Thursday, 25 May 2017

Wrong notebook

My late-May Dungeness break really took off on the birding front yesterday. Shortly after dawn a singing Icterine Warbler was located, and nearby up to seven Marsh Warblers competed for attention. The Serin that flew over calling barely got a look. A small area of reed/scrub was then checked, where three superb Bluethroats entertained us for half an hour, one of which stayed in view, singing away, for at least 10 minutes. After finding a small flock of Hawfinches, an area of wetland was scoped, yielding a Garganey, Ruff, a pair of Black-necked Grebes and 14 loafing Spoonbill, whilst the nearby beach, apart from breeding Little Terns, hosted up to 10 Kentish Plovers, including three chicks. And there were plenty of Turtle Doves on show.  It is rare indeed to have had such a fine day at Dungeness...

...oh, hold on... wrong notebook. All the above was in Northern France, all within a 20 minute drive of Calais. The French birder is spoilt for choice as our day trip yesterday showed. With a bit more luck we could easily have added Honey-buzzard, Crested Tit and Golden Oriole. Only a brief drive down the coast would have added Savi's Warbler, Night Heron, Melodious Warbler, and all the species mentioned are not on passage, they are breeding! Want to know where all our birds have gone? They're in France!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Porpoise show

It is a rare thing at Dungeness to be able to stand at the very point, in t-shirt and shorts, and feel too hot. Even mid-summer can see you putting on a jumper, and then adding a fleece. However, this afternoon was that rare beast, when the sun shone, the temperature rose, and the wind went elsewhere for a change. It was glorious. Mark H and I stood on the shingle bank above a millpond sea, with not a wave to be seen. A distant mist obscured all but the top of container ships and any sound carried great distances across the water.

Small black shapes kept surfacing before us, compact cetaceans - Harbour Porpoises. Conditions allowed us to estimate at least 30 being present, maybe 15 of them close inshore. We could hear the muted splashes as they dived, at times four or more surfacing together in a gentle huddle. It was altogether magical.

I returned an hour later with Dave W, but they had mostly gone - a nearby Grey Seal was to blame, maybe the same one that has preyed on porpoise calfs this spring. There was some compensation in the form of 7 Little Terns and an Arctic Skua. The weather looks set fair for the foreseeable future. And that's fine by me.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Spring Sooty

A warm, dry and sunny day at Dungeness. With the spring passage all but over, we are now entering the time of the 'overshoot', whether that might be a Bee-eater, Swallowtail or Death's-head Hawk-moth. Time spent in the field becomes less of a concerted effort on birding, more an all-round immersion into the additional bounteous supply of plants and insects.

After a day spent mostly chasing butterflies and watching a family party of Stonechats, I arrived at the sea for an evenings watch. No expectations at all, but we are not too late for a tardy Pom or two. After half an hour little had happened, but then a close, tight flock of 40 Sanderling passed by, all smart summer-plumaged adults. After watching them leave eastwards through the scope, I was more than a little surprised to find a close Sooty Shearwater in my field of view when I returned to scanning the sea straight ahead. It was very leisurely, mooching about rather than moving through, but eventually left eastwards and then out to sea. My first spring record. 30 minutes later it returned, this time moving more meaningfully westwards. You can never write a sea watch off here...

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Subbuteo show

I'm walking across the open shingle and a Hobby comes into view - low, quick wing-beats, intent on prey. It brushes the top of the Broom and then pirouettes higher before snatching at prey. Dragonfly? Moth? Butterfly? It's hard to tell, but it's been successful as it eats on the wing, feeding itself with brief offerings from talons to beak. A quick break is taken, perched on the skeletal remains of a bush. No real rest though, it fidgets, looking around, weighing up the options, then it's off! Another winged morsel has broken cover, more energy to consume. It takes it with ease, consumption in the air, digestion at rest. I try to hide and hope it comes closer, but of course it knows I'm there. After five minutes the show is over. I lose it heading westwards. My treading of the shingle resumes. Minus a Hobby. The loss keenly felt.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Squeaking skull

I seem to have arrived at Dungeness at the same time as Hannibal Lecter's favourite moth - The Death-head's Hawk-moth (Acherontia atropos). It was found resting on the wall of one of the beach dwellings and brought along to the observatory for safe keeping. They are impressive beasts that carry with them a folklore and fear, mainly due to the obvious 'skull' like marking on the thorax (image to follow). I was lucky enough to have seen one here in the early 1990s that emitted a squeak when handled - this one has kept quiet, at rest on leaves, in a Tupperware box, awaiting release.

