Monday December 16th
There exists in American birding lingo a condition known as ‘binocular neck’, which is the result of spending too long in the car with – as the name suggests – binoculars weighing heavily around one’s neck. This being a vast country criss-crossed by often near abandoned highways, American birders are masters at birding from a moving car and it seems they’re prepared to risk even their spinal health to get that drive-by tick.
On Britain’s twisty roads packed with traffic, I wouldn’t dare attempt to drive with binoculars so close at hand, and prefer to keep them on the passenger seat (or perhaps tucked under the driver’s seat if I’m not alone) ready to grab once the car is safely stationary. Though I still must confess to having been called out on occasion for watching the birds, not the road. But what if one day it actually is a honey buzzard, identified even as I veer all over the carriageway? All that risk-taking might just pay off.*
Sunday, December 15th
The first successful sighting of a bird on my target list was almost too easy. I’d stepped not a half pace onto the damp field behind Cedar Ridge Community Church when a loose group of small birds dropped in and scattered across the puddle-strewn grass ahead of me, subtly attired in warm beige and brown and gently peeping as they came. Pipits!
The buff-bellied pipit (Anthus rubescens, known here as an American pipit) strikes me as combining features of several of the pipits I’m used to back home. Their dark legs and relatively dark plumage call to mind the predominately coastal-dwelling rock pipit (indeed, the two were once considered so closely related they were lumped together, with water pipit, as a single species), but the American species’ affinity for grassland most resembles the habitat preference of meadow pipits. And, like meadow pipits, these are charming, active little birds, an underrated plus of winter birding in the lowlands.
It’s refreshing, getting back to my roots as a naturalist. Feathered, flying roots. December, the continent of North America. Not only are precious few insects on the wing or plants in flower, but I wouldn’t have the first clue what many of them are either. Like a Christmas present from nature to me, for the next two weeks I get to concentrate on birds.
By the end of this trip I’ll have spent about six months of my birding life in North America, out of a total of around eight years. Long enough to have familiarised myself with most of the common species, but not so long that I’ve ever been even remotely tempted to embark on a twitch in order to add to my modest life list for the continent.