Tag Archives: Crippling Views

A minibus trip to Norfolk

Friday, November 4th, 1988

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

A new venture this time. An official  General Studies Birdwatching trip to Norfolk, taking the Sixth Form with me in a hired minibus. One thing is for certain, though… They’ll all get a lot of lifers… And I hope for one as well, the Indigo Bunting at Wells, which may just have lingered on from the previous weekend. There is every chance that nobody has really looked for it since then. The main priority, though, is to make sure that there is a constant stream of birds for the students, always as obvious and as spectacular as possible. We start at Cley-next-the-Sea, and then we plan to work our way steadily back westwards along the beautiful Norfolk coast. Look for the orange arrow:


Arnold’s Marsh provides us with two nice birds, a late Curlew Sandpiper and a very spectacular Knot, still in bright brick red summer plumage:

red knot xxxxxx

Further along the East Bank, we find a lovely Stonechat, obviously prospecting for an overwintering site:

Stonechat%20-3 xxxxxxx

At the far end, there is an exquisite flock of about a hundred or so Snow Buntings, flying with their tinkling calls up and down the shingle bank:

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Unfortunately there is no sign of Boy George the famous Glaucous Gull, whichever plumage he may be in now, white adult or coffee coloured juvenile:

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There are no Waxwings either at the traditional haunt of Winterton. So off we go to Wells, stopping only briefly to look at the goose flocks at the side of the coastal road. The lads are delighted to see a Snow Goose which they all insist has flown in the previous day from Arctic Canada, despite all my vigorous explanations to the contrary:

snow goose0df3f5bbxxxxxxxxx

We get to Wells where I spend half an hour looking for The Bunting but without any success, either down by the old toilet block, or down in the Dell. It must’ve moved on or perhaps it’s been recaptured by its worried owner:

Indigo-Bunting1 xxxxxxxx

As we walk back to the car park, I see a starling like bird in silhouette. It flies over our heads and I don’t really pay it any attention, until it comes in to land. Instead of landing on the top of a nearby tree, it clings to the trunk like a woodpecker. That’s enough to attract my attention and when I look through binoculars, I soon realise that it is a Waxwing:

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That is when the fun starts because we have only two pairs of binoculars between four of us and one pair is broken. Added to this is the fact that all the lads are very inexperienced, and it takes each one of them a really long time to find the bird on the tree trunk. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of counting branches to the left and branches to the right, until the bird finally gets bored with it all and flies off. Two of the three without binoculars see it properly but, sadly, the last one does not. Holkham and Lady Ann’s Drive provide a couple of new birds for us, namely Golden Plover, and the almost jet black Brent Geese:

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Amazingly enough, though, there are no Egyptian Geese to brighten the day. Titchwell is a little disappointing, with all the Marsh Harriers departed for sunnier climes and the Spoonbills that were asleep at the back of the pool three years ago also seem to have moved away. All we find are wigeon and teal.:

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Still the lads are pleased. Indeed in a lot of ways, they teach me a thing or two. Any nice bird they see is a source of almost innocent wonder to all of them, particularly if it has more than three colours.




Filed under Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

A Hoopoe at Stoke

Saturday, November 12, 1988

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

This time it’s a quick half day trip to Parkhall Country Park near Stoke. Look for the orange arrows:

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In this unlikely industrial landscape,  there is an extremely late Hoopoe. What a fabulous bird:

hoopoe02 xxxxx

It’s a bird that I’ve seen before, but only as a flushed silhouette that flitted across the path and disappeared forever. A distinctive enough shape to be a tick, but not much more than that:

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Alan isn’t with us, and I’m too scared of his wife to ring him. Steve isn’t there either. Paul says that he’s ill and doesn’t want to come, but in actual fact he hasn’t told him we’re going, in case he gets a tick as well.

