Friday, 15 May 2009

Highs and lows

On Wednesday, the gravel pits and reservoirs of central England seemed to be swarming with Black Terns, with the odd Little Tern thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, commitments of a cricketing nature meant I couldn't get out to look for any of them (one consolation is that our ground is playing host to a Cuckoo this year).

Instead, I got up absurdly early yesterday morning, but was foiled again by mist and fog that made seeing anything difficult. So, on the way home from work yesterday, I tried again, first calling in at some of my regular sites, then working my way along the Trent Valley.

No luck at Trent Valley Pits, although there were huge numbers of Swallows skimming the water, and it was the same story at Aston Gravel Pits, where you have to stand on a concrete block just outside the main entrance, ignore the traffic whizzing past on the A50 just behind you, and crane your neck to see as much of the pits as you can.

Crane your neck. It's playing on my mind, you see. Because when I got to my final stop, Willington Gravel Pits, I met two birders walking down the lane. When I asked them if there was much about, one replied: "Nah, nothing much. We must have just missed the Cranes."

Missed the Cranes!!!!! What Cranes? Well, apparently two had been seen at around 5pm, but it was now 7.30 and they were seemingly long gone.

At this point, I was in two minds as to whether to go home. It had got incredibly dark, and there was a fine, misty rain falling. Cold, too. May isn't supposed to be like this. It's supposed to be all balmy evenings, sitting round with a cold beer, perhaps after watching a lot of obliging migrants dropping into your local site.

I carried on anyway. On the main reserve, there were masses of Black-headed Gulls, a few Common Terns, the usual mixture of ducks, and a sprinkling of Lapwings, Redshanks and Oystercatchers, all looking to settle down to roost for the night, and bickering over the best spots. A little flock of 10 Dunlin flew round and round, just above the water, jinking this way and that at high speed, and occasionally looking to land on one of the gravel spits. They'd come in, lower their legs in anticipation of landing, then pull out at the last moment in reaction to the agitation of the gulls. Finally, they found a quieter spot over near the Redshanks, and that was that.

I walked over to the Canal Pit, and just as I reached it, the clouds cleared slightly, the rain stopped, and the light improved significantly. You're forced to view the birds at a fair old distance, though, so it was quite a challenge picking out anything on the muddy shores, even if the hirundines were a bit more obvious over the actual water.

After about 10 minutes scanning, though, I was able to find three Black-tailed Godwits feeding enthusiastically in one little bay, and nearby was a Wood Sandpiper. Both good local ticks, especially as I've kept missing the occasional godwits that drop in from time to time.

These are one of my favourite waders - very elegant, despite the fact that their long legs and very long bill really ought to make them look a little absurd. The name, if my memory of the Readers Digest Book Of Birds (a much underrated volume) serves me correctly, comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'god wiht', meaning good thing. Meaning good thing on a plate with some veg and gravy, specifically. In fact, they were considered a delicacy until quite recently, and they're still hunted in France, despite the fact that the Western European population is under considerable pressure.

As I was getting back to the car, four Black-tailed Godwits were flying overhead, probably a different group altogether, with their white wing bars showing up well in the fading light.

Later, at home, I was having a read of The Salt Companion To Lee Harwood. One of the essays (I can't remember whose) was talking about Harwood's interest in nature, and quoted him talking about the pleasure he gets from being able to name plants, birds and so on. On the face of it, that sounds like the rage for order that is usually blamed for the British male's passion for spotting and/or collecting things. But in Harwood's poetry, what also comes through, I think, is a constant desire to reassure one's self that the world really is as various, to use Louis MacNeice's phrase, as we hope it is.

Anyway, much more on Harwood very soon. And coming this weekend, reviews of Andrew Philip's The Ambulance Box and Rob Mackenzie's The Opposite Of Cabbage.

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