I am on a weekend minibus trip to Kent in an effort to see rare birds which have been blown off course on their migration. So far we have managed to see a Glossy Ibis and an Isabelline Shrike.
Sunday, October 16th, 1988.
There is still no Richard’s Pipit, so as a total last resort, we start looking around for our own birds. As a strategy, it is totally ludicrous. We find a male Brambling on some recently ploughed fields:
Then we meet one of the wardens who is wandering around looking for all the world like a refugee from Woodstock. He asks says if we’d like to see something really impressive. I personally don’t want to go into the bushes with him, but everybody else does. It turns out to be a second male Brambling that he has just caught in the nets, and to be fair, it is a very beautiful bird indeed, in far better plumage than any other Brambling that I have ever seen:
We spend half an hour in some other bushes looking in vain for a Firecrest, the smallest bird normally encountered in the wild in England. It is a very rare bird in our own county of Nottinghamshire:
We are just beginning to lose interest when suddenly someone runs up and shouts that there is an Olive-backed Pipit at the Observatory. It has been caught in their nets within the last half hour and has been taken inside the building to be weighed, measured, and then ticked off. The wardens have promised to keep the bird in a nice comfortable bag until everyone has got there to see it released.
Nevertheless, I just have to run. I might be fat, but when I have to move I can. It’s a little bit
like a hippopotamus on its way to the water hole, not elegant but very effective, at least up to a range of 100 yards or so. I just manage to avoid a heart attack, by jogging the last bit fairly sedately:
There is a good crowd of people there already. I go into the office to watch the bird being weighed and measured. All I manage to see through the crowd of people, though, is the back of the bird’s head, emerging incongruously between two of the fingers of the warden holding it. Does that qualify for a tick?
It’s a bit like saying you’ve seen Bruce Willis just by seeing the top of his bald head in the middle of a crowd of security men.
I do know somebody who actually ticked Golden Oriole based only on the top of the bird’s head visible over the edge of the domed nest, emerging only as the wind rocked the whole precarious structure:
Surely this, though, is unique in its desperation. Let’s hope so. A real Golden Oriole is a bird well worth seeing in its entirety:
After a token ten minutes’ delay, the warden brings the Olive-backed Pipit onto the area of grass in front of his office, removes it from the bag, and holds it up to the fully assembled multitude to look at and photograph.
Not a particularly spectacular bird, even if it is a very rare one. It’s a lot drabber than I imagined and doesn’t as far as I am concerned, have a lot of olive on the back. It’s a rich rather brown colour, with heavy streaking and spotting underneath:
Unfortunately, I forget that there is an important black spot behind the eye which is a diagnostic feature and which I should be looking for. Never mind. It can’t be that obvious anyway, or else I would have noticed it.
Certainly, in the subsequent photographs of the bird that I buy, this feature is not outstanding by any stretch of the imagination:
After ten minutes or so of being paraded around like a sporting trophy, the pipit is taken to a nearby field and released. It disappears into the adjacent wood like a bullet from a gun. It seems pleased to exchange its fifteen minutes of fame for the chance to get back to the serious business of looking for insects on the floor of the forest.
Nowadays, Olive-backed Pipit is not really a very rare bird in England. A couple of years or so after this, I managed to see a much more obliging bird, in the woods near the beach at Holkham in north Norfolk. This individual had never seen human beings before, and, if you stood absolutely still, was happy to approach you very closely. Indeed, as I leaned against a handy tree, it actually came so near to my feet that my binoculars would not focus on it.