We are the first to arrive in Stoke and we have a quick look round the incredible maze of paths and disused quarries:

mossy view zzzzzzz

We draw a blank. Luckily we find a local and he tells us that we are at the wrong end of the park and that we should drive round to the other side:


This we do, and find a good few people scouring the countryside. A half mile walk takes us along the side of an old quarry, and down to a little grassy valley where the Hoopoe habitually feeds, probing the short turf for insects and grubs:

general view

Sure enough it’s there, a fairly dull, pinky chestnut coloured bird, with an improbably long bill and crest, and a bewildering series of black and white stripes on various bits of its anatomy. It looks like a bird that has been doodled by a very bored person in an exceptionally boring meeting:


The watchers themselves are extremely well-behaved and I lose a bet with myself that somebody with a really, really poor camera is bound to want an amazingly close close-up shot, but I am wrong. Everybody conducts themselves properly and they just watch the Hoopoe as it feeds in the short grass and then they all return home.


Filed under Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

A lovely old bird called Elsie

(An extract from my birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Saturday, June 25, 1988

Birdline organises another weekend for me. Look for the orange arrows:

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This Saturday, it’s a vagrant duck from North America, a drake Surf Scoter, that has been found offshore at Holme next the Sea  in north Norfolk. A very well-behaved bird, it has been seen every single day of the week, and should be a cinch. Should be:

xxxxxxx surf_scoter_1655

I go with Paul, Robin and Sue. It’s a beautiful summer’s day, blue skies, a bright sun and a typically bracing east coast wind. After an uneventful three hour trip, we park in a layby at the side of the road at the western end of the Holme reserve. As soon as we get out of the car, I see a most peculiar bird. It’s a large tern, flying steadily eastwards along the beach. About the size of a Sandwich Tern, it has a straw yellow bill. I am paralysed, I can’t remember what colour bill a Sandwich Tern has. For a few moments, I think that I’ve got everything exactly backwards, so that all Sandwich Terns have a yellow bill with a black tip. But that’s not the right way round. Sandwich Terns have a black bill with a yellow tip! I force myself to look at the bird for the duration of the flypast, but it’s very difficult to take in a great deal, because I’m so panic stricken:

Sterne voyageuse (Sterna bengalensis)

I think of shouting to Paul, but he’s three miles away, year ticking Redshank. I don’t have the courage to yell to another group of nearby birdwatchers, because deep down, I have a terrible suspicion that I have got it all wrong, that I will be calling out to them just for a Sandwich Tern. I keep looking. The bird is fairly round winged, with fairly dark upper parts to both its wings and back. It has a noticeably white trailing edge to its wings, a little like a Laughing Gull, and for a tern, it seems big, almost the size and bulk of a gull. I walk thirty or forty yards, trying to dismiss the bird as an aberration, the product of a rarity crazed mind. I even consider the idea that I just got out of the car, tired from the driving, and somehow misidentified a Little Tern. There are quite a lot of them over the beach, and mental blocks through fatigue are not that unusual. Then suddenly, the bird reappears:

xxxxxxx LCT 3

It is in company with  two Sandwich Terns and I can easily pick it out, totally different from its two companions:

This time, I shout to Paul and tell him to get on to the last bird. He manages to pick it out and agrees with me on two things. Firstly, that it is different to the Sandwich Terns, and secondly, that it has a straw yellow bill.  We have an exciting discussion about it and Paul puts forward the idea that it is a Lesser Crested Tern, a very rare vagrant to Britain, but one which has been seen a few times of late, due in part, it is thought, to a single lost bird which wanders the east coast of Britain, looking eagerly for its Libyan homeland. I haven’t a clue. I’ve never even heard of a Lesser Crested Tern. I thought that Gaddafi had abolished birds as being too flippant. I don’t even have a book with Lesser Crested Tern in it:

xxxx LCT 2

When I get back to Nottingham, I spend many a happy hour, trying to get information on the mystery bird. What convinces me though, is an illustration that I find in an old Indian birdwatching book, where the most salient points are the yellow beak, the dark mantle and the brightest of white trailing edges. They ought to know. They see them a damned sight more often than I do. And what finally proves it to me totally is an announcement a couple of days later that a Lesser Crested Tern has recently been present, on and off, at Cley next the Sea, just a few miles down the coast to the east. Seduced by the promise of eternal fame, I send a letter to the Norfolk Bird Recorder, and also to the Reserve Warden at Holme.

