There’s an old piece of Hampshire* weather lore which, if you plan on visiting the county for a spot of birding, is well worth remembering: ‘If you can see the Isle of Wight, it’s going to rain; if you can’t see the Isle of Wight, it’s raining’. I understand that this, in modified form, also applies to Cornwall (concerning the Isles of Scilly, since I’d be surprised if you could see the Isle of Wight from Penzance). Anyway, for the oddly bleak and isolated corner of Hampshire known as Hayling Island, it should be modified to ‘If you can see the Isle of Wight, start building an ark; if you can’t see the Isle of Wight, start swimming — it’s too late!’
I’d arranged to meet a friend for a birding excursion on Wednesday morning. Checking the forecast, I noted sunshine and showers — some heavy, but clearing through the afternoon. Nothing to strike too much fear into the intrepid birder’s heart, since ours is a mostly all-weather hobby. With a few exceptions. And it does help when the sun comes out, illuminating those plumages and warming your back. What am I saying? Birding in the rain is a miserable affair: species become indeterminate through the haze of drips and drizzle, spots of water sitting on your lenses provide further obfuscation, and you can’t sit down. Anywhere. Unless there happens to be that blessed invention nearby, the aptly named ‘hide’, the ‘warm’ and ‘dry’ haven of the weather-shy birder.
But as I say, a dull day of set-in rain was not promised. And down at Sandy Point, on the aforementioned Hayling Island, a Pallas’s warbler had dropped in for a visit: lost from the Siberian north on its long biannual journey. I’m giving the ending away when I say that I’ve never, and still haven’t, seen a Pallas’s Warbler. But I’ve seen yellow-browed warbler in Norfolk and I understand that to imagine Pallas’s, you take yellow-browed, extend the eyebrow, add an extra line of yellow along the crown, a bright yellow rump, and shrink it to goldcrest-matching levels of diminutive cuteness. A yellow-green ping pong ball with whirring wings. Quite special, in other words. What else were we to do, but head to the coast?
Alas, as we pulled across the bridge onto Hayling Island and meandered uncertainly through the suburban maze looking for a lifeboat station (near where the bird had been seen just the day before), great drops of rain began to blatter on the windscreen. Behind the boat house, we drove past one green-hooded birder, hurrying away from the scene to seek shelter. If he’d seen a Pallas’s or any other kind of warbler, we’ll never know. Finding a parking spot, it got worse. Compound hailstones, cold, jagged and weighty, began setting off car alarms and piling up against the kerb. But surely, somewhere out there, our little feathered friend was cowering, in a bramble perhaps, waiting for a gap in the rain? Just as we were. There was nothing for it. We braced ourselves, suited up, put on our boots. And sat in the car, drinking coffee. Making selections from the bird-menu, otherwise known as the Collins field guide to the birds of Europe, 2nd edition. (Make mine the bee-eater surprise. Maybe Siberian rubythroat sorbet for dessert.)
I did eventually manage to take advantage of a temporary respite in the weather and staggered against a stiff breeze up to the sea wall. Herring gulls and carrion crows loafed damply on the shingle beach — additions to the day list at least. But I also had the ideal vantage point to see that Sandy point was right in the line of watery destruction; an organised line of convection was passing right over us. Where, I lamented, were the sunny spells promised by the Met Office? Well, on either side of the wall of ominous black, shafts of sun were falling onto the Solent. I could even, for a short while, see the Isle of Wight. Sunny spells, yes, but unfortunately for us, the showers were scattered only in so much as they were scattered very accurately right above our heads.
Perhaps the other side of the island would prove better? Well, not really. So we sat and had lunch there instead, for something to do, watching Brent geese bob up and down in Langstone Harbour, whilst flocks of dunlin and godwits raced past through holes in what was, at least for now, just drizzle. Occasionally you could even see Portsmouth. I’m not sure what that is supposed to signify.
Eventually the wall of water caught up with us, bright skies now visible back towards the bushes that might yet hold Siberian wonders. We returned to almost the same parking spot as before, and right on cue, familiar weather drifted back, as if drawn to follow our vehicle, and the skies split once more. Water had risen in the streets to the point where the local little old ladies had taken to driving entirely on the pavement — although for all I know that could be normal for the island. And with traffic building on the only road out of Hayling** (I imagined the call to evacuate had been issued to residents), and gopher wood being in short supply, retreat was our only option. Pallas’s what? Put that one down as a miss.
*Henceforth to be known as ‘Dampshire’