Birding is often a game of rapid response. Fastest focus first. Plenty of interesting birds have been drifting in and out of Berkshire throughout the winter, but they come and go like the east wind. You have to be quick to catch them. It’s been a ‘waxwing winter’ but they’ve hardly been faithful visitors: one day they’re here, and the next they’ve moved on to no-local-birder-knows where. Similarly, the wind is blasting right through you one day under leaden skies, but by the next day the sun is out and the sap rises again.
No surprise then that just as it looked like we’d turned the final corner towards spring, the wind returned with a vengeance. Monday was dry-ice cold and as bitter as lemons, grey, raw, and hard-edged. Not even a pleasantly crisp cold, more akin to being sliced open with a rough-hewn Stone Age arrowhead. Everybody and everything was keeping a sensibly low profile: the usual dog walkers were absent from the scene and even the blue and great tits, usually so boisterous, were keeping their heads down. Only a woodpigeon or two and a scavenging magpie ventured forth, their rustling and rattling the only sounds audible above the wind’s relentless howl.
I was out braving the conditions and, to be honest, quite regretting the idea when I noticed on the path ahead a pale, strangely familiar shape. By appearance I thought it must be a domestic bird out on some fool’s errand from a local dovecote. A kindred spirit then, since I too was a fool who had left the comfort of my domestic environment for no obvious gain. But when I looked closer, it wasn’t an ornamental bird that peered back at all but one with an unmistakeable woodpigeonesque air. It was exactly like a regular woodpigeon in every detail, except that each of its feathers was pure, dazzling white. And then it was away, bursting into flight with all the usual fuss and clatter associated with its kind, leaving only a ghost of its image behind as I stared after it.
On Tuesday the sun came back, providing just enough light to entice me a little further afield. I passed a pleasant enough half hour in the Lea Farm hide, admiring a flock of wigeon which were making their distinctly ovine way across a grassy field. The cold soon drove me on, but as I stood to leave I was informed that a Mediterranean gull had been showing beautifully just before I arrived, and was bound to still be there, somewhere in the midst of some 200 other gulls. If I’d left home but 20 minutes earlier, the county tick would have been mine. Like I said, you have to be quick to play this game.
I didn’t mind, though. Sure, it was partly because the sights and sounds of that species were fresh in my mind from Saturday, so much so that to see another Med. gull so soon would seem almost greedy. But I still got slightly odd looks when I smiled, shrugged, and left anyway on being told the news. Even when I explained about the weekend. That’s because birding – or, more to the point, twitching – is ostensibly about actually finding and seeing ‘the’ bird. Preferably new birds, ticks of one kind or another.
But aren’t we tired of the chase? In our hearts, don’t we know that it’s better to stand back and let the birds find us? Isn’t the spectacle enough; are we not satisfied with the wild everyday beauty of the world? Just what exactly are we doing out there, fair weather or foul? What on this good green earth are we looking for?
These thoughts whirled about my mind as I retreated from the hide along the Loddon path, and then just as I was about to head for home the sky filled up with a host of gulls moving in the same pattern. They came out of nowhere and everywhere, fifty, a hundred, two hundred, more, materialising from all directions, a complete takeover of the sky. As quickly as they appeared, each gull moved off west. Just for a moment I wondered if the Med. gull was among them, but here the futility of pursuing it was laid bare by the speed of the flock, which vanished with the first flakes of a snow flurry riding the wind behind them.
I pulled up at home just as snow began to fall more steadily. I sat in the driver’s seat watching for a few minutes, my eyes following each fragile cluster of ice crystals as it fell, hit the car windscreen and instantly began to dwindle into nothing. It was something I’ve seen probably hundreds of times before, yet it was utterly transfixing. Maybe that is what we birders are doing, I thought: watching snow melt on a window. Struggling to see as many specks of beauty as we can in the brief moments before they’re gone, each as unique as a single snowflake.
Step back, and a human life doesn’t seem to posses any more permanence. If I’m lucky I’ll be around for another half century at least, but by the slow clock of the universe you and I might as well be made of ice. That needn’t be a dispiriting thought. If we strive to live well we can at least hope that like the snow, and like the silver birds, our lives will leave beautiful trails behind as they fade.