The Surf Scoter, of course, after all this, is long gone. We spend the rest of the day looking for it, but without any luck at all. The Common Scoters are exactly that, but among the hundreds of sea duck, there is no bright white head:

We also see a lot of Little Terns, who succeed in sowing the seeds of doubt, but who, at the same time, solve quite a few problems. They fly down the same track as the putative Lesser Crested Tern, but with a completely different flight action. They flutter like butterflies. They don’t fly purposefully like the mystery bird:

And anyway, I saw it in the company of Sandwich Terns, so I have a good idea of its size, and it’s a lot bigger than a Little Tern. It’s a different bird, in actual fact. A thrilling end to a memorable day is provided as we motor south to Kings Lynn, on the way back. Look for the orange arrow:


Just beyond the ring road, we see a large raptor quartering the fields to our left:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Montagu's_Harrier

It crosses the road above our heads, continues the quartering, and finally disappears behind the line of trees on the horizon. It is a male Montagu’s Harrier, perhaps the North Wootton bird, but more likely, from a site not yet revealed to the Verminous Company of Egg Thieves. It is fairly isolated out here though. Let’s hope that the Montagu’s Harrier family spend their summer undisturbed, raise their babies and leave peacefully. Flying back if possible, not over Malta or any other world centre of illegal hunting:

xxxxx  montagus_Harrier_Serengeti_


I sent in my claim of a Lesser Crested Tern to the British Bird Rarities Committee, but after a year or two of careful consideration, they rejected it,  even though the Birdwatching Committee in Norfolk seemed reasonably satisfied with it. So, a few years later, I drove to Spurn Head in Yorkshire to see another, or conceivably the same returning, Lesser Crested Tern. Look for Nottingham in the bottom left and the orange arrow:


I went there on two separate occasions, and finished up driving nearly 500 miles in total. After almost two days standing in “The Place”, “The Bird” did not deign to tern up (sick). On the second day, I was there at seven in the morning, and I was then the last to leave at eight o’clock in the evening. Another birdwatcher arriving alone at half past eight then found the bird exactly where it was supposed to be standing and I’d missed it. That started to make it personal.

A little while later, I drove to the north Norfolk coast where foolhardy twitchers were wading across a tidal creek to Scolt Head Island, their telescopes and tripods held above their heads like the Marines in Vietnam. They were looking for a Lesser Crested Tern which had been seen in the Sandwich Tern colony. Look for the orange arrow: 


I decided, though, to stay on the mainland, not drown and keep my eyes open for the bird flying down the coast to fish. Three wasted hours. No chance!

It was by now way beyond personal. Around this time a Lesser Crested Tern had been hybridising with Sandwich Terns in a tern colony on the Farne Islands, some three or four miles off the coast of Northumberland, some 200 miles to the north of Nottingham. Eventually, everybody realised that all the many records of Lesser Crested Tern on the English East Coast were most probably this one returning individual, being seen over and over again by different people.  Because the initials of a Lesser Crested Tern are “LCT”, the bird was now being called “Elsie”. I decided to bite the bullet  and drive up to the Farne Islands. As the bird was nesting, it should be a cinch. Should be.

Look for the orange arrows :

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I failed to see it. So I decided to try again, and at very long last, I saw Elsie’s straw yellow bill sticking jauntily out of a crowd of black billed Sandwich Terns, all sitting on their eggs.

And I watched this good tern, this most excellent tern, for a very long time. A very long time. And then, half an hour later, I came back for seconds. And yes, I had already seen a bird just like Elsie, with her unmistakable bill, somewhere else, a long time previously, but the details escaped me for the moment.
Afterwards, I worked out that the nearest colonies of Lesser Crested Tern were on the coast of Libya. To see one, I had driven to Holme (210 miles for the round trip), Spurn Head twice (500 miles for two round trips), Scolt Head Island (250 miles for the round trip) and the Farne Islands(880 miles for two round trips). How far is it to Libya by car?



