This isn't a gripe, or a moan, or a 'woe is me' post. It's more of a coming to terms with things, those things being ornithological. By mid-September the autumn migration is well under way. My Twitter feed is full of sightings, mostly rare. The What'sApp groups are also lively, and the one that deals with visible migration is positively purring, full of big numbers of birds making their way from A to B. Even the locally-based ones are reporting good birds - Great White Egret at Beddington, Glossy Ibis at Tice's Meadow. Even birding chums are getting in on the act today, with Mark H smashing the Kent Cattle Egret record and Mike B finding an Arctic Warbler in Norfolk. It is very easy to feel left out of it.
However, there are a few things that you need to do to be able to join in with such observations and discoveries. Number one - get out into the field! My excuse today is that there were a number of pressing DIY projects that needed completion, although I did take a break and go for an hour's walk this afternoon (sans optics and certainly not anywhere birdy.) That leads on to number two - Location, location, location. As I have demonstrated over the past two weeks, birding the South Downs certainly beats birding the North Downs. Portland beats Beachy Head and Spurn beats Portland, but it all depends what you are after really. For me, I like to like where I'm birding as much as whether or not it is good for birds. When I go down to Dungeness I steer clear of the trapping area (too overgrown) and the southern-most tip of the peninsula (too busy with tourists) and instead luxuriate in the relative quietness of the desert and the fishing boats. I rarely find much but I gain a spiritual calm in doing so. And talking of finding stuff leads to number three - be prepared. Half a glimpse is all that a top field man/woman needs to know that they are onto something. Knowing where to look is an art that might seem obvious but one that few birders can successfully carry out. And what about number four, putting in the effort? The more time that is spent will ultimately reward you. No good giving somewhere an hour and deciding that there is 'nothing doing'.
Now let me be terrible hard on myself. Marks out of ten for each of those four categories:
Get out into the field - well I do get out most days, so that's got to be worth 8/10
Location, location, location - big let down here, just mooching around my dry local patches, with the odd excursion to Sussex or Kent (and then veering away from the 'tried and tested' places means 3/10
Be prepared - I'm not really. Whereas I used to read all of the identification papers that were published thirty years ago I'm hardly aware of any that might be coming along nowadays. I rarely peruse a field guide, and because of this am undoubtably field rusty (although I do still possess a better than average knowledge of bird calls). I am relying on old memory here. However, my reading of the lie of the land, where to seek out those hidden migrants and where best to position myself to ensure that I can pick up those that are moving overhead is still pretty good. This rescues a low score and bumps it up to a credible(ish) 6/10
Putting in the effort - a hard one to score this. When I get the bit between my teeth (such as the 'track and trace' Hawfinch exercises back in 2017-18) it would be high, but then again there have been too many despondent mornings where I've cut short the birding day by hours. Another 6/10.
I'm lucky. I have my plants, moths and butterflies to prop up any birding slumps, but... birds are number one. I still go out and, even after 46 years of birding, do so with excitement and anticipation. Any suggestion of overhead movement has me beside myself. A single chat on a fence post, a flash of Redstart tail along a hedgerow or a flick 'in-and-out' of a flycatcher captivates me. And, when lying in bed in the dead of night, a calling Tawny Owl still gives me goose-bumps. For all of that I'll give myself 10/10.
I'm aware that quite a few inland birders have recently shown their frustrations about missing out, not being in the right place and not being able to do much about it. I get it. I'm one of them at times. But we make our own rules. Within reason (in these strange times) they are our rules to break. Maybe I need to go further afield more regularly. Maybe I should tone down my expectations when birding locally - that longed for Wryneck or Red-backed Shrike is more likely to be a Redstart or Tree Pipit, and if it is then be pleased with that. And if it is all so quiet, so quiet that I am considering packing up, just stand still, push the reset button, and start working the patch again, with a new resolve and fresh eyes.