The year started in a bit of a hurry. One day in, and I’d already seen two species absent from the 2011 list (which finished on a not quite pleasingly symmetrical 210; perhaps the 2012 target should be 212), in the form of the more diminutive lesser-spotted woodpecker, still the only woodpecker species I’ve seen this year, and a couple of crouching, munching grouse. Such a blur were the first few days of the year it was hard to keep in touch with reality.
Take Wednesday’s Hampshire dark-eyed junco, for example. Surely this little dark blue American sparrow was a product of my imagination? A mere six days away from watching them feed in my in-laws’ back garden, and here again was one taking seed, on a large fallen pine tree (it had been standing just 24 hours earlier) in a New Forest clearing. With reed buntings, chaffinches and a wren for company. Sure it was a junco, but I felt certain that my brain was playing back images of the past two weeks or from other American trips. I just don’t expect a mega-rarity to look so familiar – it almost made it look even more out of place. Like it wasn’t really there at all. At a big twitch, I expect to see something completely new.
By contrast the crossbills calling overhead were very real, and a fine sight as they bounced across the clearing and up into a neighbouring stand of pines, flashing alternate red and yellow-green like Christmas tree lights. When the first called sharply behind us crowding twitchers scrutinising the pine I turned away from junco-watch, drawing the odd uncomprehending glance from vigilant birders to my left and right. I could hear them think to themselves: “Why’s he bothering with those common old things?” Imagine becoming so jaded and rarity-obsessed as to consider crossbills not worth a second glance!
I was list-building non-stop all morning, and to me crossbill seemed a more solid addition than junco. Though I was much more likely to see them again later in the year they felt like solid progress. Something I would have to get for a decent total, a blank space already filled. American passerines? Irrelevant bonuses in the grand scheme of things. Seen loads of them abroad. A load of ship assisted junk-o. With that in mind, by 10am I was already heading toward the coast, for a bunch more bona fide British birds. Dozens of ducks, a brace of both plovers (golden, grey) and godwits (black and bar tailed – the latter a good bird for the area), oystercatchers, dunlins, ringed plovers, many brent geese and seven roosting spotted redshanks duly followed.
At this rate, I’d have 100 species by the end of the week, possibly more. I was playing into the way of the world. Rush, rush, rush. Busy, busy, busy. Must see a greenshank and a Bewick’s swan by next Thursday. Don’t even think about leaving a species for next winter. Fill up the car, and tick tick tick! I popped into Blackwater Arboretum, a well known hawfinch roost spot in the New Forest on the way back from the coast. Not long after I’d managed just one solitary glimpse, the chunky finch pausing for a moment at the top of a beech and then diving for cover, one of my fellow birders* mentioned the word ‘shrike’. And, in the same area, ‘male hen harrier’. So off I went again, with an hour of light left. “You’re ambitious,” said a new arrival, as I explained my destination on the way out. I suppose I was. So ambitious, in fact, that of course I didn’t see it, and only ended by enjoying a fruitless trudge across a mostly empty heath in the gathering gloom
I think it was the early dip that took the wind out of my sails. Yesterday I frittered time away. I hesitated. I knew I wanted to go to Dinton Pastures and seek out snipe, bittern, other goodies for the year list, but I delayed until once again the light started to fail. I feared further disappointment. And speaking of wind, when I finally got to the main hide I found it deserted as a ghost ship. Which is apt, since it felt like being in a rather rickety old ship at sea – the walls creaked, the roof groaned, the window panels and door banged and slammed and flapped. I feared that at any moment it might lift off, with me as unwilling passenger, and deposit me miles from home. Though I hopefully imagined that the wind was blowing toward Norfolk, and that wouldn’t be so bad. I could get the munchkins to help me find a western sandpiper. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Reading anymore.
Not wishing to risk the whims of the wind, however (it could just as easily have dropped me in Milton Keynes), I abandoned ship and hastened toward the bittern’s night roost at a nearby reed bed. All I found there was another ghost boat – first it was there, then it was gone again. There, gone. How was it doing this?! Perhaps phantom fishermen were emerging from a tent and moving it every time I looked away. Or perhaps I was looking at two different gaps in the reeds…certainly, to paraphrase the Beatles, ‘nothing was real’.
It didn’t really matter that I didn’t see the bittern, anyway. I was just glad to be out, in a place that I loved, seeing good, familiar birds, enjoying the sensations of winter. I’d got myself into an unnecessary hurry over ghosts and figments of my imagination, whilst it was the more regular charms of British birding I should have been paying attention to. Ticks that keep giving, as it were. Weren’t those crossbills quite the best thing I saw in all of the bird-filled previous day? There’s nothing like the best views you’ve ever had of a bird you know you should be able to find several times each year for the rest of your life.**As for shrikes: elusive, troublesome. I should have just stayed in the arboretum for some quality time with the hawfinches, and got back earlier for a nice cup of tea. Like a proper Englishman.
As I trundled through the mud back to the car, a small raft of gadwalls sailed away from me across the darkening surface of Sandford Lake, leaving V-shaped trails of moonlight in their wake. A song thrush began hailing the dusk somewhere off to my left, wild and free in the sharp evening air. It was all most beautiful. Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll stay local, wander, and just take whatever comes. It’s bound to be lovely. Perhaps taking it slowly might not be so bad after all.
*He was from Basingstoke. Apparently everybody is, from a limited sample of Hampshire birders on January 4th. Almost everybody responded to my answer concerning where I was from with ‘me too’ or a knowing ‘ah-ha’. Or in one case ‘Then why aren’t you part of the Basingstoke RSPB local group, you swine?!’ Because I intend to leave Basingstoke very soon, but a good question. If I was staying, of course I’d join. And I’m an ape, not a swine.
**Although having said that, Matthew 26:10-11 (look it up!) might prove instructive with regard to how to treat super-rarities. That’s why I went to see the junco. I’d regret missing it later if one never came back; it was the first in Hampshire since 1996!