Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Thrush Rush

Dungeness October 1982
I return to the coastguard lookout and shelter from the howling SW wind by leaning against the east facing wall. Huddling up to the brickwork I have a fairly good view over the turbulent sea, although the braking waves are hidden from my view by the shingle bank. Because of the reluctance of the wind to drop below force 6 or out of the westerly quadrant land-bird observation has been difficult and not an option that I have taken up these past few days. As some form of compensation I’ve been drawn to the sea. Not a great deal of bird movement is apparent but enough to keep my interest. But, even if the birds are absent, the seascapes are not. I find that after the initial discipline of counting the few species on view, my mind reaches a state of calm and I lose myself in the cold greys and greens of the spume-laden sea. Rollers rush in to collide with the shingle beach and although that moment of collision is hidden from me I can hear its climax and see the spray cresting the ridge. Banks of black cloud sitting menacingly offshore announce their intention and add drama to the panorama set out before me. Who needs birds when there is all this on offer? I’m lost in a sea-induced trance. Then a wing, whose feather patterning is formed of geometrically perfect triangles of black, buff and white, rises above the shingle bank and as quickly as it appears dips down out of sight. God, I know what that is! I break cover from my isle of calmness and run directly at the sea, exhilarated not so much by the bracing wind as by the juvenile Sabine’s Gull that I know will be down by the breakers. And there it is. Larid perfection. It hangs in the air facing into the wind, only yards offshore. I feel vindicated for spending all this time staring at the sea, privileged to be having this one-to-one with such a scarce bird and proud to have found it. My thought is of the birders back at the observatory and of wanting to share this moment with them. Jogging back to the observatory in Wellington boots, heavy coat and carrying a tripod with scope does not allow Olympic qualifying times but those gathered are soon on the beach, courtesy of Martin Male’s car and his extreme driving skills. Alas, his Formula One-esque driving doesn’t make up the time that was needed. The gull has gone.

I’m standing at the crest of the moat staring into a darkness that is filled with the calls of thrushes. It won’t be light for at least half an hour and yet these unseen birds appear to be pitching onto the open shingle abandoning the drizzle-laden air. There must be thousands of invisible migrants hidden from view. My excitement is palpable – you cannot buy days like these, you cannot ‘twitch’ them, they cannot be ordered for you to experience. It’s a case of being very lucky or indulging in a day-by-day vigil at a coastal hotspot and even then this sort of spectacle isn’t necessarily an annual event. The light is slowly building and shapes are slowly becoming discernable, the shadows morphing into identifiable forms. They are mainly Blackbirds but plenty of Song Thrushes and Redwings as well. Each clump of cover I approach explodes with birds, startled black and brown bundles of feathers scattering in all directions. They fly a short distance before pitching down into vegetation already populated by other thrushes, causing brief moments of confusion as they squabble for the right to stay in their chosen cover. An hour after dawn the thrushes are still pouring in but a new sound is increasing in intensity above us, that of Chaffinches. A steady trickle of these finches is making way in unhurried fashion above us, the trickle soon becoming a torrent as they move north-west. Like war-time bomber convoys they make unhurried and orderly passage overhead, this being far removed in character from the chaotic flocks of thrushes that are still punching their way through the more sedate finches. By 10.00hrs the Chaffinch stream is exhausted and the thrushes reclaim our attention. My estimates for the morning are Blackbird (5,500), Song Thrush (3,000), Redwing (2,000), and a staggering 10,000 Chaffinches. There has also been at least 40 Firecrests caught up in the movement. Nothing remotely rare but who needs rarity with a spectacle like this played out before you. (The two Pallas’s Warblers and the flock of 33 Cranes that I will see later in the month are events that will be remembered, but not with the intensity of this arrival).

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