Tuesday 11 July 2017

A Day to Remember

This is what happens when it's pouring with rain, you've got a sore throat and are going a bit stir-crazy: you get a bike out and tinker with it...

Fiddle, tweak, fuss, fuss...

Also you actively promote the exchange of birdy trivia on Twitter. This is pretty good fun, and reading tweets about the unseemly ticking of rare birds before common ones has cheered me up no end. My favourite so far is Mike Langman's Great Snipe before Jack Snipe when he was just 13 years old. The fact that it was youthfully optimistic string makes it even better! Best grippage goes to Wallcreeper before Guillemot, and Tennessee Warbler before Redstart.

Anyway, all this bird stuff has fired me up with the urge to share a little story. Although my twitching career was fairly short it gave me a lot of terrific memories. Here's one...

It is Sunday 13th May, 1984. Long before the sun has risen I am heading round the North Circular to collect my friend Tim and his girlfriend Jacquita from their flat in Bounds Green, in my stylish 1984 wheels...

Vauxhall Viva HC estate posing nicely at Walsey Hills, Cley.

Our target for the day is Ross's Gull. A summer-plumaged bird has been at Cley since midweek, so will surely be a doddle now that it has settled into a routine. But en route we plan to take in a Little Egret at Thrapston GP, a lifer for us all. Yep, them was the days.

We head off up the A1, and the sky begins to pale as dawn approaches. Coming to the top of a modest rise there is an ominous hesitation from the engine, then a cough, a splutter...and silence. Pox! The fuel gauge doesn't work and I've neglected to fill the tank for the journey! I drop the clutch and we manage to coast at virtually walking pace over the brow of the hill, then gather speed on the downward slope. As the road flattens out and bends to the left we slow again, hearts sinking. And there, right there before us like a desert oasis, is a petrol station! Stupid o'clock on a Sunday morning, yet it's open. We have just enough momentum to roll onto the forecourt and up to a pump. Just. I apply the handbrake and climb out to fill the tank like it's all part of the plan.

I have absolutely no doubt now. Today is going to be brilliant!

Little Egret in the bag and we're soon at Cley, where there is no sign of the gull. I and many others doze on the shingle overlooking the North Scrape. Jacquita goes to buy lunch from the Coastguards Café, and while she's away there is suddenly a distant sound of scrambling shingle. Sure enough, the furthest end of the crowd is hastily gathering its stuff together and beginning to run. We do likewise, though not knowing why. We soon find out. The Ross's Gull is at Titchwell! Now! Jacquita meets us at the car with blisteringly hot pasties and we join the back end of a frantic convoy. The journey is unreal; the coast road is playing host to some kind of pony and trap rally and progress is painfully, painfully slow. At Titchwell we leap from the car, all frayed nerves and scalded tongues, and scuttle seawards. Within seconds I crack and start to run. And run...and run...

That Ross's Gull is right up there with my all-time favourite birds. It was absolutely pristine. And pink. I mean PINK. It is undoubtedly the most gorgeous gull I have ever clapped eyes on. Somewhere out there must be some colour photos. And if there are, they will be stunning. The light was simply fantastic and the bird performed like a star, hawking back and forth over a bright blue lagoon. In the absence of colour, here are a couple of B&W versions from Steve Young. I hope he won't mind me illustrating this post with them. The originals are here and here.

Ross's Gull at Titchwell, 13th May, 1984. Both the above by Steve Young.

Eventually we are satisfied, and there is still plenty of day to play with. What now? There is news of a Thrush Nightingale at Landguard in Suffolk. Shall we? Of course. Much, much later we arrive at Landguard and learn that it hasn't been seen for hours, but there is some consolation: a rather elusive Bluethroat has been found. Okay then, we'll join the Bluethroat crowd. We do, and wait...

After a while a shout goes up: the Thrush Nightingale has been seen again! Everyone hurries towards the compound...except for me and one or two others. A bit of a gamble, but I was dead, dead keen to see my first Bluethroat. We stand quietly, and out it comes, at point-blank range. What. A. Crippler. After a fine performance it melts away into the scrub again and finally we too head for the compound. I find Tim and Jacquita.
Any sign?
Nope. Bluethroat?
They don't really have to ask. It's written all over my face.
At that moment there is a hasty rustling from the crowd as dozens of bins are raised. There it is! Freshly-minted bling on leg, it gives us a front view, pauses, gives us a rear view, pauses, and hops behind a bush. And that's it.

May 13th, 1984. Absolutely nothing could go wrong on that day. Four lifers. Priceless memories...


  1. I have been struggling for Blog material; it is possible you may have given me an idea.

    B-Winged Pratincole 12/05/2009
    Collared Pratincole 16/05/2009
    Oriental Pratincole 03/06/2009

    and my favourite
    Blue-cheeked Bee-eater 22/07/2009
    Bog-standard Bee-eater 17/09/2011

    1. For some reason the Pratincoles make me want to say "Nice darts!"

  2. A classic NQS blog post - self deprecation, rare birds, the good old days. Marvellous stuff Gav.

    1. Thanks Steve. I do realise though, it's the equivalent of an older birder telling the younger, keener, early '80s version of me a twitching tale from 1949.


  3. Replies
    1. Yep, that's Sheba, our black lab, affectionately known as 'Weebs' for some reason. Part of the marriage deal: I got one dog, three cats and a woman.

  4. Gav, tell all about the collection of bird wings with Larry W., and Sheba's part in the disappearance of one of the more,'mature' specimens.

    1. There are some tales that need to remain untold! ;)