It was good to reacquaint myself with a number of plants, especially the shingle specialists and Dungeness notables, such as Yellow-vetch and Sea Pea. Up to 16 Hobbys hawked around the RSPB reserve between Dengemarsh and the Oppen Pits, with a host of accompanying 'mini-me' Swifts.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A train, a bus and some mud

Part 10 -  March 1976 Pagham Harbour became a frequent place of ornithological pilgrimage. Conveniently, a train ran from Sutton to Chichester, where a bus would then take you to Sidlesham Ferry, a virtual gateway to the harbour and coast. The only downside to this method of transport was that the first train from Sutton did not leave until 09.00hrs, which meant a lunchtime arrival at Sidlesham – this restricted birding time, especially in the winter months. The southbound train journey was enjoyable, as the route passed through picturesque countryside  - including the levels at Arundel – where the odd good bird, such as Short-eared Owl and Bewick’s Swan were seen from the moving train. Once on the bus, expectation levels steadily grew, and by the time that Sidlesham Ferry came into view I was practically beside myself with excitement.

I would normally take the same route. An initial scan of the ferry pool would be a lengthy affair. This smallish water body and its accompanying muddy fringes was consistently full of birds – ducks and waders to the fore – and had the added attraction of allowing close and clear views of the birds. Once I had prised myself away, the ‘southern’ flank of the harbour was walked, ensuring that any spur of dry ground out into the harbour was taken, to check for further waders and wildfowl. The state of the tide would dictate where I could (and could not) explore. The footpaths here, especially the main route that snaked along a raised bank, would be a virtual assault course of muddy slopes, particularly during spells of wet weather. More than once a boot was prised from my foot by the sucking mud, with frantic and balletic efforts being made to rescue it before my vulnerable sock-shod foot met the same fate. I’ve seen birders fall, optics dropped, with the aftermath being not just a bruised ego but also a sheepish cleaning down and checking of binoculars, to ensure nothing had been damaged. The open vistas were exhilarating, with unimpeded views of the West Sussex countryside for 360 degrees. Bushes were liberally scattered along the way, where migrant passerines could be reasonably expected at the right times of year.

From here I would arrive at Church Norton, home to a small car park, a few aspirational houses and a charming church. It was quite wooded, so trees would be checked to increase the day list. No visit to Church Norton would be complete without taking lunch and the accompanying feeding of birds – Robins, Chaffinches and Great Tits in particular – that would practically line up waiting for the odd dropped crumb or offered crust. It became a ritual. A respectful search of the churchyard (could there be a more desirable final resting place for a birder?) would be followed by a vigil on the adjacent shingle spits where commanding views across the harbour could be taken.

It was but a short walk from here, up a shingle ridge, and onto the beach. High tide would have waves lapping at your feet, but a low tide would present a mess of shingle islands and the sea distant enough to hamper any scanning for birds. Turning northwards, a trudge along the shingle bank took you to the narrow harbour mouth, which unfailingly produced a rarer grebe or notable sea duck. From here you could look across the deep channel and onto Pagham beach. Turning southwards from Church Norton, it was only a matter of a few hundred metres before a small reed fringed water body, called ‘The Severals’, could be found, serviced by footpaths that allowed good birding access. In turn, these paths took you back to the car park at Church Norton via open fields and a farmyard.

On an average visit I would then retrace my steps to Sidlesham and wait for the bus back to Chichester – however, wanderlust sometimes took a grip. I could, and sometimes did, carry on past the Severals and walk the mile or so to Selsey Bill, that iconic birding site where birders in the 50s and 60s set up a short-lived observatory. Or, if I were being really adventurous, go back to Sidlesham and walk the lengthy northern footpath around the harbour and end up at Pagham Lagoon – this latter option was only taken up if there was a good bird to be had, or the daylight hours allowed it. Fortunately there was a bus that would take me back to Chichester from here.

