I wasn’t sure what to expect of early spring birding in America. I had hoped for a repeat of October’s passerine migrant-fest, but was disavowed of that illusion by browsing species occurrence frequencies on the excellent E-Bird database.* From that, wildfowl seemed to be where I should be concentrating, and a focus on ducks certainly did pay off early in the trip. Following that aquatic flurry, the species accrued so steadily that I barely noticed it was happening until I was pretty close to autumn’s total of 95.
This would be a good time to mention I have a bit of a thing for round numbers. Been for a short walk around our local park, and seen 18 species? I’ll try a few known spots for two more (after all, every birder needs to be sure to meet their RBA). Day list hovering in the mid-40s, or 50s, or 60s, and I’m already heading home? I’ll rack my brains for anything I had seen and then promptly forgotten, and then maybe hope for an extra species or two close to the house, something suburban like collared dove, to make it up to 50, 60 or 70. Most months my secret aim will be 100 species. And I make no secret of 200 being the UK year list Holy Grail. I have further ambitions of a global-year 300: theoretically 200 UK + 100 USA, but those pesky crossover species do make it difficult!
Birding is often a game of rapid response. Fastest focus first. Plenty of interesting birds have been drifting in and out of Berkshire throughout the winter, but they come and go like the east wind. You have to be quick to catch them. It’s been a ‘waxwing winter’ but they’ve hardly been faithful visitors: one day they’re here, and the next they’ve moved on to no-local-birder-knows where. Similarly, the wind is blasting right through you one day under leaden skies, but by the next day the sun is out and the sap rises again.
No surprise then that just as it looked like we’d turned the final corner towards spring, the wind returned with a vengeance. Monday was dry-ice cold and as bitter as lemons, grey, raw, and hard-edged. Not even a pleasantly crisp cold, more akin to being sliced open with a rough-hewn Stone Age arrowhead. Everybody and everything was keeping a sensibly low profile: the usual dog walkers were absent from the scene and even the blue and great tits, usually so boisterous, were keeping their heads down. Only a woodpigeon or two and a scavenging magpie ventured forth, their rustling and rattling the only sounds audible above the wind’s relentless howl.
By the lake corner a nuthatch was tweeting away – yes, nuthatches do actually say ‘tweet’, if you hadn’t noticed – defending a favoured tree, whilst on the water the ever-hungry fleet of marauding mallards kept an eye out for bread-wielding toddlers. A heron which has been hanging about the lake’s central island for most of the week was for some reason playing a solo game of pick-up-sticks. Approaching the park’s far edge, I could hear two or three great tits stepping on squeaky bicycle pumps – that is to say, singing – as robins dashed on and off the path in search of a morsel or two. I stepped round the corner onto Beech Lane at the same moment a great-spotted woodpecker chose to bounce dramatically across the road and over my head, its red undertail leaving a trail like a firework against a blue-grey sky. That same moment I realised I was grinning from ear to ear, buoyed by nothing more than the life of a few common birds.