The Carrier Bag flew off over the Orchard
This article first appeared in Birds Illustrated
I am writing this in my study with the window open wide and the fan full on wafting warm air over my ample and over exposed flesh – just shorts between me and embarrassment. I mention this not to titillate those of you whose imagination might create a much more attractive picture than reality does, but to let you know that the weather is quite sufficient to raise the temperature of my blood. Of course, by the time this is in print I will be shivering behind four layers of fleece trying to ID a passing seabird or tell if that dark object bobbing on the tide is a lump of tar or a Common Scoter. Nevertheless, I will still look back and recall the many cases of mistaken identity during my birding trips, with blushes and outright ire.
Its not so much the mistakes themselves, we all make them and my shoulders are broad enough to carry a red face, as what causes them… litter! Nothing can be more crass and ignorant than the wonton despoilation of the countryside with the detritus of our polluted era. Plastic which has a half-life longer than strontium 90, jostles for attention with drink cans and fast food wrappers amidst a sea of cigarette butts and dog muck [I’ll save that delicacy for another day!].
Its not just at home – on a trip to Mexico, travelling a quiet road miles from a village we pulled over by a small Catholic Shrine to look across a valley at the soaring raptors – litter was strewn everywhere and the shrine was covered in graffiti! Elsewhere we met a birder who was trying to stop developers filling in a small urban wetland which was already a dumping ground and yet the waders, skimmers, herons and ducks were still there in legions.
Take a day out in Norfolk one autumn, Maggie and I did, arriving at Wells Wood car park full of anticipation – that scrap of woodland has turned up many a mega and innumerable goodies over the years. As we arrived so did the first of the days showers – and I don’t mean the dribble of a third rate seaside hotel; I mean the power shower of a luxury penthouse suite! It really hammered – so we took the sensible course of action – stayed in the car. The car park was virtually empty so we could see the boating lake through the driving rain. It was probably hawk-eye who spotted the Water Rail crouched in the pond-side weeds; standing stock still half hidden by foliage; but it was definitely me who started to speculate… wasn’t the back more like a pheasant’s wing than a curlew’s flank? Could it be a Baillon’s Crake? Maggie was convinced it could not and was just a Common Water Rail. The sun broke through and the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, we scrabbled out of the car and scoped the pond… there in the corner, half wrapped around a twig was a brown paper bag spattered with mud – a common paper bag mind you, not a Baillon’s! Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
I have over the years managed to turn a piece of abandoned blue tubing into a Kingfisher, a bundle of string into a Stone Curlew [is that where the twitching term ‘stringing’ came from?] and a bright white cigarette packet into a Great Grey Shrike, to name but a few! If people took their rubbish home think how much better my reputation would be!
Of course, the converse happens too. Many years ago my dad was visiting from New Zealand and I took him for a few days birding in Scotland. We were in Skye when a thunderstorm hit so hard that we pulled over into an old quarry entrance to wait out the worst of it. As we sat there I looked up and saw a black plastic sack fluttering in the wind, caught in a bush at the top of the quarry face. I was outraged and vented my spleen to my father who nodded his complete agreement as I waxed lyrical at how such pristine nature could be besmirched by thoughtless humanity. Just like in Wells Wood the sun broke through as the rain stopped and the female Golden Eagle shook the water from her wings and took to the air drifting off over the hills – the most magnificent trash bag imaginable.
As for the carrier bag in the title, this was a bone of contention between Maggie and I and, as always, her keen eyes won out. We had just turned a corner and skidded to a halt at her cry that she had spotted a Barn Owl – the only one she had ever seen in Bucks where we were then living. I couldn’t see any such thing. Eventually I said “do you mean that abandoned white plastic carrier bag on the grass verge?” She nodded assent as the carrier bag took off, transformed into a Barn owl and flew off into the orchard! Don’t you just hate it that she is always right!