Although a well-known birding location, it was never too busy with birders at Pagham. You could lose yourself and be in your own space if so desired. There was a small and friendly band of local observers, including Chris Janman and the James family, who would be only too pleased to pass on the latest news. My early visits to this charming area would invariably be made with no prior knowledge as to what was about, and with little concern as to the weather. On more than one occasion I spent the whole day in heavy rain, soaked to the skin, but wandering around with a beatific smile upon my face.

On this, my second ever visit, highlights were a Black-necked Grebe and Short-eared Owl from my initial scan of the ferry; a Spotted Redshank in the harbour; a few Slavonian Grebe on the sea, and, best of all, my first ever Avocet, thanks to a last look at the ferry, in fading light, before catching the bus. The future would confirm that no visit to Pagham was ever the same, was never dull and was always full of birds.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Kernow interlude

Katrina and I have just returned from a long weekend at Bude, in Cornwall, courtesy of her sister Fiona and brother-in-law Bill. As much as most of our time was centred around good company, food and drink, plenty of room was made for walks along the cliff tops and the observation of the natural world. It is an area that we all love and know quite well.

My botanical highlight was the Spring Squill (above), being found on the cliff tops either side of Bude's sandy beaches. Efford Down was home to tens of thousands of plants, all in flower. They shared the turf with Thrift, Kidney Vetch and Scurvey-grass (I didn't specify the latter), and the photograph below illustrates just how they coloured the ground.

Rock Samphire roots exposed but clinging on
There are even breeding Wheatears!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Euphorbia whatsthisthen?

A few plants from Priest Hill. First up is a showy spurge, about knee-high and clearly originally from cultivated stock. I cannot identify it, so if you are reading this and think that you know what it is, please let me know!

The second species is the blue-flowered form of Scarlet Pimpernel (not the full-blown sub-species). I had not seen this before and was rather taken aback by the intensity of the blue - not quite Alpine Gentian, but not far off!

Lastly is Henbit Dead-nettle, a remnant here from the days when it used to be cultivated farmland.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Rescued from the folder

Any wander with a camera results in plenty of pictures being taken - those old enough to remember the days of film will recall how careful we were when taking a photograph, as each attempt was using up a precious exposure on the roll. Now, we can snap away without such fear - hence lots of images can go missing, get forgotten or languish in a folder on a computer's desktop. Here are four I've rescued from the past week...

Great Spotted Woodpecker at Canons Farm 
Young Robin in the back garden after having taken a bath in the pond
Green Hairstreak along Chipstead Bottom, one of several seen
Fly Orchids, Chipstead Bottom, more spikes starting to flower

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

A forest of Green Hound's-tongue

Green Hound's-tongue is a rare plant of restricted range - however, there are a few places where it can be common, such as Brockham, at the foot of the North Downs (not far from Box Hill). Within its range, this species will appear in good number where there has been some woodland edge clearing, and this is the case at Brockham. This morning there were at least 1,000 plants spread along a 100m stretch (and going 15m into the wood). It was the commonest species within this area and boasted some of the largest and most 'flowered' specimens that I have seen. Most of the open ground had individual plants generously spaced out, but in one or two places over 100 plants were crowded together. I do not doubt that a thorough search of the area would reveal many more...

Saturday, 6 May 2017

The North Downs Way

Most of the day was taken up by a Gale family walk, along the North Downs Way, from Denbigh's Hillside to Shere, where a fine lunch was taken at the Dabbling Duck before we retraced our steps. Avian highlights were a singing Common Redstart on Ranmore Common (where I've heard them in song before) and a singing Firecrest on Netley Heath (this species is not as common on the North Downs as they are along the Greensand hills).

Plant wise it was wonderful, with the footpath edges full of flower, some of the highlights being a profusion of Sanicle; Bird's-nest Orchid (above, several hundred spikes on White Downs, much more advanced than last year and possibly in larger numbers); White Helleborine (a few in bud, none yet in flower) and a single Green Hound's-tongue on Ranmore Common (below), the furthest west that I've seen this species.

