Friday, 26 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 2: Joy

Alan Vittery has distilled seven decades of notes and records into a remarkable book. There are one or more highlights for every single date on the calendar, including February 29th, and not in a 'went there, saw that' kind of way either. Peppered throughout are interesting little nuggets of this and that: observations, insights and opinions based on a unique life experience. Between 1964 and 1978 Alan's Foreign Office postings included Bulgaria, various African countries, Turkey and Pakistan. Then, after several years living in Cley, with Blakeney Point as his local patch, he was medically retired and became a full-time birder. If our own circumstances presented us with such an opportunity, where would we choose to live, I wonder? Brora, Sutherland (1990-2009)? Santa Maria, Azores (2009-2016)? Algarve, Portugal (2016 - present)? The results of such pioneering choices are a major highlight of the book.

I like that the publisher's name is Quirks & Foibles.

As you can imagine, 30 years of full-time birding in largely remote, unexploited locations with amazing potential - plus the previous part-time 40 - have produced countless birdy thrills. And reading about them is one of the pleasures of this book. Alan is a sober writer and could never be accused of sensationalising the narrative, but his account of discovering the first breeding Killdeers in the Western Palearctic does include a double exclamation mark! The thrill and excitement is palpable, as it is on many, many other occasions. Here is a birder who delights in finding the unexpected rarity, or witnessing spectacular passage, and that delight shines through. A few examples from the UK which most readers will be able to relate to...

Alan spent many holidays on Scilly. On Tresco in 1980 he found Britain's third Sardinian Warbler, and in 1989 a Common Nighthawk, both gratefully twitched by Scilly regulars. One Scilly date which resonated with me personally was September 14th 1986. On Saturday 13th I had endured a hideous Scillonian crossing with Sandra and our two young sons, en route to our first autumn trip to the islands. A blasting, south-easterly hoolie and non-stop rain, which didn't relent until the next day. My memory tells me the sun appeared. Anyway, we stuffed Baz (14 months) into a pushchair and headed out, with Rob (three and three-quarters) in tow. Of necessity we travelled slowly and were largely restricted to the lanes, but nevertheless stopped and scanned frequently. Every single hedge had something in it. There were Redstarts, Whinchats, flycatchers, assorted warblers everywhere - St Mary's was leaping with migrants. Although I no longer have the figures, it was a pretty amazing fall. On Tresco, Alan Vittery was busy:

'...over 100 Spotted and 20 Pied Flycatchers, 10 Tree Pipits, 8 Yellow Wagtails, 7 Whitethroats, 5 Sedge and 3 Garden Warblers, plus numerous Redstarts, Whinchats and Willow Warblers. Wryneck, Tawny Pipit, Common Crossbill and 3 Ortolan Buntings were the only scarcer species found.'

In later years I often wondered what we might have turned up that day had we been able to bird St Mary's a lot more knowledgeably and intensively. Now I have some idea!

Alan is well known for finding a White's Thrush (1991) and Daurian Starling (1998) in Sutherland - both birds twitched by others. And both obvious moments of joy!

One birding activity more capable than most of providing the odd massive surprise is seawatching. Alan calls it 'my addiction', a fact which quickly becomes obvious. There are many examples of such surprises in the book, and here are two from the Sutherland years...

Weather conditions on 8th September 2007 prompted a speculative visit to Strathy Point on the north coast of Sutherland. In the preceding 17 years in Scotland, Alan's biggest day count of Great Shearwaters was five. That day he had 1410 fly past! However, that was nothing compared to Martin Scott's total of 7000 from the Butt of Lewis, the northernmost tip of the Hebrides! On 9th August 1994, in calm, cloudy conditions, a completely unanticipated passage of Long-tailed Skuas past Brora included flocks of 10, 12, 16 and 26! To put this in perspective, the day's total of 69 was greater than Alan's lifetime aggregate for the species!

The examples thus far have been deliberately chosen because most are verifiable. The rarities in particular were all seen by others. However, they are in the minority, and therein lies the crux of the book. A Date With a Bird is far more than a happy romp through a lifetime's birding. There is a depth to it, a sadness even, which on occasion makes for poignant reading. And that will be the focus of the next installment...

In Part 3: Mistrust

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