Clockwork birds, they are, racing the tide in fast forward, a tight little squadron of comical wind-up toys. No wonder that a young child, joining them on the beach at Dawlish Warren, was captivated by the shoreline antics of a moderately sized flock of foraging sanderlings. Unfortunately, this captivation manifested itself in an urge to chase, setting the flock off on repeated boomerang flights over the sea and back, each bird deftly manoeuvring a tight turning circle on bold white-barred, black-edged wings. Unfortunately, I say, because as endearing and engaging as it may be to us, for a flock of sanderlings beachcombing is serious work.
It’s probably best not to habitually make excuses for my absence, but one very good one I can offer for the last, oh, I don’t know how many blog-free weeks, is that I was busily preparing a poster (and, crucially, needed to finish generating some data to put on it) for a conference that took place in Florence last week. Lest anybody suspect I’m asking for sympathy, I fully acknowledge that a conference in Italy seems like an excuse for a holiday, and, indeed, we managed to extend the trip a couple of days either side to take in some of the Tuscan countryside.
It goes without saying that binoculars were never far from my side, and since I was travelling in a country that I’ve only visited once before, more than half a life ago, I was eager to observe anything in the birdlife that was different to what we see here in the UK. One of the first things I noticed is that the sparrows of Italy are rather sharply attired, as befits a country renowned globally as a centre for fashion, with a chestnut brown cap, white cheeks and an extensive, chequered black bib.
Although I’m currently over 3,000 miles from home on a different continent that’s stuffed with exotic animals, birding here can be a strangely familiar affair. I’m not just referring to the teeming masses of house sparrows and starlings, which it is hard not to look at without feeling a twinge of postcolonial guilt. What I’m more interested in seeing are those species which have a globe-circling distribution – that is, those found right around the northern hemisphere – but which didn’t achieve that status with the helping hand of the “American Acclimatization Society.”
Most of these like-for-likes shared by British and American birders are waterfowl, waders or birds of the open sea of one kind or another; which makes sense in terms of ability to disperse across oceans. From pintails, shovelers, gadwalls and (inevitably) mallards on a pond to dunlins or sanderlings on a mudflat, to herring gulls in a harbour town, encounters with these old friends can lend an uncanny, déjà vu-like sensation of being at home whilst at once remaining geographically far away.