To his neighbours, this individual always used to be regarded, quite simply, as “next-door’s cat”.
We did not know that he was a deeply placed secret agent. Fifteen years ago, he was an inhabitant of London, the abandoned offspring of unknown feral parents. He was saved by his present owner who took him in as a very tiny kitten and fed him milk through a pipette hour after hour, day and night, until he was big enough to feed himself. And she continues to feed him generously, every day, and he sleeps in her house every night. He is, we all presume, her cat.
Occasionally, when her little boy gets a bit boisterous, and feels like a good chase game, the cat, who rejoices in the name of Ying Yang, will come over to our house for a few hours. His favourite occupation is lying on the very same wooden bench which used to be in the garden of my parents’ house, and on which their own cat, Sam, loved to sun herself.
Imagine my wife’s amazement, though, when she went up the Avenue to check arrangements with our neighbours about where our visiting builders’ van might park. Not only was Ying Yang there, but he had his very own food bowl. The neighbour sincerely believed that he had taken in a stray cat, which now belonged to him, because he fed it copiously on a regular basis. He did not know where his cat went to at night, but that didn’t matter because lots of male cats like to wander around during the darkness hours and then return in the morning.
The most amazing thing, though, was that Ying Yang himself quite clearly recognised my wife, but pretended not to. He ignored her totally. That may sound a little anthropomorphic, but she is absolutely certain that that is what he was doing.
You can imagine how pleased his real owner was when she heard of Ying Yang’s secret life, as somebody else’s cat.
The amazing thing, though, was that even on a minimum of at least twice the meals he should be getting each day, he doesn’t really seem ever to put on too much weight. That makes me feel very jealous indeed!
How many cats do this? How many spend part of the day and the night with one owner, and the rest of the time with what we must consider the victim of a very slick confidence trickster?
(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I used to be a “twitcher”, the sort of birdwatcher who might travel hundreds of miles to see a species which is rare in whichever country he lives. A hardcore British twitcher, therefore, would travel vast distances without any hesitation to see a Common Grackle or a Red-bellied Woodpecker in Great Britain.
An American twitcher would react equally strongly to news of a Northern Lapwing or a Eurasian Siskin in his own country.
Twenty five years ago, I kept a diary of where I went in search of unusual birds. So, on Sunday, August 21st 1988, I know exactly where I was, and what I was doing…
“A minibus trip to North Norfolk this time.”
“Not a lot on Birdline to chase, but one half decent bird is a Ruddy Shelduck.”
Here’s a short, but lovely, film taken by “paulboyish”
“This beautifully plumaged waterbird will be, hopefully, still at Lynn Point, just a few miles north of north of King’s Lynn.”
“I try to persuade the minibus driver to hotfoot it out there straightaway but he’s very reluctant. He thinks the bird must be one of those from a zoo that you can never hope to count, one of those wonderfully colourful birds that is almost by definition an escape. Something along the lines of Golden Pheasant, Mandarin or Carolina Wood Duck. Or Red-breasted Goose.”
“O Ye of Little Faith. The mood of the passengers is one of optimistic keenness to go and see a new bird. When the minibus driver poses the hoary old question of how many people would actually like to go and see the Ruddy Shelduck, in an effort to prove once and for all that there will not be enough to fill a minibus, and therefore, we ought not to bother going, his effort at token democracy turns out all wrong. Absolutely everybody wants to go to Lynn Point to see this stunning bird, no matter how dubious the tick might be.”
“I navigate for the first bus, and Alan navigates for the second. We have a short diversion around the docks at Fisher Fleet, which was the scene of my first ever Mediterranean Gull, only a year or so previously, watched at close range as it fed from the wagons full of steaming hot shellfish waste which emerged at regular intervals from the factory.”
