A low-flying streak over the surface of Whiteknights Lake turned out to be a kingfisher. Always brilliant, always bright, it alighted briefly on a convenient overhanging tree but was soon gone.
Continuing my walk, I began to slow down. I saw movement on a puddle at my feet, and looked to see several elongated yellow specks dotting about in the water’s surface film. At the edge of a concrete path, rainwater had collected to form a temporary stream that spilled gently over the neighbouring grass. Here it had clearly swept up springtails, the aforementioned specks, which were bouncing in a desperate attempt to stay in control despite what to them was a raging flash flood.
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise.
(George Herbert, 1593-1633)
Before Thursday, it had been a little while since I’d had a proper day-long bird outing, a proper brilliant one — where rarities and scarcities reveal themselves after just a few minutes’ searching, and common birds vie to see which species can offer me the most revealing view. This was a day touched by the kind autumn air and still revelling in the season’s great voyages and crossovers: swallows weaving the air and making final preparations for Africa above freshly arrived flocks of chattering Brent geese from the far north. A day that feels full of possibility and makes you glad to be alive, and, more to the point, glad to be using that life to go a-birding.
I was led to Christchurch Harbour in Dorset to find a red-breasted goose. I’d missed one back on one of winter’s dipping days, struggling vainly through each flock of Brent on the Keyhaven marshes in Hampshire. To miss a bird once is unfortunate; to miss twice, unforgivable — so I didn’t have a lot of choice. And it’s not like twitching one of your archetypal brown jobs of legend. This is a fine figure of a goose, a small Branta with an orange-red washed front and a square of the same colour on its cheek, edged with white. And though vagrants are normally of little conservation relevance, it is pleasing to see a red-breast find refuge on the English coast — things aren’t always so peaceful on its regular wintering grounds far to the east, where it’s as likely to be shot as anything else, and rapid land use changes might be hammering the population numbers. As usual there’s a large slice of uncertainty to serve up with that story, so its endangered status is precautionary and research is ongoing.
Ten o’ clock yesterday morning found me wiping the steamy windows inside my damp car, pulled over on a residential street, staring at a bush in the pouring rain. Trying to twitch a house sparrow.
Yes, its the early part of the year when us birders are seized by listing mania — drawing up targets and wish lists, planning trips, and dreaming of all the bird year might bring. I have absolutely no idea why numbers should matter to me at all. I get untold pleasure from simply watching wildlife, in fact my most memorable bird encounters each year are generally special views in special places, rather than my one hundredth bird of the year, or whatever. Though it is nice when the two coincide. But matter to me numbers do, since if I don’t see a good number of species in a year it feels like a kind of failure. Perhaps I’m just subconsciously forcing myself out to do what I love, with adding to the list as a fairly weak excuse against laziness, perhaps it’s a form of competition (and it does feel exceedingly competitive now I’ve started finding other people to compare numbers with!). There probably isn’t anything wrong with it, anyway. More useful than collecting train numbers, in my opinion.
So with numbers in mind, I gathered as many extra pairs of eyes as I could (which wasn’t many) for a ‘big day’ round Reading. We set a 10k-from-the-centre limit partially to prevent our ideas getting out of hand, partially because it might help with a piece of coursework.