Filed under History, Personal, Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

Last day on the Scillies

Saturday, October 29, 1988

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

My last day on the Scillies. Time off for good behaviour. I’m not really sorry to be going home. I had four lifers. I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything that was there and was viewable, except perhaps the Short toed Lark, about which I have exactly the same dilemma today as I had yesterday. Do I go to St Agnes or not? I chicken out, I am ashamed to say. I’m too scared of missing the last ferry back to Penzance Harbour to risk missing an inter-island boat through a twisted ankle, or a fat man’s heart attack. This will be the last Scillonian ferry back to the mainland before the end of the year, and the helicopters are all booked up until next Wednesday so I just cannot risk anything going wrong. I simply do not have enough money:

Scillonian_III-01 xxxxxx

I go back to my old friend at Telegraph, the Rose-coloured Starling, who I see very briefly, flying around with his common friends. He’s a very pale, buffy coloured individual, which I am sure is the bird in question, a fact made all the more certain by a group of birdwatchers coming from the area where the flock appeared to land and who say that they have just seen the little chap:

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I can’t relocate the bird, but I meet someone who says he’s just seen a Wryneck feeding alongside the road. It was actually on the grassy tops of the great wide dry stone walls, although it has disappeared by the time I arrive:

Wryneck%20Scilly%2 zzzzzzz

I look for about fifteen minutes, but I can’t find it, and I am just about to pack it in as a bad job, when another young chap comes over and says he’s found the bird about seventy yards away in another lane. When I get there, I find that it’s a lot more active than the previous birds that I’ve seen in Norfolk, as it moves along the base of the hedge, feeding energetically. I am always impressed by Wrynecks, which never seem reptilian to me or particularly primitive as they are supposed to, but rather I wonder at the subtlety of their camouflage, and the way they seem able to disappear into their background at the drop of a dead leaf. It’s a good padder of a bird and I’m really pleased to have seen it. Not that I’m surprised, because it’s my friend Paul’s bogey bird and I told him before I left for the Scillies that I would see one for him:

Blog Wryneck St Marys xxxxxxxxx

I take a leisurely stroll back to town, walking along the seashore where I am amazed to see a kingfisher flying out over the breaking waves, seemingly completely at home among the rocky coves and the surf,  before it finally disappears into a line of pine trees at the top of the scrub covered cliff:

kingfisher14  zzzzzzzz

I pass a field full of absolutely thousands of finches, including at least one superb full adult summer plumage Brambling, which is so bright that I think it is some weird American bird when I first see it. There’s really no need for it to be a transatlantic vagrant, since the bird is such a beautiful sight in its own right, without needing to be particularly rare:

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A hundred yards further on, I surprise a Pipit in another field at the side of the road. I try hard to imagine that it is some unprecedented rarity, but I’m finally forced to concede that it is merely a Tree Pipit.
Finally, I reach the Porthcressa Restaurant, where the magic noticeboard announces the presence of a Scarlet Rosefinch, another possible lifer, which has turned up near the airport. This is going to be a close run thing for a fat man. The boat leaves this afternoon and I need to be on the quay by half past three. It’s half past one now, so I start off at a reasonable pace, taking care to time myself for the walk, so that I can set off back to the harbour in good time. It only takes me thirty minutes, so I am left with about an hour to find the bird:

Scarlet%20Rosefinch%20 xxxxxxx

It’s apparently been showing well in a little field full of cabbages, but has unfortunately moved on by the time I arrive. I go and search the neighbouring fields where there are huge flocks of finches and lots of good big hedges for them to perch in. It is at this point that I get the closest that I’ve ever been to a rare bird without actually seeing it. Two young men poke their heads round the hedge and tell me that the Rosefinch is there. They are actually looking at it right now:

scarlet rosefinchR  xxxxxxx

In the very short time that it takes me to walk the ten yards or so, the bird flies away, never to be seen again, at least not by me. I give it a few more minutes, but time, as always, ticks inexorably away.  There is one final bit of excitement when a message comes on the CB that a Pechora Pipit has been spotted on the far side of the airport near Salakee Farm:

pechora xxxxxx

The fittest ferry passengers, and the more leisurely helicopter users, all set off, but without me, I’m afraid. I’m far too unfit to rush all the way to Salakee, find a pipit famous for its ability to skulk and hide in the undergrowth, and then get back down to the Scillonian by 3.30. At least, not without a major heart attack. I do have the pleasure though, of a nice stroll back through the town, along the main street down to the ferry:

