Ten o’ clock yesterday morning found me wiping the steamy windows inside my damp car, pulled over on a residential street, staring at a bush in the pouring rain. Trying to twitch a house sparrow.
Yes, its the early part of the year when us birders are seized by listing mania — drawing up targets and wish lists, planning trips, and dreaming of all the bird year might bring. I have absolutely no idea why numbers should matter to me at all. I get untold pleasure from simply watching wildlife, in fact my most memorable bird encounters each year are generally special views in special places, rather than my one hundredth bird of the year, or whatever. Though it is nice when the two coincide. But matter to me numbers do, since if I don’t see a good number of species in a year it feels like a kind of failure. Perhaps I’m just subconsciously forcing myself out to do what I love, with adding to the list as a fairly weak excuse against laziness, perhaps it’s a form of competition (and it does feel exceedingly competitive now I’ve started finding other people to compare numbers with!). There probably isn’t anything wrong with it, anyway. More useful than collecting train numbers, in my opinion.
So with numbers in mind, I gathered as many extra pairs of eyes as I could (which wasn’t many) for a ‘big day’ round Reading. We set a 10k-from-the-centre limit partially to prevent our ideas getting out of hand, partially because it might help with a piece of coursework.
The day started full of promise, spirits only partially dampened by light rain which I confidently predicted was going to clear up pretty quickly. At Hosehill Lake near Theale we got most of the common winter ducks on our list, brief views of greenfinch and bullfinch, a few other small bits and bobs like wren and a great spotted woodpecker bouncing over the pub car park. But the rain got worse, so after a short spell trying to use the car as a make shift hide (only works if you stop breathing, though we did produce a jay) we temporarily gave up and headed towards the university campus to get a weather update, via the sparrow bush — which was as devoid of sparrows as the sky above was of red kites, normally everywhere. We didn’t find a single one all day, in fact. Nor any sparrows — clearly, the house sparrow decline is even more serious than I thought, that or they dislike rain even more than I do.
By this point of the morning I felt a little deflated, like we had picked the wrong day, the list was tailing off into a poor show, the rain was dripping off the end of my hood, and enthusiasm was basically dripping out of me. If you asked me at that moment whether I valued being warm and dry more than birds, I’d have had to say yes. Perhaps I should write a blog about the pleasures of having a roof over your head instead. But this was not a time for quitting. Forcing ourselves out into the rain, we traipsed through the mud round our campus lake, picking up a nice flock of siskins, and the resident mandarins, but completely failed to find a wood duck. Which was OK, since we checked the British list and it doesn’t actually count. After a brief discussion of the finer points of thrush ID we satisfied ourselves we were watching two mistle thrushes hopping about on the meadow, collected common gull on the playing fields, and headed to Waitrose, where we picked up partridge and pheasant. Just kidding. Dead birds don’t count!
A live pheasant was present, however, under the feeders at Lavell’s Lake, my favourite bird-watching destination in Reading. It was 3pm, the rain was slowly stopping, and we had a day list to salvage. Though a bittern was likely to be lurking in the reeds, we didn’t linger long, after adding gadwall, teal, herring gull, rook and lapwing (a flock one hundred strong drifting over adjacent fields) to the list. We had others to find and would come back at roosting time. Unfortunately on our walk to the second hide I didn’t hear any Cetti’s warbler singing — there are a few resident in the scrub and reeds at Lavell’s, which is the first place I learnt to recognise their call. A quick hike over the road to a few other lakes south of the road picked up a grebe at last, great crested, and a male goldeneye diving just behind it.
Now needing only three more to hit fifty, we dashed back to the first hide in the failing light, hoping a bittern would perform. On the way we disturbed a kingfisher which flew off over the reeds, relieving itself perhaps in protest — forty-eight. Entering the hide I asked if the bittern had been seen, and we were encouraged to open the shutters and see for ourselves. And indeed, there it was, making itself unusually obvious in the centre of the reed bed — forty-nine. We watched for a while but as the afternoon closed chances of a nice round fiftieth bird seemed pretty slim.
After giving in to the dark and cold, we left the hide to find two bird-watchers standing on the path, one of whom kindly informed us of a regular winter’s evening show: woodcock flying over, then barn owl coming out of its nesting box to hunt. A glimmer of hope! Sadly no woodcocks put in a performance yesterday, but we persisted with the owl and fixed our gaze firmly on its front door. About ten minutes in, and a white shape appeared, stayed stock still for about five minutes, and disappeared again.
Another ten minutes passed, and thinking that perhaps our presence at the edge of the field was spooking the bird, I suggested we move up the hedge, and almost immediately a white shape came flapping out, and, with a shriek, disappeared into the dusk.
Goes to show that if you wait long enough and keep looking, even the most initially dull and disappointing day of birding can turn up something really special. Also, if we found 50 species of bird quite close to central Reading, on a wet day during half of which we weren’t really trying, with plenty of common species missing from our list — just think what fantastic wildlife might be lurking unsuspected in your neighbourhood! So why not try your own 10k day?