In need of an afternoon out, today we opted for a quiet stroll around Dinton Pastures. Whilst lured mainly by sunshine and the prospect of seeing some birds – any birds! – I’d be lying if the recent occurrence of a very showy lesser spotted woodpecker didn’t provide an extra incentive. As ever, when a rare-ish bird is being seen frequently in these parts, most reports of it refer to the ‘usual tree or trees’, requiring any latecomers to the news to track right back to the original sighting, which referred to a group of dead alders on the west end of Sandford Lake. Reasonably helpful, although there are a few clumps of trees that might just about meet that description.
In the event, the exact clump was located for us not by the presence of a diminutive woodpecker but by the rather looming presence of at least four gigantic telescopic camera lenses. I was moderately taken aback, as on every past occasion I’ve been lucky enough to see a lesser spotted woodpecker I’ve been either entirely alone or, on one occasion, with a small group of mostly non-birder friends.
But considering the scarcity of the species in Berkshire nowadays, added to how it had been showing extremely well earlier in the week, not to mention it being a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I should have expected at least a modest gathering.
Nontheless I do prefer birding in a smaller crowd, and, if possible, with people I know at least moderately well and enjoy some kind of rapport with. I hesitated on the edge of the group, wondering if it was worth striking up the usual mundane birding chatter. I gave it a go with a quiet inquiry.
“Any luck?” I mumbled. “It’s fairly reliable at 4 o’clock”, replied one of those standing by.
Two and a half hours? In the cold? Whispering small talk to a phalanx of photographers? A good enough excuse not to wait around, we thought, before heading off on a fairly pleasant hour’s wander. We didn’t exactly see anything out of the ordinary, but when the ordinary is gloriously plumaged teal, splendidly stripy snipes, a gawky but impressive grey heron in flight, and a melodic charm of goldfinches dotted about the sky overhead, who needs a lesser spotted woodpecker?
Me, I’m afraid. I’m not taking it nearly so seriously as I did back in 2011, the Glorious Year of 200+, but to finish 2013 with a birding year list of 173, my current total, would represent a pretty poor effort. I have a reputation to uphold! Not much of a reputation, and thus little upholding is technically required, but still, I feel I should at least try. Thus it was that at half past three I sloped back to rejoin the expectant throng of birders and photographers, now even more numerous than ever before.
So I waited in the cold. And waited a little longer, expecting little, to be honest, for even if the bird showed up I knew that every moment in which it was in full view would be blighted by a chorus of noisy lens shutters. I’m well aware this represented a photographic opportunity even rarer, at least in Berkshire, than Dendrocopos minor itself, but I can’t help feeling that the best photographs (and least annoyance to others) would be obtained by doggedly tracking a pair of ‘peckers somewhere deep in the woods in spring. I get the impression that most of the photographers whose work I admire, especially some of the younger ones (James Shooter, for example, seems to go the extra mile or ten, judging by accounts on his blog), get their best shots that way, by spending a good deal of time with a bird or other animal out in its wider habitat. Though, to be fair, the public footpath next to Sandford Lake kind of is lesser spotted woodpecker habitat: a pair used to breed in these trees nearly annually up until ten years or so ago.
Just as I was thinking about calling an end to yet another chilly vigil near the River Loddon a tiny red-capped woodpecker, a male lesser spot, bounced in from stage left, alighted on a tree, shimmied a few feet down and then shot like an arrow into what looked to be a freshly excavated hole. By my estimate he gave the waiting photographers – some of whom had probably been there for about four hours – about eight seconds to get a good picture. Not so much a disappointment as really quite amusing, seeing that shy little bird take one look at the crowd and think: “No thanks! I’m going to bed!” Just to check, he stuck his face out and looked briefly around for a second or so – once, twice, thrice, and that was it. Goodnight, Mr Woodpecker. Not exactly the best views I’ve ever had, as I remarked to the chap standing next to me, but how pleasing it is to see an old territory potentially reclaimed, at a time when lesser spotted woodpeckers seem to be evaporating from the woods of Britain.