I keep a bird graph. It compares the rate at which I’ve added new species to my year list, thus far covering the last two years. I know, shockingly geeky. But what’s even more shocking is the stagnation it reveals in this year’s list, flatlining like the British economy. It shouldn’t matter, but such things do to us mildly sanity-free birding types. Since it was my birthday last week, I decided to do something about it, as a present to myself. I didn’t wish to travel far – have you seen the cost of petrol these days, both financial and environmental? – so what I needed was a species I hadn’t seen this year, but could find somewhere within Berkshire, or a nearby county. So what did that leave me? Well, red-necked grebe and long-tailed duck were being seen on a reservoir near Slough. But I haven’t yet joined the BOC nor gotten a permit to bird at said reservoir. So that was out. There’s a red-crested pochard or two that generally hang around Berkshire. But they’re not totally reliable and just a touch too plastic for my taste (though I happily ticked one last year). A C-list bird would not make a good birthday treat. There was at that point still a Berkshire-shaped hole in the nationwide distribution of reliable waxwing flocks.
Which left one small, buzzy, charismatic little bird – the willow tit. Don’t let the swathe of green on the RSPB website distribution map fool you. This is a species in trouble, with roughly nine out of every ten vanishing from Britain over the last 45 years. There aren’t many left at all in the southeast, so proving that they persist in one or two spots seemed as good a birthday mission as any, and a more valuable-to-science year-tick than twitching vagrants or ferally established escapes. So bright and (very) early I headed west, towards Combe wood, home to what is to my knowledge the healthiest willow tit population in Berkshire.
On the way, I detoured only slightly to take in Walbury Hill, the highest point in south-east England at a truly dizzying 297 metres. I proceeded gingerly up the steep slope of the Berkshire downs. Not just because my car has a longstanding bad relationship with hills, but because the roads were truly treacherous, a hard frost having followed several days of rain and flooding. Along the byway across the broad summit of Walbury Hill, the puddles had frozen solid into sheets and then shattered, like a thick pane of glass. As it turned out the path doesn’t actually approach the hilltop itself, which was under peaceful occupation by a flock of sheep, warm under their wooly coats. I let them be, and enjoyed the fantastic views north over the Kennet valley. Four ravens materialised from the east and flew along the ridge, croaking as they went. Two dipped out of view beyond the ridge line, but I managed to keep up with the other pair, which tumbled around each other in a spectacular swoop before alighting in a game cover strip, amongst seemingly unbothered pheasants.
I moved on to Combe. Before climbing up into the wood itself, I stopped into the old church, which is almost swallowed by the traditional yew trees growing in the churchyard. I often make a point of stopping in to churches whilst out birding in the wider countryside, and I hope that many of these small, rural buildings are able to remain open to curious passersby for many years to come. Surrounded by memorials to other people long since departed, and taking in the hushed atmosphere of the long-used buildings, I’m reminded that I’m by no means the first person to walk this landscape, and I think of the many who lived and died in the area, knowing it intimately and probably leaving the parish a mere handful of times in their lives.
With every step up towards Combe wood, I startled pheasants, which in turn startled me. They exploded into flustered whirs of wings out of every patch of undergrowth. Who, I wondered, could seriously need to shoot so many in one year? The sweet smell of profit clearly causes pandemonium in the countryside, not just in shopping centres, at this time of year. On the other hand, the long strips of woodland, coppice, orchard and game cover crops either side of the track were also playing host to more bullfinches than I had seen or heard in a long time, plus a pair of mistle thrushes, some redwings and fieldfares, and a roving band of long-tailed tits.
To be continued: check back tomorrow to find out if I managed to add willow tit to that fine birthday bird list!