There’s an old piece of Hampshire* weather lore which, if you plan on visiting the county for a spot of birding, is well worth remembering: ‘If you can see the Isle of Wight, it’s going to rain; if you can’t see the Isle of Wight, it’s raining’. I understand that this, in modified form, also applies to Cornwall (concerning the Isles of Scilly, since I’d be surprised if you could see the Isle of Wight from Penzance). Anyway, for the oddly bleak and isolated corner of Hampshire known as Hayling Island, it should be modified to ‘If you can see the Isle of Wight, start building an ark; if you can’t see the Isle of Wight, start swimming — it’s too late!’
I’d arranged to meet a friend for a birding excursion on Wednesday morning. Checking the forecast, I noted sunshine and showers — some heavy, but clearing through the afternoon. Nothing to strike too much fear into the intrepid birder’s heart, since ours is a mostly all-weather hobby. With a few exceptions. And it does help when the sun comes out, illuminating those plumages and warming your back. What am I saying? Birding in the rain is a miserable affair: species become indeterminate through the haze of drips and drizzle, spots of water sitting on your lenses provide further obfuscation, and you can’t sit down. Anywhere. Unless there happens to be that blessed invention nearby, the aptly named ‘hide’, the ‘warm’ and ‘dry’ haven of the weather-shy birder.
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise.
(George Herbert, 1593-1633)
Before Thursday, it had been a little while since I’d had a proper day-long bird outing, a proper brilliant one — where rarities and scarcities reveal themselves after just a few minutes’ searching, and common birds vie to see which species can offer me the most revealing view. This was a day touched by the kind autumn air and still revelling in the season’s great voyages and crossovers: swallows weaving the air and making final preparations for Africa above freshly arrived flocks of chattering Brent geese from the far north. A day that feels full of possibility and makes you glad to be alive, and, more to the point, glad to be using that life to go a-birding.
I was led to Christchurch Harbour in Dorset to find a red-breasted goose. I’d missed one back on one of winter’s dipping days, struggling vainly through each flock of Brent on the Keyhaven marshes in Hampshire. To miss a bird once is unfortunate; to miss twice, unforgivable — so I didn’t have a lot of choice. And it’s not like twitching one of your archetypal brown jobs of legend. This is a fine figure of a goose, a small Branta with an orange-red washed front and a square of the same colour on its cheek, edged with white. And though vagrants are normally of little conservation relevance, it is pleasing to see a red-breast find refuge on the English coast — things aren’t always so peaceful on its regular wintering grounds far to the east, where it’s as likely to be shot as anything else, and rapid land use changes might be hammering the population numbers. As usual there’s a large slice of uncertainty to serve up with that story, so its endangered status is precautionary and research is ongoing.
I walked my patch last Friday. Small birds abounded in the hedgerows, which was just as well – I had to give up on finding that mega rarity in the fields (or perhaps the golden plover of a couple of weeks before, which in my dreams has metamorphosed into something distinctly more American, with a buff-coloured breast) as a wall of condensed water droplets – that’s fog to you, had descended over the countryside. There’s nothing like not being able to see far to sharpen the senses: mist brings things closer, gives the land an air of mystery, intimacy almost. I absolutely love it, but then, I quite like a clear, ecstatically sunny morning, or the darkening threat of a heavy downpour sending you dashing for cover. It’s another reason I go outside I suppose; I’m still a weather geek, even after years in the meteorological wilderness.
The beating of a great tit’s wings rattled my eardrum first as a tit flock scattered in front of me, defiantly louder than a distant tractor’s rumblings, or the village cockerel calling a few late risers out of bed. Chiffchaffs have been everywhere recently, and several were flicking restlessly through the hawthorns, calling me down the path with every gentle ‘hueet’.
Not far down the byway I found a marsh tit, seeking breakfast some 2km from the nearest decent patch of woodland and potential colony site – they’re not known for great feats of dispersal, but this little chap, and two more further down the path sneezing away to each other, had clearly availed themselves of the opportunities on offer along the Harrow Way hedgerows and tree lines: habitat connectivity in action perhaps.