Having spent most of the last year haunting Reading as what my friend the chaplain kindly describes as a ‘boomerang’ student (I think he is being kind, but I’m not entirely sure), you would imagine that nearly two months on from getting final results I’d be ready to move on. But how could I resist a day’s birding? With as many as double the students in the field as last year, I was assured having a few more ‘experienced’ observers on hand to answer questions and generally mingle on this year’s Pagham birding trip would be useful. And it sounded like a good chance to chalk up more ‘bird guide’ or ‘demonstrator’ experience for the CV.
What’s more, I had a score to settle. I’m not a competitive birder – honestly, like we all say, I’m just competing with myself. But I’ll confess that I would have been upset had one of the other now notorious (in our own minds) ‘Bird List 2011ers’ beaten me to 200 UK species this year. And last year Graham, director of the MSc, had infuriated me with his ridiculous, perplexingly lengthy day list, and barely credible (to my mind) fly-over water pipit. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of practice since then – not enough to make up for decades of experience (I’ll be an old man as well one day…) but what I lacked in years I intended to make up for in determination.
So I managed with effort to arrive a full half hour early, and immediately started clearing up the area, ornithologically speaking – if something so much as tweeted for half a second or twitched a wing, it wouldn’t escape detection. I’d been concentrating so hard on the year list or seeking out wonders such as last week’s hoopoe that it was quite refreshing to bird this way. I had to rely on all those songs and calls I’ve been busily learning, as well as the ability to pick out a bird’s essential character at some range. Especially as my scope was out of action.
Range isn’t such an issue on your own early in the morning, as it is easy to blend carefully into your surroundings – and, with any luck, let the birds carry on as if you weren’t there. So they did, as I wound my way from the car park to the small hide at the Ferry Pool. A charm of goldfinches posed on thistle heads mere metres away in the sun, long-tailed tits darted about feeding on spiders, tails cocked rakishly, and two dunnocks scolded from opposing bushes, clearly very animated about something. On the pool itself, I scanned the gulls fruitlessly for something interesting, finding only one common among the black-headeds, but with the addition of that and species like lapwing, wigeon, teal, shoveler, shelduck and pied wagtail, I soon had a list of over 30 to be getting on with. Before 9am! I was in the zone.
It didn’t quite last;nothing destroys an atmosphere of quiet Zen-like birding calm the way thirty odd MSc students can. It’s like going for a walk with a horde of squabbling baby crows.* Still, I persisted with the listing mania, enjoying as everybody did fine views of a single lost looking black-tailed godwit, tried to appear casually disinterested (I wasn’t!) when four handsome avocets were spotted around an awkward bend in the channel (a year tick, in fact) or sauntering a little away from the crowd to be sure I could hear a yellowhammer softly calling. I guess I was supposed to be there to help, not enter a bird race, and I hope that I did in some way, but determination to make up for last year’s listing debacle had clearly paid off. By lunchtime I hit 50 species; last year I saw 49 all day.
And after a further half day trying to remember to concentrate in between conversing – these birding by crowd trips are very sociable affairs – my final tally for the day was 68 species seen and heard. And yes, I ‘lost’ again, to a very fine score of 72, even though I had a few unique ticks on my list – which included a very fine firecrest nonchalantly picked out on first attempt whilst ‘checking the goldcrests for something more interesting’, as I had the gulls, and which I’m ashamed to say nobody else saw very well. I didn’t make it up! In fact, I’m rather disappointed the ‘crowd’ didn’t get to see it, as there’s nothing quite like the warm glow of finding a special bird and getting to share it with others. But I was satisfied that a year’s pretty intensive birding had taught me something. We may have been at the reserve on a different day of the year, in different conditions, but you don’t go from 49 to 68 in a year by chance. I hope.
Sixty-eight species! What student of zoology couldn’t get excited by that kind of diversity of charismatic vertebrate life so easily on display? What budding conservationist wouldn’t relish encountering iconic rarities like avocet, or flocks of lapwing, of such concern in the breeding season, filling the early winter skies from horizon to horizon with noise and colour? It truly was a memorable day’s birding. And it would be a shame if such memories didn’t go on to inspire a life-time’s bird-watching, even if you don’t end up quite as hopelessly far gone as I have. There’s always something new to learn, even about common species: even when I’ve finally reached my secret ambition to unlock the ability to spirit barely real water pipits out of the air**, it’ll be as though I’ve barely begun. For me, that’s the most exciting thing of all.
*If you are an MSc student, naturally this doesn’t apply to you. Welcome, and please do stop by again!
**Not bitter…but still not seen one since 2008! Nor have I any idea what they sound like. Except that they are a pipit. So I imagine they say ‘pip’ or ‘pip-it’ in some way or another. Really should get round to looking that one up on the excellent ‘xeno-canto’.