Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Birding can have its laughs and crazy moments. Sometimes it’s truly crackers.
Like the time I was on the Isles of Scilly and near panic ensued after a once-in-a-lifetime bird, a Nighthawk from America, was reported resting in a field.
People rushed to get to the site and were delighted to find it was there. After a while it still had not moved, so someone approached a bit closer. To everyone’s chagrin it turned out to be a cowpat.
One winter’s afternoon a small flock of birds took off near Burpham Court Farm and as I lifted my binoculars the reason became clear. Some crazy guy was disturbing all the wildlife by running through the marsh.
Every few yards he would jump down into one of the pools, kick and splash around a bit, and attempt to swim in the shallows.
The police asked for his description on the phone but this was difficult since he was a good quarter of a mile away – and totally starkers. Two female officers arrived and borrowed my telescope for a better view. They decided against risking a mud bath by pursuing him. A case of the one that got away.
At Staines Reservoir on one occasion a rare Lesser Yellowlegs turned up from America in one of the muddy pools left by some drainage work. The bird – if it was there – was a long way off and metal railings were in the way so a pal and I decided we needed to get over them.
That proved no easy task as the uprights were topped with nasty looking spikes about six inches apart. I went first. Managing to do half the job, I was left standing on the upper horizontal rail with each foot between a spike. Now for the jump.
It should have been such a simple matter to now hop down onto the other side. Unfortunately, as I leapt, the end of my slightly flared jeans got caught on a spike and I found myself half-concussed and hanging upside down on the side of the path.
This was of course hilarious to my onlooker. He was unable to free me and the only way out of my dilemma was to undo my trousers and slide out onto the ground. It was more a case of Greater Whitelegs – and we never did see the bird.
One group of birders assembled before dawn to try and find a Great White Egret seen the day before. At first light, there it was, roosting near the top of a tree and occasionally moving its wings in the breeze.
It took another 15 minutes before one of them realised the truth: ‘Damn, that’s not the Egret. It’s a white plastic bag!’
In the days before mobile phones, exciting news of a rare Little Bunting visiting bird seeds in a Milford garden saw me there early next day before dawn. There was no sign of it before my host had to leave for work so he allowed me to use his shed as a hide and told me to let myself out through a side gate.
The bird duly showed well and after ten minutes I got up to leave. But I was trapped. The door would not open from the inside. What should I do? I didn’t want to yell for help and risk frightening the Bunting away so nobody else would ever see it. And there seemed no way of getting out without breaking the door.
Over the wire fence I then saw a beefy looking guy in a neighbouring kitchen window. Waving failed to attract his attention. But then his back door opened. My big chance! Out popped, not him, but his wife – and still in her nightclothes.
She ambled down the garden path to attend the washing line and it dawned on me that things were not going to be easy. There was I hidden away with my binoculars and her only half dressed. I hoped ‘Mr Beefy’ wouldn’t quickly jump to the wrong conclusion.
I called quite softly at first, and she eventually heard me, but due to the 45-degree angle of the window she could only see the outside reflections. She strained to see where my voice was coming from.
‘Hallo’, I called through the glass. It would probably have been best not to tell her in my next breath that I was ‘only a birdwatcher’ because she went straight back indoors to fetch her husband.
Fortunately he believed my story, saw the funny side, and couldn’t have been nicer. Phew.
When a rare bird turns up it can bring out the less generous side of birdwatchers’ characters. We’d spent hours tramping the muddy path surrounding a copse in Norfolk.
The hoped-for prize, a Black and White Warbler that should have been on its way towards Panama from perhaps as far north as Canada, was proving tough to find. Sightings had been brief for just a handful of lucky souls.
At last we found it and a crowd soon formed as the bird put on a better than usual show and climbed vertically up tree trunks. All was hush. Suddenly we heard running feet behind us and then a plea for help. A guy trying to join us had taken the wrong track and was now up to his waist in mud. The crowd turned around almost as one and, seeing he had stopped sinking, responded with a stern: ‘Shhh.’ I think he saw the Warbler though.
Birds attract birders but a flock of birders attracts crowds too. Such was the case on a housing estate in Maidstone which became the temporary winter home of another American gem, Britain’s one and only Golden-winged Warbler.
The crowd was in its hundreds and made worse by sightseers who just wanted to see what we all looked like. I think those of us who saw the bird went away happier than they did.
My hunt for another ‘Yankee’, a Laughing Gull seeing out successive winters with other gulls at Newcastle Royal Infirmary, proved no laughing matter although it all worked out well in the end.
With only a mere two slices of bread to tempt it down into the car park from a nearby roof I set out my bait and waited. But horrors, staff were now arriving for work – and parking on my precious bread!
I crawled underneath one of the cars to retrieve some but I got some very strange looks as I stood up with a piece of crust and announced ‘I need this to attract a rare gull’. It was then I realised where I was – by the psychiatric unit entrance.