Tough life, having a jet-setting job. Forget New York, or Nanjing – this week, for work, I went all the way to Norfolk. I had to stay overnight. In a hotel! On Thursday, there were free sandwiches. And two flavours of crisps mixed together in one bowl. And a plate of iced buns! The coffee flowed throughout, refill after refill, cup after cup. Imagine the expense. Truly, we conservationists are living the high-flying banker’s bonus lifestyle. I jest, of course. The only jets involved in two days at the BTO’s HQ in Thetford were those belonging to the British and American air forces, noisily and frequently cleaving the skies in two just overhead. The only thing sparkling was the blue sky, and the equally luminescent holly blue butterflies on the shrubs out front, whose blue was just about a match for the jewel-like speedwell dotted across the lawn. All very lovely, and mercifully inexpensive. That said, bird conservation ‘business’ trips offer an extravagance that even Bob Diamond and his monied ilk could never dream of: the bird menu.
Yes, that’s right – an after dinner bird menu at that. Very civilized. Barn owls, a nightingale concert, nightjars or stone curlews were on offer – and I’m not ashamed to say I quietly but firmly let my preference be known for the only lifer on the list. After all, why turn down the opportunity of a bonus tick? It made practical sense too: nightjars have been a little late this year and were by no means guaranteed, and the other offerings were a little further out. So I was delighted that the RSPB team elected to order stone curlews from the menu, and duly set out into the fantastic ‘Brecks’ region, as mentioned earlier this week.
Last summer I thought I heard stone curlews on the Hampshire downs, whilst out owling, and confirmed the source of that incredible racket on a return owl expedition with fellow bloggers the Ricebirder, and the ‘Naturalist’s Tail’. We tracked a group by ear, as they called frantically in transit from field to field, but as they never got above the shadow of trees on the horizon we never saw them. It was fantastic to know they were present, and like American listers I do think it is worthwhile counting a ‘heard-only’ bird. But it’s true that getting eyes on a species is essential if you want to claim the whole experience. Especially when the bird in question is as remarkable in appearance as a stone curlew.
Fortunately for me, seeing stone curlews proved startlingly easy in the Brecks. Even though the area is a major stronghold for them, I might have expected more of a challenge. Instead, not three minutes after clambering out of the vans one of our company spotted a ‘brown lump’ in a ploughed field, across the road from the stony, rabbit-strewn heath where we’d expected stone curlews to be nesting. Ruling out lump of mud, smallish pale-fronted buzzard, rabbit or a lost and bewildered chicken, we soon concluded that this was surely a stone curlew: its yellow legs and, with a little imagination, yello
w eye were just about visible at a distance. It sat upright in what I am told is tell-tale fashion, flanked by several lapwings and a solitary oystercatcher (incongruous as ever when encountered inland). Soon we spotted another, and the two chased back and forth for a while, confirming that they were indeed a pair in – avert your eyes! – the most obvious way possible.
Early success meant there was time to spare to wait for the birds to call, and soak up the atmosphere. And there’s no time of day for atmosphere like dusk, and, it seems, no place like The Brecks. On arrival, a garden warbler had been piping up with the odd snatch of song, seeming richer in tone than usual amongst the warm, sleepy air and soft evening light. As that light began to fail, the curlews finally became more active and began to call, just as I had heard last summer: kkkccuurrllliioooou! kkkccuurrllliioooou! kkkccuurrllliioooou! Lapwings weighed in, noisily defending their rights to the centre of the field, wings just showing up as a ghostly irradiating white through the gloaming. Then at dusk’s last gasp we heard the peculiar rasp of a grey partridge, followed a few minutes late, by the rapid whir of a small game bird’s wings propelling it out of the grass nearby. You could probably count the number of species we recorded on the fingers of one hand. But this was very much a case of quality over quantity: a fine, captivating evening, representing everything I love about dusk birding.