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.
I’m a birder. Birds are the creatures of which I am most fond: that much must be evident from the name of this blog. But the most astonishing encounter with a wild creature that I’ve ever had was not with a bird, but with that most enigmatic and magnificent of British butterflies, the Purple Emperor. I found Him – or should I say, He found me, on an obscure track along the edge of an obscure block of woodland in an obscure corner of North-East Hampshire.
I was trudging wearily back to my car after some hours digging pitfall traps (a part of my MSc project research the summer before last), when I saw a huge butterfly winging purposefully towards me at head height above the track. It made a couple of passes, swooping closer each time, in an almost aggressive display of powerful, controlled flight, before settling on the track a matter of inches from my boots, wings closed.
I scrambled around in my mind, trying to recall what this impressive, beautifully patterned animal could be. I was only beginning to properly learn the butterflies at the time, and the flypast had so taken me aback that I don’t recall noticing any tell-tale hint of royal colouring. But all uncertainty was dispelled as my eyes were opened by a blast of purple; the transformed spectrum of a shaft of sunlight reflecting off the now likewise opened wings of the butterfly.
At the end of a morning’s bird surveying I often treat myself to an extra wander, especially if I’ve ended up somewhere particularly lovely. Freed from the pressure of getting in another count before the late morning lull, it’s finally possible to relax and pay attention to the myriad other sights and smells of spring. For example: earlier this week I finished up next to the adjacent wildlife trust reserve’s information board, which sported a tiny picture of an early purple orchid. Thinking this sounded a good object for a quest, I ignored my stomach’s persistent rumbling requests for the fat rascally deliciousness waiting back at the car, and plunged into the woods in pursuit of the real thing.
Perhaps due to the stop-start-stop nature of this spring, most floral displays I’ve chanced upon so far this year have been of one or two species, desperately throwing their energies into flowering at the first sign of a decent weather window. In one little corner of Berkshire’s Moor Copse, however, the ground flora has got itself organised and put on as varied a display as one might see in a shop window, as if preparing for a one-stop field guide photography session. The show began just a few paces in from the wood’s edge, and I immediately began to lose myself in a reverie of petals and sunlight.