In a previous article, I told the story of going down to Kent in a minibus in an effort to see rare birds, or, at the very least, some different species to those in Nottinghamshire. On the Friday, we saw a Glossy Ibis:
Saturday, October 15th, 1988.
“Next day sees us up at the crack of dawn, to look for the Mediterranean Gulls that are supposed to frequent nearby Copt Point. This is reputed to be a very good place for them, with up to 40 or 50 of them at the right time of year. It should be easy. Black-headed Gull bad:
We are out on the promenade at the first light of dawn, but we don’t succeed in finding any. We dofind a Yellow-legged Herring Gull. The clue is in the name:
There is a juvenile Kittiwake too:
Apart from these moderately interesting finds, we are totally unable to find our quarry.
This is not in actual fact totally surprising, because, as it emerges in conversation at breakfast, we were not even at the correct place.
I suppose in retrospect that the bay were looking at was not a great candidate to be called Copt Point, but as strangers we knew no better, and we were given no directions. We should have been about half a mile further north of where we were, so we all go there first thing after breakfast. I am a little embarrassed . I have never failed to find a major landmark before.
We spend half an hour here, and soon find the Mediterranean Gulls. There are about six of them, mostly in winter plumage, sitting out on the rocks near the sewage outlet, about 50 yards from the beach. There are hundreds, if not thousands of Black-headed Gulls, but the Mediterranean Gulls stand out quite well, with their more thickset appearance, and their all white wing tips. Black-headed Gull bad. Mediterranean Gull good:
They are still relatively boring though. This will not be the main bird for the day, thank goodness, because we have had a tremendously lucky break. After trying to convince everyone yesterday that it might be a good idea to drive to Dorset to see the Isabelline Shrike, we find out that a second bird has been found at Sandwich Bay, just a few miles up the road from where we are, and adjoining the famous golf course.
We scurry over there in the minibus, everybody greedily totting up another potential tick on their life list.
Everybody is so excited . Isabelline Shrike will be a tick for everybody. There is a Richard’s Pipit there too, which will be another tick for me and a good few others:
There is a Yellow-browed Warbler, which will be a third tick for quite a few people. Everything looks good:
As we arrive, we see a crowd looking very intently indeed at a closely cropped meadow, just the place for a Richard’s Pipit.
We rush past them all, after checking with someone that the pipit is still there.
This is a major mistake, but we are all overwhelmed by the desire to go off and see the Isabelline Shrike, which is a much rarer bird. It is quite a walk, just the distance to get the adrenaline flowing.
When we arrive, there’s quite a crowd, all standing on the opposite side of the railway track, looking back into the overgrown hedge which runs alongside the rails. Suddenly a train arrives and the great whooshing noise as it goes past persuades the shrike to move out of the foliage and to perch out in the open:
It is a rather bland bird, completely buffy brown, with the beginnings of a hooked beak, and the most obvious feature of all, a fairly bright red tail. It is clearly nothing like a Red-backed shrike, and I can understand why the two new species have been split from the one old one.
Now we go back for the Richard’s Pipit, only to find that the people there were all looking at what was in fact a Common Redstart, not a particularly rare species at a migration spot like this:
Nevertheless, we give it an hour or so for the pipit, looking around the neighbouring fields where the warden says that the bird has been seen over the past few days. No luck, I’m afraid. Now the day just degenerates into rumour and counter rumour. We hear that Trumpeter Finch has been seen and heard flying over, but we dismiss that out of hand:
Little do we know that we are just a couple of hours from the discovery of what, at the time, was a very rare bird indeed.
Nowadays, almost thirty years later, Isabelline Shrike has been split into three different species. One is called Turkestan Shrike, the second is Daurian Shrike and the third is Chinese Shrike. The bird we saw at Sandwich was one of the most frequently encountered types in England at the time, and I think nowadays, it would have been listed as a Daurian Shrike. I used to get very hot under the collar about things like that when I was younger. But now, I realise that it’s just somebody who wants a couple more ticks than they would have got in 1988.