(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
Sunday, July 31, 1988
This Sunday, Ken is planning to go out somewhere, out there into the universe, to look for a decent bird (the story of his life actually). I get onto Paul, and between us we persuade him to go for the Greater Sand Plover in Cumbria, at a nature reserve on the Isle of Walney. It’s about 8,000 miles from Nottingham, but not too far for Ken and his Ford Escort XYZ 3i with Turbo intercooling and reheat.
Ken takes the concept of distance as a personal challenge. He occasionally gets under 70 miles an hour, and if the car’s on four wheels, he’s parked it. I’ve never even dared to tell him the type of car that I drive, GUR 25N, a bright orange Volvo 240 that weighs approximately the same as a canal barge.
To our great surprise, Ken agrees to go for this bird. He isn’t usually into twitching, since he dislikes crowds, (he has been a keen Notts County fan for years), and he much prefers a quiet stroll around North Norfolk, in the hope of finding his own birds.
First of all, we scorch to a pool in northern Lancashire, where a Grey Phalarope has been present for the last few days. It’s there when we arrive, but I am surprised how different it is to the individual I recently saw at Datchet Reservoir near London. It’s very active, flitting around the lake, and very loathe to come too close inshore. There are one or two birdwatchers there, but not very many. It makes me wonder where all the locals are. Do they know something we don’t?
We leave the M6 and strike west towards Walney, passing our first patches of winter snow, and the odd few ragged beggars at the side of the A590. Just before we arrive at the Isle of Walney, we have to travel through Barrow in Furness, a really remarkable town. Most of it appears to be a single solitary shipyard, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of grey terraced houses, all clustered around the dock cranes for safety. Why is there nobody up there filming adverts,? Or those half hour documentaries that they put on after “The Bill”? Perhaps because overall, it is a grim, grim place, although nowhere near as bad as some of the localities I am yet destined to visit.
The Isle of Walney itself is a peculiar place, a bit like a grassy, tussocky version of Spurn Head. It has an infinitely worse road, though, but those years of training at Minsmere and Holme finally pay off. Unfortunately, we are not able to locate the appropriate turnoff for the bird itself.
The tiny dirt track is supposed to be on the right, near the village rubbish dump, but we eventually have to go to the very end of the “road”, having fought our way past the thousands upon thousands of rather large seagulls that sit lugubriously around, all waiting for a piece of carrion to fall out of the sky at their feet. It reminds me very strongly indeed of the ending of “The Birds”, that well-known RSPB / Alfred Hitchcock co-production.
The warden is tremendously friendly. We are the first people he has seen in four years. He explains that he has put up a sign at the side of the road, indicating the correct path to take. It’s not his fault that it’s fallen over. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, because we eventually do make it to the right bit of seashore. There is only one birdwatcher there, a local who says that the Sand Plover isn’t there, but not to despair, since it will be somewhere around, just waiting for us to refind it. And sure enough, one person, in the slowly growing knot of birdwatchers, does in fact refind it, after a delay of some twenty minutes or so. It’s with a largish group of Ring Plovers, and is a very distinctive pale brown. It’s extremely fluffy looking for some reason, and lacks the sharp black-and-white contrasts of its temporary colleagues. Indeed the Sand Plover is well capable of disappearing into the shingle very easily. It’s exceptionally well camouflaged, and tends to be obvious only after it has moved.
The bird has, of course, been the subject of some pretty intense discussion about whether it is perhaps a Lesser Sand Plover and therefore a potential first for Britain. I’m only too happy to accept the views of the experts on this one, but nevertheless, our bird here does seem to have what seems to me a very small bill. Unless, of course, a Lesser Sand Plover has an extremely teeny-weeny-weeny-teeny bill, just like a pimple on the front of its head.
This lovely film was taken by Terence Ang in the Sand Plover’s usual habitat, in Hong Kong.
Having got over the excitement of seeing the bird, there is not a lot to keep us here. The day is bright, but the wind is strong, and rather gusty, and there are very few passing seabirds to look at. Locals say that sea watching here is generally very poor, and the only thing of interest that I can see are the tops of several obviously gigantic factory chimneys, just over the horizon to the North West. I never do find out what they are… Southern Scotland, the Isle of Man, or even Ireland. I don’t have a clue, and neither do any of the people I meet. I get the impression that I’m the first person who has ever noticed them. Perhaps they are an illusion… Some kind of mirage, reflected from the eastern United States… Perhaps they are a hologram of Three Mile Island, being transmitted as part of the twinning process with Windscale. (or is that Seascale?)
On our way back, we call in at Leighton Moss in Lancashire.
I am obsessed with the desire to see a Bittern.
No luck, of course. Although this is the furthest north that Bitterns breed, and is, in actual fact, one of its strongholds, I don’t manage to see one. Apparently, the water levels are too high, and have forced them back into the reeds. What we do see however, are three juvenile Marsh Harriers, because this year the birds have bred, and have produced five young. It is particularly nice to see them in a new breeding area. It gives you a nice warm feeling inside to see a place where rare birds are on the increase rather than disappearing for ever.
That apart, I find Leighton Moss to be a somewhat boring place. There seem to be very few birds about, and if anything, the birdwatchers may actually outnumber them. The old out-of-date Annual Reports that they are selling off in the reserve shop are right little scorchers too.