Nobody ever said birding was supposed to be easy. Wednesday was, though. Another of my speciality-birds-served-up-on-a-plate days. I came, I saw, I celebrated with a flask of coffee and some chocolate coconut cake. One of Blashford’s two bitterns practically danced for us in front of the hide, ten metres range at most – absolutely astonishing views. I’ve even got blurry photographic evidence taken with the vaguely effective phone and scope combination. Nearby, at Harbridge, Britain’s three swan species showed off in the sunshine: fifty or so mute, four Bewick’s and one whooper ranged together for easy comparison. The woodland hide was back to its busy best, some resplendently pink flushed male redpolls being the pick of the bunch. Of course, I didn’t see everything. We also looked for a redhead smew, a drake ferruginous duck, bramblings, black necked grebes and a great egret, and saw none of them, although it wasn’t like I’d expected. So perhaps it was because I wasn’t really on a run at all that Wednesday afternoon was something of a damp squid.*
Having sat indoors all day watching the glorious winter sunshine from inside, I decided late on to head out to a local short-eared owl roost. Not many finer birds to choose for a daily dose of bird-themed goodness, so I fired up the Hatmobile and drove the 15 or so minutes through Barton Stacey to the edge of Bransbury Common. As I left the car, not many creatures were stirring. Only the omnipresent distant road noise and Chinook helicopters, training for Afghanistan (the Hampshire downs seems a poor substitute), broke the silence. The English countryside can be like that, especially in winter. In the wrong place it feels sterile: broken bare hedges, ploughed earth, still winter crops, and little else. But gradually my passage along the byway stirred what residents remained from their slumber. Clockwork partridges whirred at once from the field edge on the right. Introduced red-legged, alas, not grey as vaguely promised by the roadside sign: ‘Grey partridge recovery area, please keep your dogs on a lead’, but still somehow a quintessentially rural sight. To the left, a hare kept close company with itself whilst a pheasant scurried for cover.
No owls, at 4:15. Probably too early, though I’d hoped to catch the barn owl before the sun set. Not much looks better than a barn owl, hunting low over damp vegetation in the orange light of a winter afternoon. Magical. Hearing the gate clang and seeing a well-camouflaged figure approach with what looked like a tripod, I expected to greet another birder. Instead, he continued furtively (and mysteriously; I still haven’t found the bridge) across the river and away up the common, shotgun raked over his shoulder, gun rest, not tripod, by his side. What his quarry was, I don’t know, but I would have advised the two roe I’d seen bounding the same way earlier to lie low. Meanwhile, I was gradually losing sensation in my fingers and toes. Good thing I was wearing two hats.
Eventually a real birder (as opposed to a wooden one on strings, I suppose) ambled along. He was close to defeat, and fair enough. It was really cold, and he had three or four times the driving time ahead of him. I stamped and paced for another 15 minutes. Crepuscular?! I want words with whoever first identified short-eared owls as crepuscular. The owls at Bransbury Common must be the latest risers of their kind. Interestingly, they have been for many years according to the Hampshire bird reports, through fluctuating winter numbers and presumably a good number of different birds. I suppose something about the site means they daren’t poke their heads out of their daytime roosts too early, that or a few late risers have been coming for years and keep young upstarts in check. Enigmatic birds, short-eared owls.
So enigmatic, that I never did see one. At 5:05 the barn owl finally passed close by, ghostly white fringed with gold. I watched it hunt until it was lost to view and stamped for a few more minutes until the numbness of my hands was starting to give way to a throbbing pain. Time for tea. I’d like to say that effort is always rewarded when birding, and I suppose I did see plenty of wildlife. I should take Simon Barnes’ advice, which is to never go anywhere expecting to see anything. Just as I hadn’t necessarily expected to see many things on Wednesday, but nonetheless had a marvellously rewarding and easy day’s birding. An hour spent in the place owls might have been, should, according to Barnes, be enough of a wild experience. But the sometimes excruciating sensations in my fingers (left hand especially, for which I’d been unable to find a second glove) suggested that as we descend into the most frigid spell of the winter so far, it may just be too cold to tolerate ’failure’. I won’t be standing in one spot in those temperatures again for some time, owls or no owls. At least until I obtain some better gloves.
*It’s squid, honestly. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4yffKvkt_s