Window on the World
This article appeared in the November 2011 edition of Birdwatch
Birding is a lot like shingles – a virus that once its got hold of you never lets go – despite long periods of remission it can break out again totally unexpectedly – particularly when you are run down.
I caught the birding bug early, probably infected when my dad took me to a lake to fish and would sit beside me quietly identifying the wildlife around us. A water vole would ply back and forth between its bank-side home and food source; reed warblers would weave their feather-light nests on a few reed stems and a wood mouse would creep between our feet eating the bread we kept as bait.
Once one panicked when inside the paper bag it was raiding and we were treated to the amusement of a jumping bag until we released it back to forage anew. More than half a century has passed since I saw a cuckoo predate a reed warbler and I’ve not seen it happen since. Over several weeks we fished the same peg and watched the young cuckoo turf out its step-siblings and later overflow the nest and dwarf its step parents. Spotted Flycatchers would always spend summer evenings looping out and back from a stag-horn limb on a waterside oak. Turtle Doves purred, Woodpigeons cooed and occasionally the tranquility would be broken by the sudden shriek of a Moorhen scared of its own reflection. Now, whenever I hear a Wood Pigeon calling I think of warm summer evenings by a tench-filled lake and my minds ear hears the carp sucking snails eggs from the undersides of lily pads.
Crossing the overgrown fields bordering the hidden lake we would put up tinkling charms of goldfinches from the thistle heads. Our arrival at the bank would be accompanied by the plash of the Moorhen hitting the shallows and its white scut scuttling into the reeds.
Being fair-weather fishermen, our season started with resident breeding birds getting going before the migrants arrived. It lasted through Swallows and Martins parenting, then gathering to desert us again. Then, right around the time when one jumper wasn’t enough to see you through an angling session, and when Siskins and Redpolls arrived at the lake to nibble the birch bracts, we knew it was time to hang up the rods until next spring.
The foregoing was mere chickenpox, my first real bout of birding shingles was later when I saw my first Marsh Harriers and Avocets, nesting Red-backed Shrikes and booming Bitterns at Minsmere. These were birds previously confined to our kitchen cutlery drawer – where the Brook Bond tea packets were thrown until we took off the divvy stamps and retrieved the ‘cigarette cards’ from between the packets layers. Among the collection of 50 ‘British Birds’ were familiar Robins, Chaffinches and Blue Tits, but also impossible dreams like Avocet and Orioles.
Scrambling up an embankment to view mudflats near Walberswick, Suffolk I ticked my very first Godwits and on an outing the Chew, Somerset we lucked upon a real birder’s bird – Temminck’s Stint (belated thanks to the unknown birder who let us look through his brass telescope).
The thing about shingles is that it’s recurrent… like the birding bug it binds to your nerve endings, erupting whenever you’re stressed.
Stress has been in great evidence around ‘Chez Grumpy’ over the last several months. Unable to accommodate our children’s expanding broods, left us two choices, move or extend… we thought we took the less stressful route so now our bungalow has another storey. 11 weeks clad in scaffolding with intermittent water, a cast of 23 builders, plumbers, electricians et al later we emerged into the late summer sunshine mildly insane and looking like addled addicts. Repairing our bijoux garden to give succour to the abandoned birds took several weeks and over inflamed my already rocky arthritic joints.
So here I sit, albeit with a better view from my second floor study window, riddled with the birding bug, but temporarily incapable walking or driving. Our tally of Autumnal migrants comes to, let me count the list… one! An Osprey flew over the house followed by a scrambled squadron of herring gulls. Last week’s two late Swifts that dashed by with a handful of Swallows, our regular Sparrowhawk and some noisy Parakeets is all I can boast.
Meanwhile, for those of you sensible enough to spend the kids inheritance, rather than chucking it down a hole marked ‘loft conversion’, gale-force westerly winds brought the biggest ever influx of Buff-breasted Sandpipers and swept Skuas and Shearwaters by my normal sea-watching spot just a couple of impossible miles away. I just hope you can all live with yourselves!