West of White Downs was virgin territory for me, and some of it looks tremendous, in particular the open slopes of Blatchford and Hackhurst Downs - I will be back.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Fly Orchids

May 4th? It feels more like March 4th, all low scudding grey clouds with a definite chill to the air. I did attempt a bit of birding, but apart from a handful of 'scratchy' Whitethroats it was all quite poor. However, I had something up my sleeve just in case the birds were being difficult - a local colony of Fly Orchids. In the Banstead area it is not a common plant by any means. I have been told of a 'sizeable' colony that I have searched for, but yet to find (I know the wood, but it's quite large), so I stuck with my regular patch which are in Chipstead Bottom, tucked away under a Yew tree. I counted 23 spikes (the most that I've seen here), and two of them had started to flower.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Of sludge beds, Jack Snipe and Water Pipits

Part nine: January - March 1976 The year started in the company of Barry Reed, who I had met on the Scottish bird watching course the previous August. I stayed with him at his home in Ware and we spent three days birding across a number of sites – The Blackwater Estuary, Tollesbury and Abberton Reservoir (all in Essex); Stoke Newington Reservoir (north London) and two of Barry’s local Hertfordshire haunts – Amwell and Rye Meads. Although a year younger than me, he was a far more experienced and confident birder, with boundless enthusiasm. Together with his friend Tim Andrews, we spent every minute of daylight looking for birds. We travelled on foot, by train and bus, and, when he could persuade his Mother to give up her time, by car.

I was inundated with new species. On New Year’s Day alone, thanks to the Essex estuaries and reservoirs, we recorded Great Northern Diver, Red-necked, Black-necked and Slavonian Grebe, Bewick’s Swan, a dodgy triple of Egyptian Goose, Red –crested Pochard and Ruddy Duck (whose origins were certainly as escapees from wildfowl collections), Smew and Red-breasted Merganser. The three days provided a high-octane birding that was new to me – until now everything (even in Scotland) had been quite sedate, unhurried and relaxing. This was different. Itineraries had been planned, with places to go and a list of target species to see. We seemed to run everywhere. We looked with more intent. As soon as a bird was identified we moved on to the next one. On returning home I worked out my life list. I had now seen 166 species. My UK list had been born and I wanted to add more to it.

A quickly targeted bird was Mandarin Duck (another duck with dodgy credentials). I had heard that they could reliably be seen on the ponds to be found in Richmond and Bushy Parks. A gaudy male flew onto my list at the latter site. This was followed with a successful raid on Staines Reservoir for Goosander. My bird watching had changed. Although the pure joy of ‘being out and about’ was still with me, the observation of new and uncommon species was becoming a driving force, and this was no longer treated as being a ‘guilty pleasure’.

However, Beddington Sewage Farm was still my default place of choice. The winter had been plodding along modestly, with a sizeable flock of Brambling and a handful of Ruff being the constant attractions. A sizable gathering of finches had been attracted to seed that had been inadvertently scattered by the farm workers, this being referred to as ‘screenings’ – basically items that could not pass through the sewage works filters after the waste matter had been treated, which included foodstuff that the birds took full advantage of. The inability of human beings to successfully break down the pips, seeds and skin from fruit and vegetables was further evidenced away from the ‘screenings’ with a profuse sprouting of tomato plants across the filter beds, and at the right time of year they would be joined by Giant Puffballs, football-sized fungi. These would be dispatched with a hefty kick, with a subsequent cloud of spores being released into the air like indignant smoke.

The Brambling flock built to 175 birds by late February, and were joined by Chaffinches, Linnets, Goldfinches and Tree Sparrows, along with the odd Brown Rat. Jack Snipe started to become more frequent as well, with favoured settling-beds being identified, and any visit was not complete without a walk across them to see how many could be flushed – this species rarely took flight unless closely approached, and because they kept still and possessed superb camouflage were very difficult to see. This did take a leap of faith on the part of the observer – would the sludge within the bed have dried out and be firm enough to take the weight of a person? A completely dried bed would not attract any waders, so the Jack Snipe would only choose those that had wet areas. Many a birder’s wellington boot broke through a hard crust only to sink down into a thick, pungent slop. Walking on ground that bounced beneath you was a strange feeling, with this sensation further heightened by the realisation that, if misjudged, you would be up to your thighs within seconds. But it was worth chancing, as to have a Jack Snipe silently take flight off the end of your boot was a magical experience and one that lost none of its potency however often it happened. The Water Pipits that haunted the same beds were far warier and would take flight at the slightest hint of an approaching birder, and liked to disappear off into the distance before settling back down again. Attempts to observe either species on the ground were therefore a challenge, that could be met only with a great deal of patience or luck.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Change of scene

I needed a change of scene - all of this dry inland patch bashing might be terribly worthy, but it's a hard slog. But, being obstinate, instead of rushing to a coastal hotspot I ambled down to the most coastal of inland sites - Pulborough Brooks. During a wet winter it resembles an inland sea, but today it was largely dry.

