Bee-eaters over the Jacuzzi
This article first appeared in Birds Illustrated
Several weeks ago I was lounging in a Jacuzzi, cold beer in hand, staring into a cloudless sky watching hawking bee-eaters. Each ‘chup’ announced another colourful acrobat joining the throng. The distant ‘oo oo’ of a hoopoe and the fluting whistles of golden orioles echoed across the valley separating our villa from the edge of a small town. Later, lying on the roof terrace with a novel in my hand I realized that I had re-read the same page five times, distracted by booted eagles, and swarms of swifts vacuuming up aerial plankton; the sun soaked bums of passing serins and the gleaming spotless starlings. In the evening I sat among cork oaks listening to a distant eagle owl call from the cliffs instead of being hunched over the computer screen, chased into my study and the arms of the Eagles last album by the opening bars of the Eastenders theme tune. If I turned too prune-like in the bubbling water and chose to laze in the garden instead, the novel remained un-read as a family group of Sardinian warblers worked along a tiny hedgerow three feet from my toes, oblivious to my presence. I struggled to identify warbling songs among the eucalyptus trees or the heart of shrubs, Orphean maybe, or perhaps melodious – my tin ear got a real testing.
The stunned silence from my mythical readers is becoming palpable… I can hear their brain cogs churrrr like demented nightjars trying to see how even the most curmudgeonly cove can complain about such avian ambrosia.
Well, I assume you mean apart from the fact that I am no longer among the wildflowers of an Andalucian Spring nor serenaded by suburban birds that in the UK would be considered glittering prizes.
Two things have the bile rising like sap on a sunny April morning.
On my return from this necessary total relaxation, where my only worries were sunburn, indigestion and whether I had enough pulp Science Fiction with me to last the week, the very first email I opened related the scores of my friends and rivals in the birding world. [Sue, Andy, Brian and I agreed to share our year lists a few seasons ago. What began as mere information exchange has succumbed to competitive urges. Having hung up my ‘twitching’ boots many years ago I confine myself to birding in my home county – they are happy to confine themselves to the entire country and its territorial waters! This not only means that I lose every year… but if I miss a good bird within my normal ‘can I be bothered to chase a rarity’ range, it is unlikely to turn up again for 12 months]. For some reason the one week in May I chose to be out of town was the same week when every continental bird not flying over my Spanish Jacuzzi was hovering over my house or at least within a 20 minute drive of it! More bee-eaters turned up there than I saw in Spain… hoopoes and alpine swifts, orioles and ospreys abounded.
If there is a right place to be at a right time you can bet your last lifer that I will be 800 miles away!
This propensity is not confined to my holiday choices but the everyday too. If I get up at silly o’clock and sit for hours at my local reserve you can guarantee that this is the day all the migrants get up late and pour through half an hour after I’ve gone home for lunch. If I work first and play later I arrive at the hide to choruses of ‘you should have been here an hour ago, boy have you missed some rarities’. If I hear of an unusual bird and drop everything to pursue it, it stays until three minutes before I turn up, but if I assume it will pass through fast it sits on a log for five days choosing only to fly off if I decide to sneak a visit.
The other wasp in my holiday honey was that birds were thriving in throngs where urban sprawl and inattention abounded, but my chemically farmed corner of ‘the garden of England’ it is a case of acres to the bird not birds to the acre! Man’s greed for surplus and subsidy has turned a time and in a place that should be rich and bountiful for birds and bees, into a sterile patchwork of production units and high yield hectares.