The straws that broke this birder's back
This is the last of the Dungeness retrospectives, that's a promise! I haven't run out of subjects, but like all things, you reach a sell-by date. To end on a downer is not indicative of my times at Dungeness, but this particular episode saw a sea-change in how I approached the shingle kingdom.
Dungeness Nov 1992
A Richard’s Pipit has been found on the RSPB reserve. It’s Saturday, so there are plenty of observers around searching for it. The bird is very flighty and settles in a large grassy field. The field is off limits. Sightings of the bird are few and when I appear I do not connect with it. Little is seen until the late afternoon when it appears briefly for a chosen few. The following morning I return to the field early and walk along the footpath on its eastern edge, very slowly, scanning the field intently. When I’m only ten yards from the field’s end I turn back, assuming the bird has gone. At this point another birder joins me, we briefly chat, and he continues walking those extra ten yards. Minutes later he flushes the Richard’s Pipit, seeing and hearing it well. I’m out of view and miss it. I then spend the rest of the day standing by the field, staring into a tangle of dead vegetation, feeling cheated and irritable. I return home late afternoon to get a phone call telling me that the pipit came back again to the same field corner at dusk to roost. So what do I do? I do what I shouldn’t. This morning I arose at some ungodly hour, got back in the car and drove the ninety miles back to Dungeness to stand in that same godforsaken corner at first light. I should be at work. I didn’t want to come back but I had to. Why? To add another species to my Dungeness list? To exhibit to my peers my prowess as a hunter gatherer? To exorcise the realisation that if I’d have walked those ten extra yards on the Sunday morning I would have seen the bloody thing already? So here I am, staring into the same field that had bored me rigid only days before, repeating the same, sad process of missing a Richard’s Pipit. I am starting to finally accept the futility of my self-made situation.
A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is a major rarity in the Dungeness area and one has been found in the copse by Lydd roundabout. It’s as rare at Dungeness as a Red-eyed Vireo believe it or not. When I found out about its appearance the all too familiar reaction reared its ugly head – a feeling of dread that, even though I don’t want to, I really should go down to see it and add it my all powerful Dungeness list. But wait… isn’t this the same species that I’ve seen in my back garden and is relatively easy to find in the local woods? Why am I considering embarking on a 180-mile round trip to see a bird that I could almost stroll across the road to watch. Easy to answer that question – it’s that bloody Dungeness list again, pulling me towards acts of foolishness. So, like an idiot I have driven to Lydd roundabout, parked the car and wandered the copse joylessly, hardly bothering to look at the Firecrests that are present. After a couple of hours I finally hear the woodpecker calling. I don’t see it. I cannot be bothered to see it – a call will do for the purposes of the list. Have I ever been more dejected by a visit to Dungeness and the process of adding a species to my list? I get back in the car and realise that I can no longer carry on like this. It’s soulless and pointless. A list should be a bit of fun, something that acts as an attachment to your interest in ornithology, not an all-consuming reason for doing it. My Dungeness list had become a fetish – something to cling to but to also fear. Who am I competing with? I can’t possibly keep up with the regulars who not only live practically on site but don’t even have the inconvenience of a regular 9-to-5 job. Will anyone really think of me as a better human being because my Dungeness list is at 270 and not 269? I don’t think so. As I drive away I realise that things have changed. No more will Dungeness ‘make me’ visit when I don’t really want to. My visits will be on my terms....
And, largely, they have. It is fair to say that, although my early visits were full of awe and wonder, the past few years have seen my most personally fulfilling times spent at Dungeness - a mixture of contentment and, I suppose, maturity. The natural history is, in reality, no more important than the social aspect of a visit. To wander across the beach by the fishing boats, taking photographs of overturned fish boxes and abandoned netting is as relaxing and enjoyable as a Pallas's Warbler in the lighthouse garden - no, really.