This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine April 2018
They say that the only things certain in life are death and taxes, so why do we birders naively rely on ‘bankers’ when taking part in bird races or building our year lists?
True many species are tied to particular habitats and migrating birds use age-old routes and convenient stopovers. Winter swans use ponds to rest up or feed, en route to favoured breeding areas or wintering sites. So, dyed-in the-feathers are they that when ponds get filled in many birds fail to get to where they need to be, relying on what really ought to be reliable.
Having flown hundreds of miles across oceans, deserts and mountains they are desperate to re-fuel and the first landfall or oasis fits and fills the bill. Us birders (and unfortunately some hunters) know the routes, timings and weather so lay in wait.
In migration times, we hope that our local oasis will get lucky and watch the weather to see whether birds will fall, or fly on to our neighbours’ patch instead.
In summer, we learn where the birds will nest and visit a favoured warbler wood or perfect Stone Curlew field.
In winter, we find the lakes that don’t freeze for smew or grebes, and the lesser walked shores for larks and buntings. We know that counties with mild climates draw birds from the near continent to feed on estuarine banks or roost in reedbeds.
These days I am a modest birder with goalposts set really wide. I might twitch a world lifer in my county, but that’s as far as it goes. I stick to the one county most of the birding year, mostly birding within a fifteen-mile radius of home, only occasionally going further afield or overseas. I now keep just four ‘lists’; world, UK, UK year list and county.
I have no immutable, self-imposed rules, but enjoy seeing a variety of birds so do kick off my birding year with visits to sites holding special, often seasonal, birds. Some get exciting vagrants, but I visit for the ‘reliable’ scarce birds. In a word ‘bankers’.
But, even banks, once thought to be bastions of steadfast stability are a thing of the past. In the last couple of decades institutions with centuries of solid performance have gone the way of the Dodo. Banks which served their customers’ needs for generations turned into avaricious leaches sucking their customers dry in search of quick profits.
All the above may seem perfectly reasonable and hardly warrant a moan from me let alone a rant… but my year list did not get going in the way I stupidly assumed it would.
The January and the beginning of February did not have the best weather for long-haul outings, so we stuck to the local just picking up whatever we could. Purple Sandpipers are a given less than a mile from home. Every year I spend half an hour searching the seaweed-clad rocks and see three or four of these subtle skulkers. The rocks were covered in sea whenever I visited apart from the times I tried to wedge myself between the car and a beach hut for fear of blowing away in 50 MPH winds gusting to the ridiculous!
The first fine day we went for several bankers at a site always good for Avocet and owls and a long staying yankee or two. Not only were there none of the above, but the water levels were too high to tick a Dunlin and even the mundane Canada Goose flock had done a flyer. Seems these bankers are about as reliable as the city types!