Where Eagles Dare

So here I am, once again rather late with all the news of my birdy adventures. I hope you’ve all been able to contain your excitement whilst you wait for the next installment.

I got a bit emotional, last time round. Emotion-inducing little bird, firecrest, a lot more so than some of my other lifers this year, like Lesser scaup. Bless its little ducky face, but not so thrilling. You may be worried about me — you might think that this birding lark is nothing but wishy washy sentimentality, cooing at pretty things, grown men reduced to tears by five grams of feathers and bone.

To put your mind at rest, last week I came up with a proper big bird, a dangerous bird. In other words, a true man’s bird. No nonsense, no messing around on a river bank at the local nature reserve, but a serious expedition out to a freezing cold lay-by, to stand around with other binocular-festooned men (and one somewhat less excited lady), on the scent of a white tailed sea eagle.

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Firequest

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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Rare Encounters

Hugh Venables [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

I often wonder what it is that gets us more excited about one thing than another. I get more excited about birds, than I would about, I don’t know, a very rare plant. Last year my wife Rebecca rescued a book being thrown out of her library, which offered a summary of the state of Britain’s wildlife in 2001 — there is a chapter for about any group you could thing of, and the authors of the mollusc chapter presumably find slugs more thrilling than eagles. Speaking just of birds, you might think that the more bright colours a bird has, the more interesting the sighting. Or simply that it is always more desirable to spot a rare bird than to see something common. But my own experience tells me the truth is somewhat more complex.

Last summer I went to see a white tailed lapwing at Dungeness: we parked, walked up to the line of twitchers, asked where the bird was, found it, watched it, left again. The bird did not move throughout, and barely lifted its head into the wind. Given the huge rarity of the bird, only the 5th seen in Britain, I think, I should have been jumping through my car roof on the way home with uncontrollable excitement. Clearly, rarity alone does not control how much I enjoy seeing a bird because to be honest that kind of twitch leaves me feeling a little empty inside, even if for the sake of the list it must be done from time to time. (Especially if I am to hit 200 this year!)

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