If ever there was an invisible bird, it’s a wryneck. Forget any notably transparent or retiring feathered friends I’ve written about previously. These are absolutely impossible – just the bird you’d recruit for espionage, perhaps on dry land at least, with a bittern squadron tackling the reed beds. From their habit of sitting absolutely stock still, to their tree bark-like patterning, not to mention fondness for moving unseen across the ground, the wryneck is a master of deception. In this the wryneck might be rivaled only by the bittern – as a side note, it is curious how these presumably unrelated birds have adopted similar vegetation aping, statue-impersonating camouflage, and stretched neck twisting routines when alert or watchful. Convergent evolution is a remarkable thing.
Suffice to say, up until the onset of this autumn, I’d failed spectacularly at wryneck hunting. Last October in Norfolk I scoured a bank of scrubby bramble and hawthorn, in tandem with a friendly passing birder, for a good hour, in the vicinity of a lucky sighting, and saw not so much as a robin move in the tangle of branches. Later that same afternoon, one popped up briefly to feed on a grass bank, but I was too slow to see it, and it didn’t return. My gaze, like most of the watching crowd’s, had been drawn instead to a gorgeous little citrus-fresh yellow-browed warbler buzzing around the nearby blackthorn. Next year, I thought; best to keep a few treats in reserve for next autumn.
Brave and intrepid birders ready for anything
You may not be aware that I have been finding some success as a tour operator this year. Wildlife tourism is a huge, lucrative industry (I presume lucrative, given the prices of some nature holidays), so it seemed well worth setting up a sideline as a guide whilst doing the master’s, in case no other gainful employment was forthcoming. I like to think I offer a unique experience, from transport by drafty, slightly sluggish Nissan Micra, to rock-bottom prices — generally I’m happy to receive a share of the petrol money and a handful of jelly babies or a bag of magic stars. That might actually be where I’m going wrong if I was planning on making this some kind of commercial enterprise, but laying aside finances I gain enormously from recruiting friends onto my expeditions — I’ve written about the joys of solo nature watching but nothing really beats the fun and satisfaction of a group trip.
So far, my ‘tours’ have mostly been to familiar Hampshire locations I know and love. I knew where they were and what we were likely to find, even if I do, without fail, get lost on the way to Titchfield Haven. I even managed to show off by leading a group to the exact oak in the New Forest where I hoped we would find a roosting tawny owl. They were suitably impressed. But finishing our theses called for something special. It was time to hit the road, and catch up with fellow bird-heads from the ‘Bird List 2011’ Facebook group in their adopted Cornwall homeland (yes, it is real, and super geeky).
What a glorious couple of days. The world basking under blue skies in the gentle, tentative, delicate warmth of the earliest part of spring. Migrant birds arriving on the coast and making their way up the country, bats and bees and butterflies emerging from hibernation, gaudy banks of daffodils burning holes in your irises. And me sat in dark, warm, sleepy rooms, watching seven hours plus of Powerpoint.
I get very antsy at this time of year if I’m kept indoors for too long. The last two days have been particularly bad: an unfortunate cocktail of enforced enclosure inside during sunshine, disappearance of the sun as soon as I was free to go and enjoy it, then going home each evening and reading lists of the exciting avian (and other) signs of the changing season being seen all around, except by me of course.