“We eventually find the mud-bath that rejoices in the flattering title of car park and set off along the seawall, out towards Lynn Point. It is throwing it down with heavy rain, and I begin to get very nervous indeed at the mood of the other birdwatchers, as we gradually get wetter and wetter. They seem to walk terribly slowly and not at all to like the idea of leaving the car-park. One woman actually says within earshot, “We’re a very, very long way from the bus.”, obviously racked with terror at the prospect being any distance whatsoever from her preferred method of vehicular transport. I begin to understand what Moses must have felt like.”
“Things are not helped one little bit by having to make a gigantic detour inland to the concrete bridge which allows you to cross one of the many enormous drainage ditches that are met with so frequently in this sodden landscape.
To be honest, it isn’t pleasant marching into driving rain, but on the other hand, for a new bird it’s obviously worth it. Suddenly catastrophe strikes. We are faced with a bright green electrified fence that the farmer has erected across the path. We all stand there like a flock of lost sheep, milling around, not knowing what to do. Several people wring their hands and talk seriously of turning back. No chance. In for a penny, in for a pound. With a loud cry of “Twenty years in an SAS Suicide Squad taught me this one”, I step over the fence, followed by Alan, and then, with his trousers at their usual go-faster low-slung crutch height, Paul. The fun really starts when Paul’s wife makes the attempt to get over the fence, and gets electrocuted. Not badly, but just enough to make her squeal loudly with surprise. It’s all Alan’s fault of course. As always, it’s the husband who gets the blame. We all want to dissolve into unsympathetic howls of laughter, mostly at Alan’s attempts to smooth things over, but none of us dare.”
“Off we go again, into the hurricane and the sleet and the slight rain of volcanic ash and the radioactive nuclear fallout that has just started to come down. Eventually, we decide to walk to a certain spot in the distance, stop there and then take a good look around the saltings. If there is no Ruddy Shelduck on view, we will all come back and not pursue the quest any further. We do this, and, sure enough, Alan, who has a wonderful talent for finding specific targets, locates the Ruddy Shelduck within less than thirty seconds. It’s with a flock of twenty or so ordinary shelducks, swimming about thirty yards off shore, slowly making its way towards the opposite side of the estuary, then finally reaching the muddy bank and striding ashore. It’s at fairly long range, but would seem to me to be a female. A prime candidate for genuine vagrancy I would say, particularly as it’s in the correct part of Britain, at the right time of year, with exactly the required winds, namely, gentle warm south easterlies. Indeed, Paul reckons that there are several other birds from roughly the same part of Europe and the Middle East, present in Britain at the same time.”
“On the other hand, we are also in exactly the right place for one of the Dutch feral population to have made landfall across the North Sea. King’s Lynn may not be exactly Amsterdam, but it’s not that different for a Ruddy Shelduck in a storm. Soooo… overall, it’s not a complete tick, well, only if you’re either unscrupulous or plain desperate. Still, at least, it’s a moral victory.”
This short film is by Peiselkopp
“On the Long March back, we see a Marsh Harrier, and we are treated to one of Kevin’s by now legendary live commentaries on the bird’s progress, delivered in his fantastic foghorn of a voice. He sounds like a reversing bus….MARSH HARRIER… MARSH HARRIER… MARSH HARRIER… OVER THE BANK… BEHIND THE TREES… MARSH HARRIER… MARSH HARRIER… FLYING AWAY… IT’S FLYING AWAY…IT’S NEARLY GONE… IT’S REALLY GOING NOOOOOW… IT’S GONE”
This lovely film is by Thomas Harris
and this one, equally atmospheric, is by John Watson, and was taken on the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia.
“Nobody on any of the three shores of the Wash could have been in any doubt whatsoever about what was happening at that stage in the development of Kevin’s universe.
As we cross the huge dyke, a couple of waders fly up, and whirr off along the edge of the water.”
“Closer inspection reveals them to be Wood Sandpipers, two very decent birds indeed to see almost as an afterthought. Indeed, I can’t remember ever finding a completely wild Wood Sandpiper for myself before. All the others were plastic dummies carefully placed by the Warden out on the marshes at Cley-next-the-Sea to attract middle aged visitors.”