So here I am, once again rather late with all the news of my birdy adventures. I hope you’ve all been able to contain your excitement whilst you wait for the next installment.
I got a bit emotional, last time round. Emotion-inducing little bird, firecrest, a lot more so than some of my other lifers this year, like Lesser scaup. Bless its little ducky face, but not so thrilling. You may be worried about me — you might think that this birding lark is nothing but wishy washy sentimentality, cooing at pretty things, grown men reduced to tears by five grams of feathers and bone.
To put your mind at rest, last week I came up with a proper big bird, a dangerous bird. In other words, a true man’s bird. No nonsense, no messing around on a river bank at the local nature reserve, but a serious expedition out to a freezing cold lay-by, to stand around with other binocular-festooned men (and one somewhat less excited lady), on the scent of a white tailed sea eagle.
This somewhat lost bird, driven by the restlessness of youth (probably its second winter) had used all of its eight foot wingspan, at some point last December, to power over from the continent and appear along the coast of Hampshire. Taking up residence in a field a few miles from the sea, it proceeded to stay for about 10 weeks, buzzing surrounding towns and villages, taking occasional trips to the coast and generally frightening the living daylights out of the local wildlife. The crow and buzzard contingent of it reportedly spent much of those weeks following the eagle around attempting to make life as difficult as possible for it, or just generally to be annoying, in the hope it might go away again. I imagine a bird as big as that is a serious competitor for rabbit suppers, or delicious feasts of carrion.
Then, at the end of February, for no particularly good or apparent reason, with a few flaps the young eagle launched itself towards the north, and headed for Basingstoke. This might have seemed a foolish choice, but showing remarkable good taste it settled instead nearby in the much more genteel surroundings of Old Basing village, out in attractive farmland along the river valley. Amazingly, this is not the first of its kind to be seen in these parts, for another young one spent the winter about 20 miles to the west in 2007 — I was lucky enough to see it, soaring magnificently over a conifer plantation near Andover, mobbed by an excellent diversity of raptors and ravens. Obviously the white tailed eagle has an affinity for inland Hampshire, which, to somebody who has spent the greater part of his life in the county, is immensely pleasing. It’s good to know that the landscape of my home county can support such a large predator for many months.
Anyhow, back to project eagle watch. This trip proved a bit more rugged, almost militarily efficient in the precision of its execution. We had to wait long enough to see a few good things in the area and get a feel for it (four little egrets together in one field, and an entertainingly pale buzzard that had the crowd going for a few minutes), but not so long that we started to look unlucky, or like we had not planned effectively. Turning from the aforementioned raptor towards the river,about half an hour in, we observed a second buzzard, over the woods and beyond the road behind us. Then a third was called out. But as soon as I looked, and I’m sure everybody else was thinking the same, I knew. No buzzard, but something an order of magnitude bigger. If the firecrest was a little king, this was the galactic emperor, lord of all he surveyed, the restful countryside bowing in submission to his whim and quaking at the imperious gaze of its new master. In other words, a fairly awesome bird.
And the moment was good. Not firecrest good, but good in a different and special way. No fluttering hearts and moist eyes, but instead a surge of adrenaline and elation. A life-affirming feeling of absolute triumph. We came, we saw, we conquered. Not that I would pick a fight with a bird that stands about three feet high with a beak like two meat cleavers and feet ranged with vicious stabby talons, but we certainly conquered the task at hand with a ruthless effectiveness. I’d imagine it was somewhat like scoring a goal. I have to imagine as that’s a sensation I’m not particularly familiar with, for some reason. Anyway, job done. Just two hours after leaving Reading, I was sat back on campus in the relative warmth and comfort of the chaplaincy, eating my lunch. Back of the net!