Thursday, 22 November 2007

Grail birds

Last Monday, we (myself, editor Kevin Wilmot, deputy editor Mike Weedon and photographer Tom Bailey) spent the day putting together a feature for the January issue of Bird Watching, involving what’s known as the Big Sit. You’re not allowed to move from within a smallish circle (17 ft diameter, I think), and you see how many bird species you can spot in a set length of time. We tried it at three different locations, for an hour at each.
Some of the results were surprising (only two Grey Herons, no Collared Doves, no House Sparrows), and it certainly makes you approach your birding in a different way, putting a high emphasis on birdsong, for starters. We thought we did pretty well – 54 species in an hour at Eldernell, out on the Nene Washes; 40 at Woodwalton Fen Nature Reserve; and 43 at Ferry Meadows Country Park, on the outskirts of Peterborough.
The highlight, for me at least, came at Woodwalton, when a Bittern dropped into the reeds on the far side of the pool we were watching. It’s one of those grail birds for me – I’m sure I could have seen one before now by going to Minsmere or somewhere similar, but I always thought I’d rather see one in the course of my normal birding. They’re still very rare in the UK (and the dreadful summer we just had, plus the more recent floods, will have done nothing to help that), but when you finally do see one, they’re well worth the wait.
Over the last two days, I’ve been birding around the local patch. Yesterday there was a nice little group of Goosanders at Watermead Park, and a spectacular, noisy flock of around 10,000 Starlings at Cossington Meadows. Today, I dithered over whether to go out, and where to go, and finally dodged heavy showers to drop into Kelham Bridge, a small local reserve (it’s a former sewage works). I’d been there for 15 minutes, with nothing to see but a few Moorhens and Mallards, when a male Hen Harrier appeared and started quartering the reedbeds and grassland. They’re hugely impressive and utterly distinctive silver-grey birds, and I was able to watch it for about a quarter of an hour before it disappeared over the hill, although hopefully it might hang around for a few days.
But to get to the point, finally. That type of sighting is what makes me enjoy birding, because afterwards it always strikes you as a massive stroke of luck. One bird, making its way across the country, and a tiny window of opportunity to see it passing through your area. If I’d, say, stopped at the garage before birding, instead of after, I might have missed it. I might have not bothered at all, what with all that rain around. I might have been looking the other way as it made its entrance, and have remained in blissful ignorance as it floated around behind the hide.
Of course, if you’re a glass-half-empty type of birder, you probably spend your time thinking of all the birds you didn’t quite see, but that way lies madness.

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