The hedgerows and copses that run down the hill from the visitor centre towards the flood plain were alive with warbler song - mainly Blackcaps, Whitethroats and Chiffchaffs, but also 5 Lesser Whitethroat, 3 Willow Warbler and 2 Garden Warbler. A special mention must be made for that Pulborough icon, the Nightingale. Being the middle of the day, they were not at their most vocal, although three birds did deign to have a bit of a sing-song.

Little Egret (6), Common Buzzard (15), Red Kite (2), Hobby (2), Lapwing (30), Redshank, Cuckoo, Sedge Warbler and Raven were additional highlights. A visit to this RSPB reserve is never a chore, always a pleasure, and the cafe sells some of the best home made cakes money can buy.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Whitethroats in the rain

I arrived at Priest Hill by 05.30hrs, full of hope for migrants seeing that the wind and rain had got together to promise us birders some action. To cut along story short I left the site by 07.30hrs sans passage migrants... BUT... it was an atmospheric couple of hours. The low cloud and calm conditions gave everything a slightly 'cotton woolly' feeling and the stillness was dominated by the scratchy warble of Common Whitethroats. There was barely a moment that I couldn't hear at least one in song, and at times up to four were assaulting my ears. I reckoned on a minimum of 32 present. Trying to gatecrash in on the act were four rattling Lesser Whitethroats. It was all quite delightful.

I ventured over to Canons Farm (09.30 - 12.30; 14.00 -15.30hrs) where a further nine Common Whitethroats were recorded (including the individual above). However, they were upstaged by a mid-morning female Ring Ouzel, that flew out of the hedgerow by Canons Farmhouse and crossed the fields before alighting at the top of the tallest tree by the L&G car park. That was the last that I saw of it. My first Hobby of 2017 was also seen. A lengthy, heavy period of rain sent me back to the car, and home.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Pom's past the post

There are thirty birders in this photograph, (taken this morning at Dungeness by Owen Leyshon), and most probably a further 10 inside the hide. They are sea watching - or, to be more precise, they are hoping to see a Pomarine Skua. Dungeness is famous for its spring Pom passage, from late-April until mid-May, an avian spectacle that was first 'discovered' in the 1960s and has been avidly awaited in each subsequent year. No two years are the same - the weather dictates what will happen to a large extent, and the current state of the Pomarine Skua population is another aspect that needs to be factored in. There are consequently good years for numbers, and on the flip side, bad years. The passage may start early or late, and also peak early or late. But what has been a constant over the years is the increase in the number of birders who come along to sample it.

If we go back to the mid-1970s and 1980s, when I was an avid Dungeness regular (and sea watching was a passion of mine), even on a promising Pom day at the right time of year, the numbers of birders present would not reach double figures. In fact, during early May 1982, in ideal Pom conditions, I spent a whole week on the beach, with Poms in number each day and most of the time there was just Dave Davenport and myself scanning the sea, with the odd drop-in cameo for company. Back then, to bag a Pom meant that you had to read the weather conditions correctly and have the courage of one's convictions to make the journey down to Dungeness to prove that you had. A few still use this method of fieldcraft, but many now will be responding to the modern day instantaneous birding news feed, provided mainly via tweets. In fact, flocks of Poms are tracked along the south coast, so that the Kent birder's get plenty of warning of up-and-coming flocks from their western colleagues. A couple of years ago I was out shopping one early May Bank Holiday Monday (very dudish of me) when I saw a few tweets coming out of Sussex alerting all and sundry to the arrival of Poms along that coast. I was able to phone one of my Dungeness pals to alert them of this - he was sitting in a cafe on Romney Marsh at the time. He drank up his tea, paid his bill and arrived on the beach at Dungeness just in time to catch them fly past! In the old days he would have missed out on them.

