It must have taken a heightened state of birding awareness to notice that one of the black-headed gulls winging over Theale gravel pit on Friday afternoon was not actually a black-headed gull at all, but a smaller, pale-winged, black-billed Bonaparte’s gull. And even more astonishing powers of perception – combined with a hefty slice of luck – to follow up this feat by racing up to the Downs and locating Berkshire’s first dotterel in four years – the first ‘twitchable’ since 2008.* But then you don’t become Berkshire’s leading lister by going around with your eyes closed not expecting to see anything. I was my usual failed twitcher self when it came to the prospect of fighting Friday rush hour traffic to see a gull species I’d already got on this year’s list (albeit on a different continent). Call it larid-lethargy. But a dotterel? Irresistible. Not a wayward vagrant but a true spring passage bird, sought after for its beauty and charm. Thus it was that this morning’s walk location just had to be Bury Down, traversed by the Berkshire stretch of The Ridgeway path (and the site of Hatmobile II’s demise back on New Year’s Day).
Now, as you may be aware, looking for a small plover in a large arable field is – as a scientist might put it – non-trivial. I’ve sought out dotterels before in similar conditions, and it took a long while to find them, so I wasn’t expecting to locate the bird as quickly as we did. We’d walked about twenty paces from the car park when Rebecca pointed into the field, saying “what’s that?!” and there at the tip of her finger was a small, peachy orange bird with a black and white striped head. Well, that was a wheatear. But the next bird she pointed at was a little larger, and distinctly wader-like. A resplendent female dotterel. I fumbled with my tripod legs, and by the time I’d set up the scope for a closer look the bird was lost to view. At that moment two more birders strolled up, and naturally asked after the dotterel, so I was forced to confess: “It was definitely here a second ago, but I’ve lost it. Must have put its head down.” I looked pensively into the field, seeing nothing but mud and shoots. “There it is, my observant wife said, and there indeed it was, stood exactly where it had been a minute before.
After admiring every detail of every side of its plumage, we began to run out of new experiences to have with this particular individual** and, since we were now feeling the chill rather acutely, we opted to warm up by continuing east along The Ridgeway. As we walked, Rebecca proudly pointed out how easily she’d been spying the birds by eye alone whilst I, stumbling around laden down by optics, had been quite clueless. She may have a point. You get a much better field of view with the naked eye, even if seeing enough detail to figure out what you’re actually looking at is rather tricky. It’s why it’s always worth trading between different levels of looking: unaided eyes to see that something is there in the first place, bins for detail, scope for a close-up or long-range identification. Birding in this fashion for another half mile or so, we were able to enjoy good views of additional wheatears, skylarks, and a profusion of singing corn buntings – three definitely counting as a profusion when you’re talking about the little fat bird of the barley.
Halfway along the return leg of our stroll, a shrill squeaking suddenly came up out of the long grass to our right. It bore the characteristic tone of a common shrew – surprisingly noisy creatures for their size – and I began to look intently at where it was coming from, hoping to absorb my wife’s powers of observation and spot a creature that is usually near invisible. As easily as she had found the dotterel, I at once saw a small, rounded black shape, clambering ponderously amongst the grass stems. Not a shrew at all, of course, but Timarcha tenebricosa, the bloody-nosed beetle.*** I knelt down beside it and peered appreciatively at its smooth elytra, which I’m reliably informed is the best feature with which to separate the bloody-nosed beetle from the small bloody-nosed beetle (Timarcha goettingensis, which I had seen and photographed in Hampshire the week before).
“What have you got there?” said a voice from over our shoulders. “It’s a bloody-nosed beetle,” I explained, matter-of-factly. “Oh,” said the same pair of scope-wielding birders from earlier – for it was they – with what appeared to be an air of complete disinterest. Perhaps they misheard me as saying “it’s a bloody no-good beetle.” Attempting to introduce a little enthusiasm to proceedings, I carried on, “But it doesn’t appear to have a bloody nose at the moment. Rather cold for it today, wouldn’t you say? For people, too!” They concurred, and went back to scanning the fields in search of something more feathered: grey partridges, to be exact. Like many birders, the gentlemen in question weren’t quite ready to move on from two legs and two wings to six legs or more, and I mean no offence by this observation. I’m sure they were merely keen not to stand around looking at bugs in the cold, and I can hardly blame them for that. If nothing else it would be highly hypocritical.
And I wanted to see grey partridges, too; there’s no denying it. I’m writing this because I was a birder, I am a birder, and I always will be, first and foremost, a birder. No birds, no blog; no birds, no beetles. Indeed it was a bird that drew me to The Ridgeway this morning. But bloody-nosed beetles and their staggeringly diverse invertebrate ilk are worth watching too – beautiful and intriguing in their own right, not just a sideshow to the world of birds. I’ve found the skills required for successful birding – knowing where, when, and what to look at and for – are, to use a horrible careers buzzword, eminently transferable ones, as useful for noticing a beetle in the long grass as they are for finding a wader in spring wheat. If just a slightly larger proportion of birders were open to redeploying their undoubted observational talents in this way, bugs and butterflies and beetles and brown-lipped snails and all the rest would have a whole host of new champions. Now that really would be something worth seeing.
*See here for an account of the last record, as well as an interesting short rundown of the dotterel’s history in the county. They used to be much more common, and whilst the species has undoubtedly declined nationwide they may still be more regular on passage in Berkshire than we think. It’s just that nobody is looking in the right places at the right time.
**A conundrum I often encounter on twitches. Just how long are you expected to look at a single bird for? Is there a special formula for calculating optimum observation time based on rarity, quality of view, and tolerability of company? Or is it just that nobody wants to be the first to leave?
***Named for their unpleasant habit of exuding blood-red goo from their snouts when threatened. Clearly I’m not a very threatening individual, for I’ve not yet seen one do it.
Photos, from top to bottom (all by the author): Big skies and big fields at Bury Down, hilariously poor attempt at a phone-scoped dotterel, corn bunting – you’ll have to take my word for it!, bloody-nosed beetle (South Devon, July 2012), small bloody-nosed beetle (Winchester, Hampshire, April 2013). Superior pictures of the dotterel at Berks Birds.