Sunday, 27 December 2020

The Bringer of Joy

As we approach the end of this singular year I've been trying to work out how to review it without actually writing a review of the year, and this is the first of possibly a few posts intended to do just that. Mainly, but not entirely, this one is about Wheatears...

As winter draws to a close and the first buds of spring burst, peppering our hawthorn hedges with optimistic little sprinkles of green, birders begin to lust after the first Wheatear. Well, this one does anyway. There are other birdy harbingers of spring which may come earlier, but for me the first Wheatear is the only one that counts, the only one that stirs something akin to joy in my cynical old heart. And so it was, in early March, with the looming spectre of a deadly virus just off-stage, that I and many others began to search with realistic hope for the bouncing white bum of a flushed Wheatear. Personally I had to wait until 18th, and an early-morning arrival at East Bexington. The next day several more were closer to home, at West Bay...

March 19th, West Bay. Perfection-on-a-stick.
 

And then there was Lockdown. The first couple of weeks were tricky, but soon enough I got into a routine of coastal walks, usually starting at first light. It was utter bliss. Empty.

It's 08:50 on April 11th. This is the car-less car park at Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock.

Wheatears were a constant companion on these walks. Almost without fail there would be one or two, or several. Oblivious of their power to cheer, they hopped up on to fence posts and walls, and sometimes posed for portraits. They made me very happy.

This one was on the wall pictured above, on the same morning

Another wall, another April male

One April morning as I walked east, someone else was doing likewise, more or less parallel to my route. I could see him in the distance and wondered if he was a birder too, though he seemed to have a rucksack but no bins. Due to my dawdling pace he was soon ahead and out of view. Some time later I saw him again, close to my path. He was toting a camera and appeared to be creeping up on something in the vegetation. Intrigued, I called out a greeting and asked if he was photographing insects. Slightly startled, he looked across at me and said, bluntly, "No." Naturally I had paused briefly, but as he was so unforthcoming I thought it prudent to simply carry on, with a slightly lame "Er...okay then..." However, I had carefully noted the location...

I don't know what I was expecting exactly, but certainly not this...

A stunning pair of Adders.

As the spring rolled on, Wheatears continued to be a regular distraction and source of joy. I met them on the empty beach, the empty car park, the empty camp site, the empty golf course...

I occasionally encountered a greenkeeper cutting the grass, but never any golfers. The course was closed, so I don't know what this slightly soiled Srixon no 4 was up to exactly.

And then it was May, and the end of lockdown imminent...

I took this in Bridport on May 12th, unsure when we would ever see the like again...

One of my favourite May Wheatear shots. Looking at it, I am transported straight back there...

Of course, Wheatear passage begins to dry up quite badly as May draws to a close. A late May Wheatear is always a bit special, and very welcome, but all too soon it is June, and you assume that's that. No more Wheatears for a few weeks...

And then out of the blue, on June 8th, a spanking male pops up in front of you at the back of Freshwater Beach...

Oof! What a cracker!

You'd almost forgotten what a spring Wheatear looks like, and yet here's one performing just for you on a gorgeous June evening...

I was so chuffed to come across this beaut, and it put such a smile on my face. I was still savouring it half an hour later, when I was stopped in my blithe, carefree tracks by a super-stonking male Red-backed Shrike! But that's another story.

And so it ends. The northward surge is done.

I'll be frank. Autumn Wheatears are not the same. For me, the Wheatear is synonymous with spring, with the fresh greens of new foliage. The returning birds are still lovely, but carry less import somehow. Nevertheless, seeing the first birds in late July is a nice reminder that other, scarcer autumn migrants will soon be here. And lets face it, migrants are migrants, and all are welcome...

Cogden Beach, July 30th

Much of July and early August was spent scouring the gulls for juv Yellow-legged, so there were plenty of Wheatear encounters on the beach at this time. But one of my favourites was on my old stamping ground, Beer Head, where a smart male was quite confiding. However, I prefer this 'birder's photo' depiction...

Beer Head, August 26th

And so, September comes. For me it's a month which always promises great things but rarely delivers. Mind you, two days before this next bird I'd found a Wryneck at Cogden, so no complaints here...

East Bexington, September 13th. Look at the fringes on that bird! Mmmmm! That blue stuff in the background is wet sea. I am so fortunate having the coast as my birding playground.

Finally then, October. As the month goes on it becomes progressively more difficult to get a decent Wheatear fix. Not for want of trying though. This year there was a lot of October birding. Not without reward either. Literally ten minutes after this next bird I found another Wryneck at Cogden!

It's 07:48 on October 1st, and that light is your actual, genuine, early-morning-sunshine warmth

In the past I have seen Wheatears in November, but not this year. The latest 2020 bird I photographed was on October 17th at West Bexington. I may have seen one on a later date, but I suspect not. So that's it, the 2020 Wheatear journey is at an end. And here I am, tapping away at this keyboard on December 27th, conscious that the annual epic that is Wheatear migration will begin again really quite soon. Right this second, within tiny balls of flesh and feather currently domiciled in distant parts of Africa, the nascent urge to travel rapidly to Pembrokeshire, or the west coast of Scotland, or Iceland, or Greenland, will soon take hold.

And once again they will come. And once again they will bring joy.

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Ha ha! Thanks Jono, I love Wheatears too. I reckon they're probably my number one feelgood bird. 😊

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