St%20Marys%20Quay xxxxxxxx

The scene that greets me is straight out of a 1930s black-and-white documentary film about the evacuation of St.Kilda. The ferry seems to know that it is the last boat of the year and mournfully blasts its foghorn as a farewell to the tiny town.

scillonia on scillis xxxxxxxxxx

The street, with its grey stone buildings, is full of hurrying figures, all burdened with bags and suitcases, tripods and scopes, all plodding in the same direction to get down to the quay. When I reach the ferry, I have twenty minutes to drink in the scene, so I stand and lean over the side of the boat. It’s beautiful, the still, calm sea, the line of old buildings along the curve of the bay and the continuing mournful bellowing of the ship’s foghorn. Even better though, is a stream of birdwatchers, all returning at breakneck speed from not seeing the Pechora Pipit, tripods and spare wellies flying around their necks. They all seem to make it, except, presumably, the ones that don’t.
We set off across the surface of a glassy sea, as the people on the land wave their last farewells to the ship:

scillonian-day-trips-1-1180x520 xxxxxxx

It will be a long time before the Scillonian returns to the island, as the next arrival is scheduled for April. The crossing is bird free, mainly because the weather becomes so foul. In actual fact, the crossing isn’t particularly rough by Scilly standards. All I can say, though, is that, if this isn’t rough, then very rough most be unbelievable. I stay on deck, of course, in my capacity as the toughest man on the boat, and when I finally go downstairs, the bar is full of people with green faces. It reminds me very strongly of a pub in Nottingham that sells Shipstone’s beer.
One young lad that I speak to is really delighted to have been on the Scillies. He is about fifteen and he has had a lot of lifers and he is as pleased as Punch. Birdwatching here certainly does make it a lot easier to see some of the birds that on the mainland can take a lot of effort, above all if you live in the south. Dotterel, Corncrake, Red Kite, or especially, Lapland Bunting:

LaplandBuntingSteveArlow cccccc

He’s had them all in the past two weeks here. I’m still riddled with jealousy, all bitter and twisted at those people who can spend two or three weeks here at the best time of the birdwatching year, namely early October, when I have to be at work. It must have added a good thirty or forty species at the very least to their life lists, with no real difficulty and very little real effort. Perhaps an inflation rate of up to 25% or 30% of your life total. All there for you to tick off, knowing that they are birds unlikely to occur anywhere else in Britain.
I have not seen too many good birds on the Scillies, but I have met a good number of what you might call “characters”. It is, after all, “Teachers’ Week”, although I do find one teacher who has clocked up an exceptionally impressive 420 species without ever using the rather artificial aid of coming to these islands in the first two or three weeks of October. At the same time he has not lost his ability to be excited by a Red Kite or a Red-necked Grebe:

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There are some quite desperate twitchers who just hear the words “Paddyfield Warbler” and will then slit Granny’s throat for the bus fare. Some of them are very rude, unpleasant and downright boorish, including one young oaf who insists on shouting his requests for directions at you at the top of his fifteen year old voice, irrespective of how far away he is. His only interest is the extraction of any information you might have about the bird he is trying to see. I meet him once and say “Good Morning” and he says loudly, “Where? Is it showing well?”

