This article first appeared in the December 2021 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
I’m not a twitcher but… it would have been churlish not to go take a look at the Desert Wheatear when it pitched up a mile from home. After all, I hadn’t seen one in the UK for well over a decade, and a friend had texted me to say I could see it without even getting out of the car – it was showing well on the edge of a carpark. I made the effort only to find it had hopped across the cabbage field to snuggle down amidst the warming aromas of the sewage pumping station. Not to be denied I made haste to the waste water facility, fearing it had fled. I need not have worried, the bird performed for me and hung around until every local birder had got their fill.
A few days later I was patiently (not) waiting outside a well-known discount clothing store while my wife shopped for winter pyjamas. My phone alerted me to what would be a ‘world lifer’ a few miles away. Having only a couple of weeks back set up this particular mailing group, it would have been equally churlish to ignore that message. More to the point, this particular birdie was one I have dipped out on more often than Just Eat has delivered cold burgers to me. The chap is a notorious skulker (the bird not the delivery man). Most that have been local to me have been deep in hedges, well off piste, and further from parking than my creaky old knees can carry me.
I’ve lost count of the number of times, I’ve stood with others staring into knotted bramble and wind-swept hawthorns until dusk has robbed me of any chance of connecting with the hidden gem.
I tapped the dashboard willing my wife not to linger over lingerie or waste precious birding time haggling over winter warming winceyette. By the time she slid into the navigator’s chair I had the engine running and the car in gear (‘drive’ that is, having gone automatic as well as electric). Maybe it was the way that I whimpered that made her agree to a shopping hiatus while we twitched.
Ensuring I was always well within the speed limit (honest) we sped to the waiting hedge. Except it was worse than a thicket, it was a weedy ditch and the rarity finder had gone leaving me to search alone.
I had a clear picture in my head of a Radde’s Warbler and raced across the weeds as fast as you can with two walking sticks and the acrobatic balancing skills of a drunken centenarian. By the time I reached the ditch my knee creaking had gone up in volume and pitch. Helpfully, the public right of way was designed for Olympian goats, narrow, winding and more levels than a princess’s wedding cake. Nowt. Nadda. Zippo!
I struggled in the opposite direction to my original foray, because it looked like a safer route back to the car. Where the ditch was clogged with wild tamarisk and bramble I halted to catch what was left of my breath and heard an unfamiliar call. Rooted to the spot I scanned the undergrowth. A bird moved. I raised my bins and it flew out of sight into the densest brushwood. Despite hanging around long enough for the wind to ice up my bins all I ever heard was the odd snatch of an unrecognisable tune. Later, playing a Radde’s call, it could have been what I heard.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Oh Lord, I guess I dipped again!