Not Birding?

Not at all threatening French gull

I hope the absence of any recent updates here has been relatively tolerable, and most of all that during this lack of regular service you haven’t forgotten me. Ironically, I have allowed the writing of a thesis almost entirely focussed on where birds are in relation to other things to prevent me from good, slow, deliberate days out birding. For shame, really. And in the middle of that, I even managed to go on holiday, and still not go a-birding. Apart from on the ferry, of which more later.

So was I chained to desks for weeks on end, light shut out, birds banned, interactions with wildlife strictly forbidden until I’d finished my 10k or so words and submitted? Well, not exactly. You see, for me, and I’m guessing for many others like me, birding is not something you do, but a birder is what you are. It’s a state of being. It’s like a Magic Eye puzzle: once the picture has jumped out of the page and you see it for what it really is, you can’t glance at it without seeing what’s really there, glancing back at you. So too with birds: even if I’m not looking for them (and do I ever really stop looking for them, even when I’m not supposed to be?!), I can’t help but notice they’re still there.

So it was that on a week’s holiday to Brittany with some friends of ours, which was supposed to be dedicated to chilling out by the ‘pool’* or on the beach, walking the cliffs, strolling through old towns and markets and harbour fronts, and eating far too much bread and cake, I still slipped in some pretty good birds. The garden around our holiday cottage (attached to the owners’ ridiculously beautiful home) was a veritable orchard, scattered with apple, pear, plum and hazelnut trees, which attracted all manner of life. Six bullfinches bouncing about in a loose flock, blue and great tits, and a see-sawing chiffchaff, perhaps a first-year bird practicing his song ready for next spring.

All the regular stuff then, but, well, French. Familiar, but somewhat foreign, the countryside showing a slightly different character and hinting that farm and garden ecosystems work a bit differently too. This sense was backed up by stealing a look over the garden fence — there over untidy cornfields and haystacks was a pair of turtle doves sat on the telephone wires, accompanied by about thirty or forty flocking linnets, handsome in grey brown and pink in the sun. Looking for all the world like common, everyday birds, not increasingly rare farmland enigmas. I wonder what they are doing in Brittany that we don’t in Hampshire?

On our coastal walks, I was pleased to catch a glimpse of the white rump of a wheatear (there’s a clue in the name — old English ‘White-arse’, or so I’m told) skipping over rocks, a pair of ringed plovers, turnstones dashing away from the rising tide, and a squadron of oystercatchers, kleeping menacingly and no doubt keeping a beady eye on our movements. Off the St Malo city walls, sandwich terns dived for a fishy lunch whilst we lunched on rabbit terrine sandwiches, watched hungrily by a couple of alarmingly tame, begging, young lesser black-backed gulls. Even a twenty-minute walk alongside the fairly industrial harbour turned up new things: a white wagtail foraging around a fish dealers’ warehouse (continental cousin of our pied variety), and a small group of lemon-yellow serins surprising us by alighting on concrete and scratchy grass near a dry dock before bouncing off. Pity we don’t have these breeding en masse in southern England yet.

Oh yes, and seabirds. I added three birds to my year list by taking up a commanding, almost forward-facing station on the MV Normandie as we churned past the Isle of Wight, starting our holiday. Shags flapping low and dark over the white horses, a fulmar steering into the wind, and gannets sitting on the sea for a break before rising up and soaring powerfully away. A fine sight, gannets, of which I’ll never tire — a huge white cross of a bird, black-tipped, beak razor sharp, gaze blue and piercing, king of the North Atlantic airspace. Nine scoters sculled past in formation as we left the Solent, compact silhouette and dark plumage unmistakable. Not new for the year, but more than welcome. Arriving in the small port of Ouistreham, I noticed that the supposed herring gull flying alongside deck had yellow legs. A yellow-legged gull — on the wrong side of the channel for my British year list, but still the first I’ve ever knowingly seen. On the way back, sea-watching was alas more difficult as sheltered, forward-facing deck space was at a premium. The more modern ‘Mont St Michel’ is enormous and comfortably furnished but space is dedicated to shopping emporia, cinemas and restaurants (i.e., ways for Brittany Ferries to relieve us of even more cash) — the atmosphere of travel and adventure poisoned by commercialism and piped muzack. Pity that modern shipbuilders can’t consider the needs of birders. A dedicated, sheltered ‘twitchers’ deck’, would be good, maybe with well-maintained and anchored high-power scopes…

A few days later, after a final meeting down at Game Conservancy HQ at which, I think, my analysis was considered fairly sensible, I sneaked into the hide at nearby Blashford Lakes for half an hour. My reward was not, alas, the elusive great white egret now on its eighth wintering visit, but a cloud of swallows and martins clearing the air of gnats over the gravel pits made up for it. Common, everyday, but utterly fantastic, and entirely welcome before plunging back into the depths of principal components, probability values and convoluted third-person sentences.

Even when my carefully printed pages had made their way to a binder, I was still not free simply to bird, as I had a festival to attend. But between myself and a similarly bird-crazed fellow attendee, we managed 26 species seen or heard in between gigs, speakers, rain, sun, reheated curry, chai, cookies and jamming — from grey wagtails to ravens to late swifts to migrating common sandpipers at night. Which brings me ramblingly to the point of these recollections — that I should remember this month the next time I complain of not having ‘time’ to go birding. I’ve done rather a lot without even trying!

*When I say pool, I mean a ten-foot-wide, two-and-a-half-foot-deep, glorified inflatable paddling pool.

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One thought on “Not Birding?

  1. I love your style of writing, Chris. What an interesting holiday you had. And I’m forever impressed with your ability to identify so precisely, and count, the species.

    Love, Your M-I-L

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