ESSAY Elaine Ewart

NWR Issue 108

Heligoland: An Ecology of Exile

The Migration

The geographical position of the main island of Heligoland, in the southeast corner of the North Sea (54˚N, 7˚E), represents a vital stopover point for thousands of migrant birds every year, swept exhausted and hungry onto the bleak hospitality of sandstone cliffs. The nineteenth-century German ornithologist Heinrich Gätke describes the phenomenon in his seminal work on bird migration:

The whole sky is now filled with a babel of hundreds and thousands of voices…. Under the intense glare of the (lighthouse) light, swarms of Larks, Starlings, and Thrushes career around in ever-varying density, like showers of brilliant sparks or huge snowflakes driven onwards by a gale, and continuously replaced as they disappear by freshly arriving multitudes.

It was Gätke who brought Heligoland to prominence in the ornithological world. He had moved there from Brandenburg in order to paint, and worked as secretary and translator to the islands’ British governor. For fifty years he observed the many thousands of birds passing his house on the Oberland, as they used the island for a staging post on their journeys to and from their breeding sites. He tested various theories about the mysterious process of migration: what guides the birds? Who leads the flock? What routes do they take? How high do they fly, and how are their journeys affected by the prevailing weather conditions? The fruit of his detailed observations became a landmark document in the development of migration study: Die Vogelwarte Helgoland, published in 1891 and translated into English as Heligoland as a Bird Observatory in 1895.

Gätke was modest about his scientific qualifications:

enjoying only so much of school education as, more than sixty years ago, the choir-master, sub-rector, and rector of our native youth were able to instil into me, with the aid of a tough hazel rod, nothing in the world would have seemed farther removed than the thought of my ever ‘writing a book’, had not Nature herself put the pen into my hand. (ix)

His identification of nature as the source of his inspiration to write places him in sympathy with the Romantic movement’s emphasis on the need for the poet to look to nature for a more authentic and organic language. Writing about the subtle differentiations in plumage that distinguish the sex and age of individual birds of a species, Gätke explains that these signs are known by Heligolanders as well as, if not better than, their alphabet, and that the authority he claims for his work derives from this profound knowledge of place (112–113). Gätke’s monumental work was highly influential: the Welsh ornithologist Ronald Lockley, conversing in 1936 with an elderly Heligolander who had worked for Gätke, agreed with him that ‘no student of bird-migration could afford not to read Gätke’s book even now.’

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Elaine Ewart writes poetry and creative non-fiction, with a particular interest in our relationship with the environment. She was born in Lincoln and now lives in Ely. Elaine was appointed Fenland Poet Laureate for 2012, and continues to run poetry events in her local area. Her poetry has been published in various small-press journals including [Italics: Ink, Sweat and Tears], [Italics: Ariadne’s Thread] and [Italics: Dream Catcher]. She self-published her first poetry pamphlet collection, [Italics: Fur, Feather and Fen], last year. Elaine has recently completed an MA in Wild Writing: Literature and the Environment at the University of Essex. She has an essay appearing in the anthology, [Italics: Est: Collected reports from East Anglia], which was published by Dunlin Press in February. Elaine blogs at Her essay, from which this is an excerpt, came second in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2015, WWF Cymru Prize for Writing on Nature and the Environment, run by ourselves.


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