I should say a few words about an epic quest that may just have changed my birding life. Back in November or December a ringing team at our local reserve, Lavell’s Lake, were lucky enough to catch a firecrest in their nets. I have long wanted to see one, attracted by drawings in the field guides and photographs showing a tiny bird, not much bigger than a goldcrest (Europe’s smallest), with the most remarkable plumage: bright yellow green back, a bold black eye stripe topped with a blaze of white over the eyebrow, the head crowned with a flaming golden crest of glory. An absolute jewel, people always say of it, and from the pictures I imagined they were right. I like goldcrests; they are a splendid little bird. I pictured something quite similar, just a little brighter, and stripier. That’s about right, but nothing would quite prepare me for the reality of the thing.
And it was the real thing itself that, once regular sightings of the bird were being reported again this year, I went in search of, with my trusty birding companion by my side. (He has excellent eyes, you know, and I like to think I’m training him well. Plus he always provides the treats, which is nice.) Our crested friend had been spotted hanging out in and around a blackthorn by the Loddon, but with only occasional regularity – one local observer having put in an estimated 12 hours before catching a glimpse. Daunting this, but never one to be put off by the long slog I considered the rewards for persistence were bound to be great, and on one, then two visits we stopped on the side of the river, longer the second time, but to no avail.
Its family is known as ‘Regulidae’, giving American relatives the name ‘kinglets’. Little King. Particularly appropriate, I feel. The man sometimes called ‘King of Kings’ warned of false prophets coming, claiming to be him. This tiny King of the birds was no exception. First came a 6 foot bearded ‘firecrest’ riding a bike, head sporting a black beanie hat adorned with a fiery orange stripe. Following a yellow GPS hung round his neck. He headed past us on the footpath beside the river, and my friend turned to me and exclaimed ‘It’s a lot bigger than it looks in the book!’ Quite a wit, that one.
In an arboretum in the New Forest the following week, an idol appeared before us purporting to be a ‘firecrest’, made not of living flesh and feathers but sculpted from dead wood. It spoke to us of the former presence of the thing, but seemed to offer little hope of a living encounter, only a shadow of fallen trees and remembered things.
We returned to the Loddon. I had to see this bird. We waited, and many birds visited, but not the object of our desire. A thrush consoled us with song for what felt like an age, turning phrases over to itself, delighting in its repetitious meanderings, not 10 feet away in a tree top. Blue and long tailed tits flitted by, a goldcrest offered momentary hope, soon dashed. I felt sorry for it, normally so welcome, now no more than a pleasant distraction. Behind us robins piped in from time to time, with a few cheering notes. A treecreeper came close, playing with me its spiraling game of hide and seek, and then away with a series of thin ‘tseees’. An hour had now passed, but it felt like an age. I expected to look down and find the grass growing up around me, roots binding me to the river bank, so completely part of that scene did I feel.
As for the reality of birds crested with fire, doubt crept in. If it wasn’t visiting with us on the river, where was it? Strange to imagine the little creature, unseen, flicking about in undisturbed bushes in a garden on the other side of the river, or perhaps half a mile upstream. Maybe they are like electrons, collapsing to the state in which we see them only when observed, flashing in and out of existence along the River Loddon like a match flaring, then crumbling back into dust. Firecrests are light, maybe, existing as both wave and particle, but also as neither; there, somewhere, and yet nothing tangible: slipping through our fingers.
But I saw the light. My eyes were meant to see a firecrest. It must have been ordained. Just happening to be near the place of our long vigils, not with the express purpose of committing to another, a little exploratory look was hard to resist. And this time, after just five or ten minutes, a tiny creature, seen first by my colleague to whom I am now ever grateful, zipped down into undergrowth a few meters away. Seeing it start to hop up a branch I thought of a treecreeper, then the size jumped out at me and my mind turned to a goldcrest. I didn’t dare hope for anything more, yet a brief closer look proved decisive – there was an eye stripe! Such a bright green! Like fresh beech leaves in April, glowing as if lit by sunlight. “That’s the bird!” I said, barely able to utter the words, afraid as I was of being wrong and dashing our hopes once more and forever. But it was the bird, and what a bird. Everything I expected, and more, somehow more beautiful than any other living thing I had ever seen. I almost cried. Firecrests live!