If I'm honest, I look at that image above and shudder. Yes, of course I would have loved to have seen some of the 100+ Poms that were recorded today, but not stood in a line like that. Not my idea of birding at all. But it's my loss - all those in the picture are no doubt glowing with the thought of all those spoons they saw today as I now type away at the keyboard...

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Early Purple Orchids

A visit to any north Surrey deciduous woodland at the moment will be rewarded with literally millions of Bluebells. They are having a good year, and are early - two weeks ago the show at Gatton was virtually at its peak. But in amongst the haze of blue, if you are lucky, you might be able to detect a clash of colour - a purple interloper. Thanks to a tip off from Gordon Hay, my wife and I visited Ranmore Common this morning, to pay homage to a colony of 1,000 spikes of Early Purple Orchid. They were easily found and we spent an enjoyable time in their presence. A fine cross-section of woodland ground flora was also on show. Catch it while you can!

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The return of bits of twig and mothy things

I've been bad. I've neglected my moths - no MV out in the garden since mid-February. And I've largely ignored my flowers - barely glanced at them to be honest. Trouble is, if I don't keep looking at them and naming them, then I lose what little information I'd retained. It means a return to basics, a need to search once again for the commonest names and an uphill struggle to try and remember salient identification features. Does it matter? No, not really, but it does seem a shame to 'go back to square one' when you've put a lot of effort in over the years to try and get to the level of 'competent'. I was wandering around a very quiet Priest Hill this morning when I had a pang of regret over this situation. As much as I've enjoyed the many hours spent birding at this site over the past four months, it's a little like driving up a cul-de-sac - you do need to turn around at some point. So, the MV will be going out again soon and a trek onto the North Downs for a proper day's botanising will quickly follow. Neil Randon once said that this blog had too many references to "'bits of twig and mothy things'" - I think it is dire need of an injection of such stuff. But until then, a Skylark from today, one of the dozen or so present.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Floundering in Israel

Had enough of me banging on about Priest Hill and Wheatears? Thought so. Here's a taster from a trip to Israel that I made in 1986 with my good friend Sean McMinn.

