If ever there was an invisible bird, it’s a wryneck. Forget any notably transparent or retiring feathered friends I’ve written about previously. These are absolutely impossible – just the bird you’d recruit for espionage, perhaps on dry land at least, with a bittern squadron tackling the reed beds. From their habit of sitting absolutely stock still, to their tree bark-like patterning, not to mention fondness for moving unseen across the ground, the wryneck is a master of deception. In this the wryneck might be rivaled only by the bittern – as a side note, it is curious how these presumably unrelated birds have adopted similar vegetation aping, statue-impersonating camouflage, and stretched neck twisting routines when alert or watchful. Convergent evolution is a remarkable thing.
Suffice to say, up until the onset of this autumn, I’d failed spectacularly at wryneck hunting. Last October in Norfolk I scoured a bank of scrubby bramble and hawthorn, in tandem with a friendly passing birder, for a good hour, in the vicinity of a lucky sighting, and saw not so much as a robin move in the tangle of branches. Later that same afternoon, one popped up briefly to feed on a grass bank, but I was too slow to see it, and it didn’t return. My gaze, like most of the watching crowd’s, had been drawn instead to a gorgeous little citrus-fresh yellow-browed warbler buzzing around the nearby blackthorn. Next year, I thought; best to keep a few treats in reserve for next autumn.
And so when wrynecks started arriving en masse before our departure for Cornwall a couple of weeks back, I placed them on the mental ‘to tick list’. Surely the cliffs would be jam-packed with tripod-clutching, bobble hat-sporting enthusiasts, allowing not a migrant to go undetected, and helpfully directing us to the very branch on which we would, this time, easily find our quarry? Well, in a word, no. I was disappointed, but this is the way birding goes – to put it somewhat crudely, everybody has bogies, so I re-filed wryneck on the list marked ‘for next year, or the year after, or whenever I get lucky’. They don’t breed here anymore, alas (at least as far as anyone knows, since I suspect much might lurk undetected in the furthest reaches of the Scottish Highlands), but drop in on passage annually, so I’d be unlucky not to get another chance.
It occurred more rapidly than I expected, when ‘Wryneck, Old Basing’ appeared on the bird alerts. This was only nine miles from where I lived! Surely, this time, I would not be evaded. As many short trips up the A30 as it took me, I would see this bird. My confidence started to drain on seeing no other birders when we arrived at the site – we scoured it for an hour, during which a handful of blackcaps and chiffchaffs, and a passing sparrowhawk, provided the only notable entertainment.
Thinking, however, that we had at least identified the rough area in which the bird had been seen, and the dense bramble into which it disappeared with unhelpful frequency, I returned the following morning, early, before most of the dog walkers and skateboarding youths, and renewed my vigil. Nothing. Barely a robin stirred amongst the ripening blackberries. Heading back to the car, disappointed, I saw a birder heading to a completely different part of the site, and you can guess why. I’d been looking at the wrong brambles entirely. I waited with two others, who briefly saw something about the right size fly round the bush and out of sight – but it might as well have been a blackbird, because I didn’t see anything.
To think this would have totally deflated my enthusiasm would be to underestimate my determination. This place could almost have been a local patch for me, it was that convenient. I’d be a fool to miss out. So on Monday, I returned, armed with much better intelligence, and happily found that the site was much better covered this time; with this many birding boots on the ground and eyes on the brambles and hawthorn, we’d miss nothing. My chest started thumping when I saw one of the search party beckon to another, and point to a tiny bush. He’d seen what he thought was the bird fly into it moments before, and very soon a horde of birders materialised as if from nowhere. Many had been there for an hour without me noticing – impressive camouflage, I must say. But somehow, our quarry, which had almost nowhere to hide, eluded the tightening net and slipped free. Impossible!
In keeping with military standards of concealment, from both bird and birder, this was now all-action stuff. With co-ordination worthy of a crack special forces team, we moved as one unit, quickly descending on patches where the bird was briefly seen to stake it out, then, when no further movement was detected, spread out gracefully to renew the search. Put it down to inexperience or inferior skills, but I didn’t see so much as the twitch of a wing. Nobody got a long view, but I was forced to leave, after at least two hours’ hunting, with nothing tickable at all.
So that would be it – my big dip for 2011, a vagrant unseen on my back doorstep. Until last Friday, when things started happening on the coast. The bird guides map for the Hampshire coast resembled a game of Tetris, and one square revealed the presence, once again, of my nemesis bird within my home county. Knowing that driving all that way for a wryneck would end in miserable failure, I hatched a cunning B plan: I’d twitch the Baird’s sandpiper instead! Thinking I had arrived only for a very lost American wader, the wryneck would never see me coming. It’s well known that reverse psychology works on birds, right?
On arrival, a kindly man in a hat (always trustworthy) filled me in on the latest for both birds. I thanked him, stopping only to retrieve his hat from a bush when it lifted off in a gust – the least I could do, so I also pointed out my hat’s expertly deployed chin strap technology as advice in the event of future wind/headgear issues. I don’t call myself ‘hat birder’ for nothing.
So I headed for a well established tripod forest on the sea wall, and dutifully watched a diminutive American calidrid scuttle about for a few minutes. To be honest, the beautifully marked little stints amongst the wader flock were somewhat more pleasing, but a tick is a tick is a tick. Then, almost casually, I sauntered up to a smaller scope-wielding party up on the gorse bank. “Any luck?”, I enquired, in time-honoured birding fashion. “Oh yes”, said my by now re-hatted friend from earlier, “here, have a look”, and he ushered me forward. There, through a lens of enviably gleaming Swarovski glass, was indeed the bird, perched openly in the sunshine, as if it had always been the easiest thing in the world to see. Wryneck salvation was mine. And it felt absolutely brilliant.