One unemployed birdwatcher has worked out his cash supply down to literally the last fifty pence. For the last two days of his holiday (a holiday from being unemployed?),  he cannot afford accommodation, but has to walk around looking for nice warm bus shelters. The most notable of the whole lot, though, is an old gentleman who has bird watched all his life and who has seen some splendid ornithological sights in his time, particularly when birds of prey were more numerous than they are today. Honey Buzzards thronged his skies:

HoneyBuzzard xxxxxx

From his house on the north west coast of Wales, he would see a dozen migrating Merlin in a day. Now it is just one a month:

merli_juv_ ccc

He has little or no interest in twitching rare birds, many of which he has never heard of anyway. He has an outlook based solely on what he can find for himself. Not for him the new fangled Gore-Tex or plastic cagoules, but a pair of battered old boots, some comfortable corduroy trousers and a sports coat with leather elbow patches. His bird watching techniques are different to those of the present day as well. Not for him the patient wait for the bird to appear. He is deep in the bushes, energetically bashing around with his walking stick, determined to find everything that is in there, vainly trying to hide.
The real stars of the show though, are the people of the Isles of Scilly themselves. They are genuinely calm, kind and wonderful people and remind me a lot of the inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland. They will not be hurried and their entire lives are very different indeed to those of us city folk.

Certainly this week though, the birds are disappointing. I wish I’d stayed on the mainland and gone for whatever presented itself. There was every chance that I’d have seen the Indigo Bunting at Wells and a Lesser Yellowlegs at the Ouse Washes.

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On the other hand, I wouldn’t have had the total experience that I have had.



Filed under Cornwall, Personal, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

An insect with a billion friends

This story is an extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”.

These events all took place on Friday, October 28, 1988, which was the fourth day of my stay on the Isles of Scilly:

“A late lie-in this morning, with the Radde’s Warbler ticked off, and little else to get up for, certainly not at five o’clock in the morning:


I eagerly consume a splendid Scillonian breakfast made up of every conceivable Identified Frying Object, with the possible exception of haggis, although this could well be the single mysterious item which I cannot identify with absolute certainty. Then it’s a leisurely walk down to the Porthcressa Restaurant where the magic blackboard promises Melodious Warbler at the Garrison. With a bit of luck, I might see that, and then go over to St Agnes for the Short toed Lark. I walk up the horrendously steep slopes of the hill to the Garrison, and start looking…


Unsuccessful after a couple of hours, I return to Hugh Town, the Big City. I find that I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity facing me. It’s not a bird, but a flying creature just as rare as any of the birds which reach the Scillies. It’s a Locust. Only the fourth or fifth ever to be blown to these rocky isles. At the moment, it is being housed in an art gallery in a backstreet. I stroll over there and find that the insect is living happily in a vivarium on the counter. It is a truly splendid and beautiful creature, far better than any of the birds that I have seen on the Scillies, including the juvenile Rose-coloured Starling:

rc starling xxxxxxxxxx

I could even imagine this magnificent insect being used as a powerful argument for the existence of God, particularly in mediaeval times.  It is constructed so wonderfully skilfully that it becomes a classic example of the Celestial Watchmaker. It has one set of protective plates inside another, and then another beyond that. It looks like a knight in armour, but instead of being as dry as dust and rusty like something in an old stately home, this is a live being and it can move. It is a child’s clockwork toy that has the gift of life.

I am surprised by two things. Firstly, the creature’s colour, or rather colours, for it is at one and the same time, both yellow and pink and orange and sandy. I am shocked too by the size. I have never seen a Locust before, and it is absolutely huge. At least to a person like me who leaves the room when the zookeepers take the tarantula out of the glass case, or somebody who thinks that ladybirds are fierce.
The gentleman in the shop tells me that the creature was found on the local beach and was brought to his gallery so it could be drawn and photographed. He quite clearly and obviously is very attached to his six legged guest and seems to be well on the way to regarding it as his very own pet, or at the very least as an attraction to his gallery. Apparently, the British Museum have already contacted him and told him that he must kill it immediately, put it in a cardboard box, and send it to them in a parcel as a scientific specimen:

scan one zzzzzzz

I am totally appalled and disgusted by this news. I cannot find the words to capture my feelings. It seems somehow so repulsive to kill this beautiful innocent creature which has had to fight so hard for life. It has crossed the Atlantic in all probability, or has perhaps arrived here all the way from West Africa. Now it’s happily munching English grass, but soon it is supposed to die at the whim of some cold hearted scientist who has taken upon himself the right to dole out life or death. It seems to be taking such an advantage of an insect’s lack of awareness and essentially innocent existence.

