(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
I used to be a very keen twitcher, driving hundreds of miles to see a rare bird. It sounds really stupid now, but it wasn’t. It was exciting…
Saturday, July 23, 1988
A late-night phone call and by 10:30 p.m., I’m being picked up to drive overnight in an attempt to see a Terek Sandpiper, one of the very few birds to have an upturned beak.
At the time, this wader was extremely rare in this country, and for reasons best known to itself, this particular individual was a very long way indeed from where it should have been. Yellow is summer, and blue is winter…
Our target bird is a good drive from Nottingham, at Stanpit Marshes, near Christchurch, far down in deepest Dorset…
We go past all sorts of romantic dual carriageway turnoff signs, Oxford, Salisbury, all places I wouldn’t mind seeing one day, but not tonight, or rather today, for as we arrive at Stanpit, Rosy fingered Dawn is just beginning to lighten the eastern sky.
I feel terrible, truly awful. We all sleep for the best part of half an hour, slumped in the car. When we emerge the light is really quite good, but the drawback is that it is pelting down with heavy drenching rain, which is the worst possible thing for glasses and valuable optics. We walk out onto the marsh, where there is the normal selection of shelducks and black headed gulls, sitting out on a shingle bank, but anything more subtle is going to be difficult in this appalling weather. Cleaning off my glasses has already soaked my one and only handkerchief, and I am very loathe to get either my binoculars or my telescope out from under my old waxed jacket. I hate the rain.
In the hour before we left, I did a little bit of research on the Terek Sandpiper. The literature that I read said that they were not amazingly different from Common Sandpipers, especially when seen badly or from a distance. One particularly good point, though, is that they feed at a much quicker rate than the Common Sandpipers with which they often associate. Bearing this in mind, I take a closer look at three Common Sandpipers feeding in a creek….
One individual is pecking away a lot quicker rate than the other two, and seems rather dumpy and portly to me. Whether its beak is upturned or not, I just cannot see, the rain is coming down too hard. I call Paul, but he can’t penetrate the gloom either. The other two birdwatchers I’m with are a lot more experienced than I am, so I just meekly point out the birds to them, say that I think that they are worth looking at, but don’t labour the point. Neither of them seems to be particularly impressed, because they stalk off into the middle distance, without even a backward glance. Unabashed, I try to get closer to the three birds, but succeed only in flushing them, and they all fly off along the edge of the creek. I presume that that is the end of it.
It isn’t though, because we soon come across a group of birdwatchers, all intently watching a Terek Sandpiper.
It has just flown in with two Common Sandpipers apparently (LOL, you would say nowadays). It is visible at the edge of the main creek. We watch it for a good while. It’s a rather delicate, if pot-bellied bird, as it feeds rapidly in the shallows. It even bathes briefly, preening itself with what in the telescope is obviously a wonderfully upturned bill.
Our next port of call is a little village called Corfe Mullen, a really posh place, compared to our pathetic Northern Hovels. All great big mansion houses, with huge country gardens, all filled with exquisitely trimmed conifers. Here is a beautiful Southern Hovel…
There’s a small triangle of grass in the middle of the village, surrounded by lots of lovely telegraph wires, all eager to support the delicate weight of a Red-rumped Swallow.
Not today, though. We stroll along the surrounding lanes, turning up a few swallows and housemartins. It’s not a great day for hirundines, because it’s a bit drizzly still, and somewhat cold. There cannot be many insects up there for them to catch. After a couple of hours searching, we suddenly hear a cry. I look up and see the bird, completely distinctive with its dark rear end, and nobody is any doubt as it disappears over a distant line of trees.
After this, we return to the M3, M25 and M1, all equally delightful in their own way. By the time I get to the services at Leicester Forest East, I feel like one of the extras in “Return of the Zombie Twitchers”. Still, you forget the distance covered, and the discomfort, when you look at your life list. Soon be two hundred.