During the year in which I tried to see as many birds as I could in the 365 days that 2014 threw at me, I came within a few minutes of seeing a Desert Wheatear on a spur of the moment trip to the Kent coastline.
To cut a long story short – which is incredibly unlike me – the Wheatear (a bird I hadn’t heard of before jumping in the car) had buggered off just before I got there, probably in the direction of the Sahara. I took solace in a couple of glimpses of a Shore Lark (another bird whose existence had, to that point, eluded my tiny mind) and a bargain car park (£1 for a whole day!)
Feeling cheated by missing out on the opportunity of seeing one, I vowed never to sleep until I finally caught up with a Desert Wheatear. It became an obsession. I spent my evenings scouring the internet for UK sightings. I joined my local Desert Wheatear appreciation society. I planned a trip to my nearest desert (for the purposes of this quest, I ignored the fact that Dungeness was the site of the closest desert to my flat). I learnt that Desert Wheatear in Latin is Oenathe deserti (although couldn’t fathom how to pronounce it). I also craved that a pudding-based Wheatear pun would appear, as if by magic, into my head (as you probably guessed, none was forthcoming!)
Of course, I am exaggerating slightly…
I basically forgot about all things Desert Wheatear until I saw a report that one at had been loitering on the beach at Norman’s Bay on the south coast for a couple of weeks.
I weighed it up for a bit and then decided to go and have a look on my next day off. Who doesn’t love a day by the seaside in the bleak midwinter?
In the past, I have found looking for a specific bird on a specific beach to be a bit intimidating… Beaches tend to be quite long and birds tend to be quite small. If you will, it’s like looking for the proverbial needle in a metaphorical haystack (i.e. unlikely).
On arrival at Norman’s Bay, I parked the car and wandered along the base of the bank leading up to the beach, whilst weighing-up at what point to climb the slope between the path and the seafront. At random, I picked a track and, as my head poked above the brow, I was instantly greeted with the sight of the very bird I had travelled to see on top of a plant about fifteen feet away. Maybe it wasn’t by chance that I chose that path, maybe my highly honed bird watching instincts led me right to the bird. Nope, just random.
After a couple of minutes, the Wheatear flew off in an easterly direction towards a small gaggle of camera-wielding birdwatchers at the other end of the beach. They watched it for a bit before seemingly proceeding to chase it around the shingle, perhaps in search of the perfect photo.
Not a lot annoys me, but I really hate it when people chase wildlife around in the quest for a better photograph. This bird had landed itself on a chilly, windswept beach – hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from where it should be – needing to rest up and feed, but found himself having to avoid pursuing paparazzi. Something about this just isn’t right.
Well, I promised that it wouldn’t get any harassment from me. Instead, I opted to use field craft to get a better look.
Birds tend to roam around a particular area when feeding – methodically moving from plant to plant… or patch of shingle to patch of shingle… or plant to patch of shingle… or patch of shingle to plant… in the search for food.
With this in mind, I reasoned that this Wheatear would just work its way up and down the beach, feeding as it went and, eventually, it would make its way to me. It was unlikely to cross the road to visit the campsite (it was out of season and not open) and equally unlikely to disappear out to sea (unless, of course, it had had enough of being chased around).
Taking all this into account, I picked a spot about a hundred metres up the beach and secreted myself behind a breakwater, next to a planty perch that I figured the bird would look photogenic on.
I sat down on the cold, damp pebbles and waited for my formidable animal behaviour knowledge to bring the bird to me…
… and waited…
… and waited some more…
… and waited a while longer…
Looking into my binoculars, I could see the Wheatear still being pursued at the far end of the beach… Maybe it appreciated all the attention. What it certainly didn’t appreciate was my bloody field craft!
I was incredibly tempted to move closer, but, out of principle, I sat my ground.
The wait continued…
… and continued to continue…
… and continued to continue to continue… Until I half admitted defeat and moved halfway along the beach.
By this point, it was starting to get dark and everyone had left the beach. This just left me and the Wheatear. I looked around to make sure the coast was clear and chased the bird around for a bit… Of course I didn’t!
I still couldn’t think of a pudding-based Desert Wheatear pun.