Hula Swamp is a small remnant of a once great wetland that was systematically drained for use as agricultural land. However, what is left is set in a green, verdant world that seemed out of place in my pre-conceived idea of what Israel would be like. In fact most of northern Israel is lushly vegetated and beautiful in the same way as English countryside can be.
The reserve at Hula was not dissimilar to an RSPB reserve back home – car park, visitor centre, wooden hides. The difference here was that there wasn’t anyone around and we had the place to ourselves. Although the reserve was not open as such, we still had access to the hides.
The view from the first hide we entered was simply stunning. A flock of 154 White Pelicans were sitting on the water against a backdrop of sunlit hills. They were restless and soon took to the air, soaring over the swamp, wheeling above us in the clear air. After one final circuit they all drifted away into the distance along with the sunlight that was receding to the top of the distant high ground. After this exodus of pelicans, the water was not left empty, far from it. A loose flock of 1,000 Shoveler littered the surface, but apart from 10 Teal and a handful of Mallard there were no other duck present. The waters edge was refuge to at least 100 Spur-winged Plover that jostled for position out-muscling the 10 Snipe and single Green and Wood Sandpipers.
A lone warbler crashing about in the papyrus caught our attention and started to sing from a lone bush. It was a Clamorous Reed Warbler, a target species at this site. It afforded good views but was not really that impressive, albeit large for a warbler.
Our vantage point allowed for long ranging views over the area, so any passing raptor that came along was easily seen. These included Black Kite (6), Marsh Harrier (2), Hen Harrier (1), Sparrowhawk (1), Osprey (2) and our first two Lesser Spotted Eagles. Beneath them two Purple Herons and two Night Herons were flopping around the watery channels.
Corvids were gathering as the afternoon wore on and ended up with Jackdaw (25), Rook (100) and Hooded Crow (80) vying for position in nearby trees and generally making quite a racket. After watching more Pied Kingfishers (which we never tired of doing), we left the reserve as we had yet to see Marbled Teal, and knew that the fishponds that adjoined the reserve was a good place to see them. Virtually the first species that we saw when peering over the first pond was indeed Marbled Teal, 25 of them, rather nervously huddled together. They took off almost immediately and landed further into the mosaic of ponds.
Hula was an enchanting area, almost a natural amphitheatre, with an attendant cast of birds to grace its stage. We should have spent more time here.
The light had started to fade quickly and our thoughts turned to sleeping arrangements. We had, in effect, been awake for 36 hours so we were ready to crash out for the night. The thought of pitching a tent was all too much so we decided upon sleeping in the car – a more uncomfortable option but in all honesty we couldn’t be bothered to muck around with flysheets, guy ropes and tent pegs. Also, as we were at the edge of a swamp the chances of being bitten to bits by insects was high. A car would keep those little bastards away from us.
Between the small pools (where we had earlier seen the Marbled Teals) and the reserve entrance, we had noticed a track leading off of the road. This was drivable and allowed us to park the car behind a screen of tall trees, a large reed bed flanking us directly opposite. Not a bad spot, ideal for falling out of the car at first light and having instantaneous birding. We were too tired to bother with preparing a meal so we unravelled the sleeping bags, set the alarm clock and settled into our reclined front seat beds. Sean was on the driver’s side, which meant I didn’t have the car pedals taking up valuable leg room. We quietly chatted, watching a total darkness fall upon our reedy panorama. Apart from a few dogs barking, nothing stirred around us. Soon we both fell into a fitful sleep.
I awoke in the blackness in what seemed to me to be hours later. I looked at my watch by torchlight, expecting that dawn would soon be upon us. NINE O’CLOCK!! I had only been asleep for two hours! Christ, now I was wide-awake. As was Sean. We exchanged a few words and then fell quiet, both of us trying once more to get comfortable. I had slept rough on a few occasions in my very brief ‘twitching’ period – bus stops, churches, beaches, cars – and had without exception a poor nights sleep. I always envied those companions who seemed to fall asleep instantaneously in these situations and then proceeded to wake at first light having had a refreshing sleep. This, I could safely predict, was to be another long, long night to add to all those others.
Twenty minutes later we had both settled upon the least uncomfortable position we could find and were attempting to sleep. Then outside in the blackness there was a noise.
Vegetation being trampled.
Very close.
Bloody hell, what was it?
Both of our heads bobbed up from our makeshift pillows. I could sense Sean’s neck craning up, his ears out on stalks seeking confirmation of what we had just heard. I was mirroring him. The blackness slowly returned to silence but my heart was pumping blood through my head and ears at a pace, drowning everything else out.
“What was that?”
“Dunno, just livestock in the reeds?” We weren’t convinced though.
Nothing else made a sound and after several minutes our panic subsided. An uneasy peace settled upon us. That is, until another crash of reeds, much louder and much closer. Sean sat bolt upright, which startled me as much as the sound had. The dogs had started up again…real close.
“There’s someone out there!” Sean hissed, in a strangled whisper.
With that he pounced on the car keys, started the engine, turned on the headlights and took his sleeping bag off in one smooth movement. Before I knew what was going on he had reversed out onto the road and was screeching away from the scene of our unidentified noises. John Thaw and Dennis Waterman had never bettered that getaway in any episode of the Sweeney.
“Did you see anyone?” I enquired trying to piece together the last thirty seconds of madness.
“There was someone walking around the car!” Sean replied. He really was shaken. In the mad scramble away our car headlights had not picked out any person or dog in the beam. But, considering the way in which we had exited the scene, they would have been under the wheels of the car and certainly not on view…We drove out onto the main road and pulled up on the verge, engine still running. Nothing followed us out of the minor road and we cautiously switched the engine off.
We were now able to see the funny side of the situation. Sean at the wheel in his boxer shorts, me wrapped up in a sleeping bag, both of our seats still fully reclined. But we were rattled. What now? We knew that we wanted to head north in the morning so we now had the choice of either heading that way immediately and hope to find somewhere to stay en route, or try to find another, safer bolt hole in the immediate vicinity. We weren’t well prepared however. Apart from at Ein Gedi we didn’t have a clue as to where we were going to stay at any time during our visit. The map before us, as detailed as it was, did not show camp sites. As we were discussing our options a car slowed down and stopped by our side. The only occupant, a middle aged man, wound his window down.
“Hello, are you OK?” he asked in good English.
We didn’t go into any details of our evenings entertainment, just told him that we had flown in from the UK, were birdwatchers and were just looking at our map to find somewhere to stay. He eyed us up and down, no doubt wondering why Sean was in boxer shorts and I was in a sleeping bag.
“OK, take care” he replied and drove away.
Ten minutes later we were still sitting in the car deliberating our next move when he returned. This time he parked his car up ahead of us, got out and walked towards us holding a police badge aloft.
“Look, what are you doing?” he demanded. “This is a dangerous place. A lot of terrorist activity goes on around here in the north. It is not safe for you to be parked like this. Where are you staying tonight?”
We had to confess our lack of plans. I felt like a little boy being caught out at school for not having done his homework.
He got onto his CB radio and spoke in Hebrew. Soon after he told us to go to a nearby police station where they would direct us to a ‘safe’ campsite.
We were made to promise that we would follow his instructions and then both sheepishly got out of the car to sort ourselves out – me to remove the sleeping bag, Sean to put some trousers on.
The police station was only a matter of minutes away. We parked outside and I left Sean in the car and went into the building. It was like walking into the Wild West. The station was manned by several Israeli’s who took no notice of me as their attention was drawn to a murderous looking chap in handcuffs – six foot plus, broad barrel chest and a head like a block of stone with several vicious scars on show. He was prodded by them with a mixture of sticks and fingers before finally being taken from the reception area. One of the policemen then looked towards me, as you would look towards a lump of dog shit. I explained our predicament, told him that his colleague had told us to report here. He didn’t seem to know anything about it but did look at the map I proffered to him and pointed to the town of Rosh Pinna. In broken English he explained that there was a Youth Hostel there. As I walked out of the building another dangerous looking individual was being led in. I swear that I also heard a scream from a room further back in the complex. Maybe another scar was being added to that prisoner's head.
Finding the Youth Hostel was no problem due to very clear sign posting. We parked the car in the hostel’s very own car park and walked towards the building. The front door was wide open and the lights were on. However, nobody seemed to be at home. After we had called out a few half-hearted “hellos”, which elicited no response, we got back into the car.
We were worn out. We had both been rattled. I, for one, felt a failure. Here we were, on our first day in Israel, floundering.
Our problem really boiled down to a lack of planning. We should have sorted out a camp site earlier in the day. Instead, we impatiently went straight to Hula Swamp and birded. If we had been sensible we would now be tucked up in a tent at a safe site and be fast asleep, having no negative thoughts about northern Israel. The policeman who had spoken to us on the road had without question set seeds of doubt into our minds about the safety here in the north. We knew the situation up here was a bit dodgy. Our planned itinery was to drive up to the Golan Heights in the morning after an early visit to Hula Swamp and Wadi Amud. But now we wanted to head somewhere comforting and were seriously contemplating just getting the hell out of the north. We knew that there was a camp site at Ein Gedi and that it was in a ‘friendly area’. We had more or less already cleaned up at Hula Swamp anyway so didn’t really need to go back. We then convinced ourselves that there really wasn’t much to see in the Golan anyway. Our decision was made – we would sleep here in the car tonight, look at Wadi Amud in the morning and take a slow drive south to Ein Gedi afterwards. Basically we were bottling it. I had been looking forward to the Golan Heights. I wanted to see Sombre Tit and Syrian Serin. I wanted to take in the mountain scenery, to look over into the distant and off-limits country of Syria. But for both of us, first time in a perceived semi-hostile situation, we just wanted to be enjoying stress free birding and not worrying about having our heads caved in by a block-headed, barrel-chested terrorist who hid in reed beds at the dead of night. Preposterous I know, but at the time it made eminent sense. We should have taken a deep breath and looked at the facts - this wasn’t the Khyber Pass, it wasn’t the opium triangle on the Thai-Burmese border, this was the westernised USA-backed state of Israel where almost everybody spoke English, the roads were excellent and modern conveniences were at our fingertips. A trip up north should be no more of a risk than visiting any British city after dark or leaving your car parked up in the North Kent Marshes. The two of us just didn’t feel confident enough to take up that challenge. Now that a decision had been made we were quite relieved. To the sound of a calling Tawny Owl we both nodded off and had quite a good nights sleep.

Ranulph Feinnes and Wilfred Thesiger? We were more like Laurel and Hardy.