Well, I had got to the final day of the year and I was still giving this challenge a go. Knowing me as I do, this was surprising. For the past 364 days I had been rummaging through hedgerows, scouring treetops and looking skywards with the aim of seeing as many different species of bird as possible in the fifty-two weeks of 2014. If I’m honest, I think I had probably got a bit carried away with the challenge: arranged holidays and weekends away in areas that might bring about new sightings, dreamt about things with wings and even started buying ornithological magazines.
As my obsession with the challenge grew, I lost my shame in wielding my binoculars in public locations, I could walk up to a stranger in a park and ask them if they had seen any interesting wildlife and even started volunteering at a semi-local RSPB reserve.
During the year, I learned so much about the world around me and, dare I say it, had a brilliant year.
However, as the clock ticked over into the final twenty-four hours of the challenge, I was looking forward to it all being over. I was tired. I had lost count of how many miles I had racked-up traipsing across the countryside in search of birds that, a year ago, I had never even heard of. I was looking forward to a lie-down.
Wednesday 31st December: T-minus 24 hours and 2 to go
After the previous day’s unanticipated haul of four new species at WWT Slimbridge, the quest to get to two-hundred birds for the year (something I imagine Casanova did with ease annually) was well and truly back on.
I only needed two more to achieve my target and had all the hours of daylight your typical end of December day could muster to do it…
Seeing as I had missed out on all of the four reported species (Lapland Bunting, Water Pipit, Jack Snipe and Twite) at Brean Down a couple of days previous, I thought it was worth another visit on the way back home from visiting family in Weston-Super-Mare.
Despite a distinct lack of reported sightings of note in the area for the past few days, I reasoned that this was my last chance to add to my 2014 list.
As soon as I arrived, I noticed a couple of birds on the fence – Linnets – that temporarily distracted my attention from a large, black bird stood in an adjacent field. I assumed it was a Carrion Crow, but it was only when it flew off over the farm buildings making a distinctive ‘cronking’ sound, that I contemplated that it might be a Raven. It sounded different to a Carrion Crow and looked larger, but how could I be sure?
A few months back, I also thought I might have seen a Raven, but my hopes had been dashed by some people on the internet who said my photos were clearly of a Carrion Crow. The ‘helpful’ advice I was given was ‘You KNOW if you’ve seen a Raven!’ Sadly, on that occasion, I didn’t see enough of it to make a judgement either way.
I frantically scoured the sky beyond the farmhouse with my binoculars to see if I could catch another glimpse… To my delight, two large corvids swept into view. They were clearly Ravens! That internet oracle was right, somehow I just KNEW they were Ravens.
With bird number one-hundred and ninety-nine in the bag, I turned my attention back to the beach…
Two groups of people were now on the shingle in front of me. Whilst a couple of chaps with binoculars were respectfully observing the birdlife from a distance, a trio – kitted out with semi-camouflage gear and cameras with lenses the size of Roberto Carlos’ thighs – were marauding along the beach, chasing anything that moved. The threesome were seemingly scaring-off all the birds in search of the perfect photograph, when, with lenses like that, they could probably get better snaps than I could dream of whilst standing on the Moon.
I sauntered up to the pair and enquired what they had seen, to which they replied ‘not a lot, because those three over there were scaring everything away’. I’m no body language expert (I’m yet to find anything I’m anywhere near expert at), but I could tell they were annoyed. Their nature-watching had been scuppered by a bunch of selfish donuts who cared more about photographs than the creatures they were photographing. I was annoyed too – It was these sorts of people who give bird-watchers a bad name. They are the type of people who would think nothing of climbing over someone’s back fence to get a photograph. They show no regard for nature. Rant over… for now!
Then, without warning, a small bird flew from the undergrowth at the edge of the beach from directly underneath the footfall of one of the people. I had done my research before my last visit to the area (I’m such a swot!) and the bird bore all the hallmarks of a Jack Snipe. My studies had informed me that a Jack Snipe: –
- Will not be flushed unless almost stepped on – Check
- Is Starling-sized – Check
- Has a long, slender bill – Check
- Does not call when flying – Check
- Flies fast, low and straight, before seeking nearby cover – Check
Was this countable as bird number two-hundred? Had I finally done it?
The problem was that I didn’t get enough of a look at it to be one-hundred percent sure that it was a Jack Snipe. It had exhibited the correct behaviour and had some of the key physical features, but I only saw it briefly from distance.
As much as I really wanted to count it, I just couldn’t guarantee my instincts were accurate. It had to stay off the list… Bugger!
On my way back to the main path, I did a quick binocular survey of the area where I saw the mystery Pipit on my last visit… There was what looked like a Water Pipit foraging in the greenery [Note: I originally wrote ‘furtling’ rather than ‘foraging’, but my word processor didn’t like the spelling. When I looked it up for clarification, I made a shocking discovery. I can’t believe how often I’ve used the word in the past and no-one has said anything. Apparently, having a ‘furtle’ doesn’t mean you are ‘furtling’!]
I checked my reference materials (sadly no ‘Audio guide to Pipits of the World’ was available this time) and, yes, it was indeed a Water Pipit.
I had only bloomin’ gone and done it!! The Water Pipit in front of me was bird number two-hundred for the year!
As I looked back towards the most numerically significant bird of my year, it flew off. The three camera-wielding idiots had barrelled towards the bird and scared it away. They didn’t apologise to me (or to the bird). Judging by their conversation, they clearly didn’t know what they had frightened off either… These rude, ignorant people had somewhat taken the shine off what should have been a special moment for me. Despite being incredibly annoyed, I didn’t say anything to them – I’m British after all. Instead, I secretly hoped the Pipit had gone off to crap on their car!
There were still a few hours of daylight left… Would I be able to get to two-hundred and fifty before the year was out…?
For the full 2014 list, click on the ‘Bird Board‘ tab at the top of the page.