The gallery owner, I feel, would rather not kill the insect, but keep it. I do try to tell him that in all probability it belongs to him, and that the British Museum have no legal right whatsoever to tell him to do what he does not want to do, and still less to actually make him do it.

Strangely, it seems to be to no purpose. The  gallery owner seems overawed by the demands of an organisation as apparently so powerful as the British Museum. And presumably, the locust will have to die. It is so sad that we should be given the chance to meet such an exotic and unusual member of God’s family, but should then lack the reasoning power to do anything more creative or imaginative than to kill it.
I would hope that I personally could do better than that, if put in the position of having to look after a stray innocent. At the very least though, I will remain the only person with a framed, but not autographed, picture of a locust above the fireplace…Even if it is only when my wife is out of the house.

Years and years later and I am sure that I read somewhere that the poor unfortunate locust was not  killed for the British Museum, but instead was allowed by its admiring owner to live out its life in its little vivarium on the counter of his gallery. Unfortunately, I have been unable to substantiate this, as I have long forgotten where I read the wonderful news. Locusts continue to reach the shores of our freezing wet little island, but only on very rare occasions. Certainly, there has been nothing like the situation in 1869 when whole swarms of Desert Locusts reached England, apparently from West Africa.

Cruel scientists still insist on killing creatures to prove what they are, and there was considerable outcry a few years ago, when a Californian ornithologist, I think it was, killed the first Arctic Redpoll ever to be found in that state. This, of course, is why Bigfoot keeps such a low profile for somebody who is nine or ten feet tall. He knows he exists, so why should he get himself killed just so that other people can?






Filed under Cornwall, History, Personal, Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

Marsh Warbler: here yesterday, gone today

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Wednesday, June 1, 1988

A quick trip out from my wife’s parents’ house this time. They live on the western edges of Birmingham, but I am off to see a speciality in a nearby area, namely Marsh Warbler. I find the site, next to a picturesque little humpback road bridge, and park the car. Then I set off along the riverbank, towards a brick railway bridge. Look for the orange arrows:

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As I walk along, there are Sedge Warblers, exploding indignantly at me from riverside clumps of vegetation.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx sedge

There are the odd few Reed Warblers, just to get me excited, but I am hopeful that Marsh Warbler will look completely different from its closely related congener.  It’s an unfamiliar and interesting landscape for me, with pollarded willows and soaking wet pastures, full of ferocious Friesian cattle, plotting to charge and trample me to death as soon as my back is turned. When I get to the railway bridge, there is already another birdwatcher looking for Marsh Warblers:

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After about ten minutes or so, a bird appears low down in the vegetation on the opposite bank of the slowly flowing river, just above the waterline. It looks good to me for Marsh Warbler, despite the fact that at no point does it actually sing. Its shade of brown has an appropriate grey tinge and its underparts are whiter than white with no hint of buff.

It has a smooth, flat head, without a crest of any kind. Its legs are a nice pale colour, as it reappears every ten minutes or so at roughly the same place. The bird is obviously doing a circuit around the nettles and the Rosebay Willow Herb, feeding as it goes. Perhaps it has just this minute arrived from Africa, and it’s getting its breath back before it bursts into its imitations of 93 different bird songs, and seven types of lorry reversing signals. Anyway, I agree with the other birdwatcher that this is a Marsh warbler. Then we both pack up and go home, plodding off down the riverside path. There aren’t any reasons to believe that the bird is not what it is supposed to be. Not a single feature contradicts Marsh Warbler as a verdict. Besides, most important of all, it’s exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Nowadays, the Marsh Warbler, as far as I know, no longer breeds in this exact area. There are, and there have been, various breeding records from Kent and Suffolk, among many others, but I no longer know of any reliable site for these birds. I know that I have definitely seen a Marsh Warbler, an individual that was seen by many, many others, who all agreed with the identification…alas! It was on the Isles of Scilly, in bracken in a rocky, overgrown field. Given the habitat and the time of year, there were many, many people who thought that it must be a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Indeed, there were those who wanted it to be God knows what sort of Warbler from beyond not just Lake Baikal, but Kamchatka itself.

