Invisible Things

I always thought that ‘writer’s block’ must be some kind of excuse, or perhaps something that afflicted only proper artistic types. Something you only got if you had actually ever written anything worth reading, and were finding it exceptionally hard to follow. The date appearing on this entry might suggest that it can actually strike anybody, without warning. It’s not really been to do with busyness – during our first batch of exams on the MSc in January I was blogging several times a week. I simply haven’t been able to settle to the task of writing.

And it isn’t for the want of seeing things to write about. Well, I say seeing things, but I intended this to be more about hearing things. At this time of year birders up and down the country, anxiously scanning every hedgerow, tree and fence post to be the first on to an early migrant (not early anymore, really, since it is nearly May), have also been getting back into the audible groove of spring in Britain. Encouraged by the first repetitive see-sawing chiff chaffs, they are relearning all the songs learned in seasons past: so that’s a Blackcap, but that’s a Garden Warbler – of course! – hoping to latch on to an unfamiliar call that might lead to something new. And for many migrants, warblers especially, sound is often the first, and sometimes the only, clue to the presence of a bird. Skulking in dense vegetation, or hidden by newly opened, luxurious canopies of fresh leaves, catching a glimpse requires patience, luck, and perhaps the echolocation skills of a bat.
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I should say a few words about an epic quest that may just have changed my birding life. Back in November or December a ringing team at our local reserve, Lavell’s Lake, were lucky enough to catch a firecrest in their nets. I have long wanted to see one, attracted by drawings in the field guides and photographs showing a tiny bird, not much bigger than a goldcrest (Europe’s smallest), with the most remarkable plumage: bright yellow green back, a bold black eye stripe topped with a blaze of white over the eyebrow, the head crowned with a flaming golden crest of glory. An absolute jewel, people always say of it, and from the pictures I imagined they were right. I like goldcrests; they are a splendid little bird. I pictured something quite similar, just a little brighter, and stripier. That’s about right, but nothing would quite prepare me for the reality of the thing.

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‘Egrets? I’ve had a few.’

Little Egret (By ‘BirdMan1’ at Wikimedia Commons (Click for link))

In fact I had a Little one last Saturday, had it in my field of view that is — and very graceful it was too, stepping delicately through a small stream before bouncing into the air and away.
We were at Freeman’s Marsh to look for a Glossy Ibis which has spent a good part of the winter on this network of watercourses near Hungerford in west Berkshire. I’ll jump straight to the ending for once just to say this was, unsurprisingly, another glorious addition to my string of little dips in 2011 — but with the now customary consolation prizes. On this particular day they took the various delightful forms of our friend the Little Egret, already mentioned, the to my mind inappropriately named Grey Wagtail, flocks of Linnets in the open scrub and Siskins in the stream side willow and alder, an unusually confiding Water Rail foraging in a patch of watercress, and best of all a male Merlin.

This is the tiniest of all falcons, quite adept at disguising itself as a thrush or perhaps a small dove. Like many birders, despite a few years’ experience I often find myself looking twice at a pigeon or some such doing a rather good raptor impression, but was very pleased this time to find that the small bird fluttering in high to the right was performing the other way round. It quickly stopped flapping and started cruising fast to the left, and down, quite powerfully, like a miniature Peregrine – -betraying its true identity. As it swooped low over the field opposite we caught the blue grey back colour, revealing this to be a male bird, before losing it behind a bush. In the breeding season Merlin inhabit upland areas of the country but come down to lowland wetlands in the winter, more usually on the coast — and are an absolute treat to see.

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