Are you willing to make the journey alone?” he asked me.
I thought of it for a moment, and stared up to the clouds in the sky. I could just hear the wind rustling through the treetops over the noise of all of us chirping and chattering. There was something in the air that unsettled me.
“If the air cools too much, there won’t be any thermals for us to ride. It will make the crossing far harder,” I said, fluttering my wings.
My brother was silent.
“I have made the journey three times already. All will be well. Our numbers are so mighty, there is not much that could deter us,” he assured me.
“A storm might,” I said.
Once night had fully set, we all rose up once again to begin to the long journey across the great gulf of water. Before long the dense tree growth had succumbed to rolling, grassy hills and I could smelt the sharp scent of the sea and see it glinting faintly in the moonlight. The clouds had gathered, although their number was not sufficiently great enough to block out the moon completely. As I reached the shoreline and crossed into the great expanse of blackened blue, I felt the first draught of cold wind try to force me down and I flapped harder. I felt the flock swoop down with the wind and we all surged upwards to try to find the thermal waves. We found them and the flock steadied.
My worry increased.
Dawn came, painting us as a black mass winging its way as swiftly as we could across the water.
We had long ago left any sign of land behind and my strength was beginning to wane, but I had confidence that I would make it. I had gorged myself on insects and berries all winter in preparation for this flight. I would make it.
Instead of getting lighter, the day became darker as the storm clouds increased, and I could feel the wind shifting and changing, the whole flock moving as one to try to compensate. I could barely see the water below me, but instead of a deep, sparkling blue, it was a grey, white-flecked mass below. The sun only occasionally peeked through the thick clouds.
“It’s going to storm!” I shouted to the birds closest to me.
Some of them looked my way and I could see that they knew it too. But what could we do? We were like leaves blowing in the great winds of the world. We flew by their grace, or fell by them. Often they were kind, but I had lost many friends due to storms, as well as other natural predators.
The flock instinctively moved together, trying to use our mass of bodies as a buffer for the stronger winds.
When it came, it came suddenly.
The wind blew hard above us, pushing us towards the ocean. The whole flock dropped but before we could recover, the wind then buffeted us up and sideways. Through the mass of black and yellow wings, I could see a blue-grey curtain coming towards us. Within moments, the rain started. Our first instinct was to go up, up above the clouds where the winds would perhaps be gentler, less erratic, but the cold draught was intend on driving us down towards the roiling water below.
The darkness was not a problem for us as we could see in the dark quite well, but the rain was the problem, blinding us and trying to make our wings so sodden that they could no longer hold us above.
I veered violently to the left as a small, feathered body plummeted past me to the water below. I couldn’t see who it was that had fallen, but I desperately hoped they would recover before they reached the water below.
Thunder began making loud booming noises, though the sound was strangely muffled for me as my hearing was not as superior as my eyesight. The lightning flashing was more concerning, as I could see it striking close to our tightly packed bodies and I knew that lightning was fire and terror and death.
Suddenly, a gust of strong wind hit me in between wingbeats and I lost my balance on the small eddy that was carrying me along. Instantly I was hurtled down towards the water. I flapped frantically, trying to find any way to stop my downward flight. I could feel the air getting colder as I fell closer to the water and then, miraculously, a burst of wind pushed me up and straightened me.
Quickly I opened my wings and frantically flapped, slowing my downward plummet and beginning to climb back up.
I looked around me desperately to see any sign of the flock, climbing back up, but there was nothing but clouds, rain and the grey sea.
I was alone.
I struggled on as hard as I could, trying to find the sun, trying to find something to confirm I was going in the right direction. My sense of direction was pushing me along an invisible path, one I had travelled on last year, one that my parents, all my ancestors had travelled for endless time, but I had never been in a storm like this.
I had to somehow get above the clouds and find the sun.
I flapped my wings as hard as I could, my tail trailing out behind me, lashing in the winds. I flew from air pocket to air pocket, trying to find the winds that would lift me up. I got closer and closer to the clouds and the rain fell down harder. I flapped and flapped, the darkness getting slightly deeper as I flew into the thick clouds. Almost…almost…
I broke through the clouds and was almost blinded by the sun which sat almost in the centre of the sky.
I lessened my frantic flapping, the wind gentler here and got my bearings. Thankfully, I was heading in the right direction, based on the sun. I looked desperately around for any sign of the flock but they were gone, either far ahead or far behind or scattered to the winds. All I knew is that I would have to reach the shoreline and the welcoming trees before night fell.