The lone birdwatcher I met at Eckington was a young woman. She still remains the only young woman I have ever seen in a twitching situation. Older women will readily, even eagerly, go on coach trips with the RSPB or the Nottinghamshire Birdwatchers but young women have many and better things to do in my experience. Birdwatching has always  been equally short of ethnic minorities. I know now that they exist in British ornithology, but in my twitching days, I never saw a black birdwatcher. I only ever came across one young Asian man, as we all embarked on the Scillonian for one of the old Pelagics, a trip out into the South West Approaches to find Black-browed Albatross and Sea Serpent. But that, as they say, is another story.



Filed under Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

Excitement with a capital Egret

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Saturday, June 18, 1988

Excitement with a capital E. I ring faithful old Birdline, at two o’clock, and for once strike lucky. The pre-recorded message tells me that a Great White Egret is present at Rutland Water, on the Egleton Reserve. I ring Paul before jumping into the car and heading off at a rate of knots. Noble and honourable to the core. Except Paul isn’t there. I decide on a compromise, or, as you are entitled to call it, the coward’s way out. I’ve already promised my wife that I’ll take her to Sainsbury’s, so I spend the next half hour driving round the Ring Road at 90 miles per hour, doing a week’s shopping in a British Olympic qualifying time, and then returning to phone Paul just once more. Still no answer. Knowing him, he’s properly gone off with his mate Mark to see the bird without bothering to tell me. So into the car I jump, and off I go.


It takes me about three quarters of an hour to do the forty miles to Rutland Water, with an irritating delay in the Saturday shopping traffic at both Melton Mowbray and Oakham.

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When I get to the reserve, there is a heart stopping moment when I see that there are no cars in the reserve car park. Not to worry, the bird has just moved a short distance out of the reserve, towards the Hambleton Road. The warden on duty gives me a disconcertingly long set of immensely complex instructions to take me down to a crossroads, where the bird is still on view. In actual fact, his instructions prove to be wonderfully exact and easy to follow, and I am soon beside a crossroads, where there is an obvious crowd of birdwatchers, and a great tangle of carelessly parked and apparently abandoned cars.


I see the bird immediately from the car, before I even pull to a halt. It flies in an almighty arc, with that same translucent pearly white as the  Little Egret I saw at Frampton, only this time the bird is a lot bigger, the size of a Grey Heron.


When I finally arrive on foot at “The Place”, “The Bird” has landed on the very topmost branch of a tree, about seventy yards from the road. It is a very striking individual, looking absolutely enormous, perched in the very top twigs of what is not really a particularly large  tree. The bird appears to be extremely precariously balanced, but it seems happy enough. I get it in my telescope and watch it until boredom sets in. The bird is, by now, just very gradually beginning to get more and more restless, as a larger and larger crowd builds up, and the hum of human conversation gradually becomes louder and louder. It keeps looking around in an almost panicky sort of way, until it finally flies off low between the trees, looking for all the world as if it is going just a few hundred yards away.

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In actual fact, it isn’t, and the rare visitor is never seen again on the reserve.I drive around to the northern section of the reserve, where there are a lot of quiet places, all ideal habit for an egret. It isn’t there. I look for a good half hour, but finally have to admit defeat. It’s really sad how many birdwatchers arrive after the bird’s departure, some from as far away as Somerset. On the other hand, it is certainly arguable that it is the large number of noisy, chattering birdwatchers that have caused the bird to fly off.


Nowadays, some twenty five years later, the Great White Egret is by no means a rare bird in England.

They have bred here on at least two occasions, in 2012 and 2013, at Shapwick Heath, Nature England’s National Nature Reserve in Somerset.

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Every year, up to forty individuals will arrive in England in the winter, having left the colder climes of mainland Europe. The bird which remains still genuinely rare in England, though, is the American version of this bird, the Great Egret Ardea alba egretta (as opposed to the European Great White Egret Ardea alba alba). This subspecies is suspected as having occurred in the UK as a very rare vagrant on just a few occasions.



Filed under Nottingham, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature