Subtitled: Oystercatcher in the Rye
Sub-subtitled: A Room With a Smew
Could this be the week that I finally got to one-hundred birds for the year?
A trip to Dungeness was this weekend’s bird-centric activity. I know two things about Dungeness – It is the site of a nuclear power station and home to the RSPB’s oldest remaining reserve. I’m sure there are other exciting facts about the place, but my ignorance holds me at this duo of details.
As the year has gone on, my life seems to have become increasingly birdy. Someone even suggested that I had become a bit of a ‘birder’… But I challenge that. There’s something about being labelled anything that really irks me. I can’t quite put my finger on why. I’m happy to be Michael, but Michael-the-something doesn’t sit well with me. This is why I couldn’t go on a quiz show – I just couldn’t stand behind my buzzer, look directly into camera one and say “Hi, I’m Michael, I’m thirty-six and a temporary wheelbarrow operative from Woking… I’m hoping for questions on the life and times of Dungeness and 21st century wheelbarrow technology”. I just couldn’t do it.
I’m vehemently not a birder. I’m someone who likes to be outside and appreciates the natural world.
I just labelled myself, didn’t I? Oh dear.
“Hi, I’m Michael, I’m thirty-six and am a massive hypocrite!”
Anyway… The sun was shining and I was keen to get on with some serious birding… um… er… I mean being outside and appreciating the natural world.
I took a quick look at the ‘Birds to Look For’ board in the reserve reception building. Scanning the list, I counted eight birds I had yet to see this year. If I could see all of them during my visit, I could break through the one-hundred barrier. This would move me two-thirds of the way to achieving my goal of seeing one-hundred and fifty species in 2014. This excited me more than it probably should have done.
I had already added Oystercatcher to my list before sitting in a hide and surveying the vast body of water in front of me… Lots of gulls and lots of Tufted Ducks. Nothing out of the ordinary. However, floating inconspicuously amongst the throng of Tufted Ducks was something that looked a bit different – It was a duck that initially looked like all the others, but on closer inspection had a greenish head with a lack of a tuft and a whiter back. My first instinct said Scaup (It looked similar to a picture of the one that is in my bird book – The book that I always seem to have my face in nowadays). My second instinct said hybrid (a Tufted Duck crossed with something as yet unknown). Maybe they weren’t instincts. Maybe they were guesses.
Bizarrely, there’s something in bird-watching that’s referred to as ‘Jizz’ – The first time I heard someone utter the word ‘jizz’ in a bird hide, I’ll have to admit I was taken a little by surprise. I know that observing nature is exciting – seeing a Kingfisher flash past you for the first time or an Osprey crash-landing into a lake in search of dinner are truly awe-inspiring sights, but jizz-worthy? Surely not?
In actual fact, the term is used to refer to the instinctive identification of a bird, based on what it looks like, where it is found, how it flies and the like. It may be based on the WWII military acronym ‘GISS’, which was used to refer to the general impression of size and shape of an aircraft or an evolutionary avian-based adaptation of the word ‘gist’, which obviously means a similar sort of thing. Either way, it’s not a word I tend to shout out in public (or in private for that matter), but could explain how I thought the Scaup in front of me was a Scaup – in spite of having never seen one before. Maybe I’m the bird-watching equivalent of Magnum… Magpie PI? Maybe not.
A little later, a woman walked past and said ‘Have you seen the Slav?’… My goodness, was there a Yugoslavian warlord on the loose in the reserve? It took a while to work out that she actually meant the Slavonian Grebe that had apparently been spotted earlier in the day and not Ratko Mladic. Obviously, my reply to both questions was a big ‘No’. It is funny how someone thinks you are up on all the ornithological jargon just because you happen to be on a bird reserve carrying a pair of binoculars.
As the afternoon progressed, I managed to add Common Gull, Cetti’s Warbler and a distant Smew to the list…
I had got to ninety-nine…
Would I be able to sneak in one more before the end of the day? I popped back into the hide by the entrance on the off-chance that something exciting had appeared since my last visit. A helpful chap pointed out the Scaup that I had seen earlier. I thanked him and followed his waving pointed hand to a big area of uninhabited water. ‘Do you see it?’ he said. ‘No’, I replied. ‘It’s just over there’, he once again gestured by waving his hand, ‘Next to the Tufted Duck right in front of us’. I still couldn’t see it… If it was so close and I couldn’t see it, would he think me a bit of a moron? ‘Oh, yes, thanks. Got it!’ I confidently stated… I hadn’t got it. I still had no idea where he meant. I wished he had used a motionless point rather than an erratic wavy point – That might have helped a bit. An elderly man was trying to be helpful and friendly and I repaid him by telling a lie. That’s got to be a massive karma mistake.
At this stage, seeming quite happy that he had shown me a Scaup, he proceeded to try to point out a Black-Throated Diver in the distance – I hadn’t seen one of those this year, so really had to find it. He, again, vigorously wave-pointed, suggesting that I would see it if I looked all the way across the water, over a bank and into another body of water. If I was correct, I think he meant it was in France. I didn’t fancy my chances.
In the distance, there was indeed a bird – I caught a quick glimpse of it in my binoculars. If I’m honest, it could have been anything, but others in the hide confidently said that it was a Black Throated Diver.
I had done it. I had got to one-hundred different species for the year… I was an uneasy combination of elated and disappointed. I hadn’t properly seen the one-hundredth bird, had I? I considered yet another rule change – That I should have to be in the same time-zone as the bird for it to count or at least the same postal code.
Tune in next time for some more bird stuff… And the semi-exciting launch of ‘Fauna Corner’