My energy wouldn’t last much longer than that.
The storm stretched out below me, the clouds moving fast in the opposite direction and I was thankful to be free of it. Eventually, when I sensed the shore was closer, I would have to go back below the clouds, but hopefully the storm would have moved on or lessened by then. And there was no sign of any of the others.
I was still all alone.
The sun sank below the clouds and I knew that it was time for me to descend too and find the trees I so desperately needed. My energy was fading rapidly now.
I cautiously went down, the wind buffering me gently. When I descended into the clouds I felt the wetness still, but the air was not as biting cold as it had been earlier and the rain had thankfully stopped. The sea seemed calmer and the air more steadily. I was able to glide more than flap and I was glad, for my wings ached. There was no sign of my flock but I could sense that land was getting nearer, which meant that hopefully soon I’d be reunited with the rest of the flock.
Only time would tell.
I finally reached land and I was so grateful. I immediately looked for trees, any trees to land upon, but this area of the coast was heavily populated by humans. There was no comforting darkness of the trees, pierced only by my eyes. Instead, there was a blaze of lights, almost as great as the sun, dazzling points of it.
Still, I pushed myself on until I eventually found a small copse of trees in a wide-open space that wasn’t so glaring with the human lights.
I stumbled into the lower, thickly foliaged part of the tree, tucked my wings gratefully, feeling a sudden sense of vertigo at the fact I was no longer moving. Then I tucked my head under my wing and fell into a deep sleep.
When I awoke, the sun was setting again and I knew it was time to fly. I had no idea how to find the rest of my flock, but I would simply follow the path and eventually it would take me to the tall trees of the farthest reaches of the Northern Land.
I peered out from the branches, watching to see if there were any dangers around me. When I saw nothing, I took a deep breath and launched myself back into the sky.
I did not like flying through human cities. They were like tall trees, but more solid and brighter. I often had to fly up much higher to avoid them all, and the wind always seemed to lack its usual life above the cities. It smelled funny too.
I carried on.
I flew as fast as I could, hoping to catch up with my flock, although knowing it was perhaps a vain pursuit.
But just before dawn I saw a dark shape moving in the sky. I peered closely at it, wondering if it was a cloud, but when I saw it weave suddenly in the air currents, I realised it was my flock!
I flapped as hard as I could until I reached the mass of feathered bodies. I felt a twang of sadness as I realised the flock was significantly smaller. There was still a great amount of us left, but the storm had scattered many of us to the four winds.
I weaved my way into them, feeling safe and protected once more in the group.
I tweeted my arrival joyfully and a few others closest to me turned and tweeted back, happy to see one of their number return.
I was safe.
We kept travelling north for two more nights, and we lost a few more of our flock. Some got lost above another great, gleaming city by the coast, confused by the glittering lights and flying down to them, thinking they were the sun. One morning as we alighted in a grove of trees, we heard loud bangs and the baying of the four-legged creatures called dogs and some of our numbers dropped dead from the trees.
But we carried on, as we had to, as our ancestors all had to.
We finally made it! Our forest, the boreal forest, felt like home – was home. The air here was sweeter, sharper, the trees taller and shaggier, the waters of the rivers and streams livelier. It was a good place for new beginnings.
The sun was high in the sky when we settled into our trees, our raucous chatter blanketing the whole forest. Each of us told of our journey and our travails and I was delighted to find that many other birds had gone through the same storm I had and survived.
There was one bird near me, a pretty little female. She was perched delicately on a branch, her black and white tail hanging down, the white band around her eye, the grey-yellow of her feathers. I puffed up my chest and hopped over to her. She watched me, waiting. I spread my wings, shook my tail out then bowed to her. Then, I decided to sing her a song amongst the noise of all the others. I sang her a song of the sunshine over the mountains, of the wind rustling through the trees and the joy of soaring through the clear, open air. She moved closer and closer until our beaks touched. She ruffled her feathers and looked at me and I knew I had found my mate.
It took a little while, but soon there were three little eggs nestled in our crooked nest hidden amongst the leaves and branches. When I could not find insects, I brought my mate back berries while she sat on our eggs, and at nights we cuddled close together to keep the eggs warm, enjoying each other’s comfort. Soon our chicks would hatch and their little tweets would mix with the other sounds of the forest. Then once they had grown, the whole flock would gather again and make their way back to the Southern Land, our other home.
But for now, life was good and life was peaceful.