What a glorious couple of days. The world basking under blue skies in the gentle, tentative, delicate warmth of the earliest part of spring. Migrant birds arriving on the coast and making their way up the country, bats and bees and butterflies emerging from hibernation, gaudy banks of daffodils burning holes in your irises. And me sat in dark, warm, sleepy rooms, watching seven hours plus of Powerpoint.
I get very antsy at this time of year if I’m kept indoors for too long. The last two days have been particularly bad: an unfortunate cocktail of enforced enclosure inside during sunshine, disappearance of the sun as soon as I was free to go and enjoy it, then going home each evening and reading lists of the exciting avian (and other) signs of the changing season being seen all around, except by me of course.
It’s not just the thought of missed excitement but the knowledge that the window of suitable climatic conditions for me is so short. Thirteen to eighteen degrees Centigrade, moderately warm sun, not too much pollen, and not too many biting insects (so the colder end of that window is often preferable). As soon as one of those days is happening, I want to make the most of it, and if I can’t I get cross! Yes, the mild days of the beginning of spring and mid autumn are absolutely the best, and are also arguably when the most exciting birding is to be had.
Luckily, I was allowed out into the sunlight yesterday after lunch, at last, to go and radio track bags of sweets in the wood. I thought beforehand that we would just be practicing with unattached tags, and had joked that it would be nice if people stopped treating us like adults and gave us some kind of confectionary incentive to work. All I can say is well done Biotrack, you must have been warned in advance of the kind of maturity to expect from Reading MSc students — I think you read us well!
Alas, as I mentioned, by the time radio tracking fun was finished with for the day, and we could turn to the serious educational business of adding to my year list, the sun was obscured by a bank of altostratus, with the odd spot of water threatening rain. Shame, this; I had been longing to be out birding in the sun. Woodlarks would be singing on the heaths, Dartford warblers busying themselves zipping about the heather, emerging openly on top gorse bushes to give their scratchy little song. But we were far from Reading with opportunities all round — the birds might still be there, and so inevitably I still wanted to go have a look.
First stop was an unassuming looking heath area called Morden Bog, to look for a Great Grey Shrike. And shrikes are great — black mask, fearsome reputation as ‘The Butcher Bird’, long tails flicking as they cast about for the next unfortunate victim to be selected for storage in their larders. Unfortunately it was not on the right hand side of the small lake as promised, at least not within a good few minutes of searching. Whilst we scanned the area, a woodlark, defying the cloud, piped up and sang a few descending notes to us. Lovely! Then, when about to give up, I noticed a bird on top of a tree on the left hand side of the lake, where we hadn’t actually been looking. Looking pale pink in the low cloud obscured sunlight, with a subtly beautiful washed out bright sky behind, the shrike sat observing us, then looked away as we admired it.
Twenty minutes later at Arne, and one of our number cried out ‘mammal!’ with a rather hilarious degree of specificity. I thought perhaps he had seen a stoat or something, but instead a few Sika looked cagily back through the trees and then bounded away. Amusingly, one was fitted with a radio tag. By now we were running low on both time and light, but it was almost the best time to arrive at this RSPB reserve — not another soul was in sight on the heath, which had a superbly fresh after rain smell mixed with the scent of gorse, and it was so quiet you could hear where the water was from the far carrying calls of curlew and redshank.
Before reaching a viewing screen on the left I caught sight of a small purple passerine flitting up onto the heather and watched it cock its long tail, let out a metallic rasp and then dive for cover again. A Dartford warbler — it flew across the path in front of us, and whilst not giving any satisfactory view it was a sighting nonetheless and a fine addition to the year’s birds. The screen overlooked a mud-lined channel, scattered with waders. The sun slowly emerged and the light improved, and the scene began to shine with the glow of evening as a flock of 30 Brent geese came in from the harbour, tilting their wings back to brake and set down in front of us. I was disappointed, however, to note that no promised spoonbills were present. And slightly troubled that this was advertised as a ‘hide’ on the map, despite consisting of but one wall with holes in it.
Not 100 yards away, another path branched off to the left sign-posted ‘hide’. That would explain the lack of roof then — and the lack of spoonbills, three of which were easily visible from here. Somewhat prehistoric in appearance, I think a simple description of them as ‘the big white ones with a wooden spoon for a beak’ is absolutely fitting (and credit is due elsewhere for that one), and about all the information you’d need in a field guide. By now the sun was fully back beneath the edge of the clouds on its way to the horizon, and the whole landscape, the birds, the interior of the hide, and I think the interiors of our very selves were flooded with a warm orange light.
Arne is a wonderful place. An excellent combination of wetlands, heath and woods for birdwatching, great views of the Purbeck hills to the south and Poole harbour with its islands to the north and east. I’ll definitely be going back. But even on days I can’t be somewhere that special, things are looking up. Even if the sun goes in, I say go out, and be rewarded with birds*, and deer, and gorse flowers and perhaps even sunsets on a mostly grey evening, all the sights and smells and sounds of the world in its newly painted spring majesty.
*It is worth nothing that we didn’t actually see any newly arrived migrants yesterday. It’s the best thing about March — you should find birds going in any and all directions. New arrivals in for summer, winter visitors preparing to leave, and residents gearing up to breed.