|Mark Davis's evocative shot of Box Hill being photobombed by London|
I do find myself in a 'strange' place. 'Strange' because I have, after 46 years of birding, finally come to a place of contentment. 'Happy with my lot' kind of contentment. This after years of 'stop-start' twitching, adopting patches that were over 90-miles away from home, taking on limiting projects with grandiose ideas of what they would yield - I could go on...
This year of COVID-19 did force us (well, most of us) to stay closer to home, limit travel and take on-board the 'new ornithological normal' of walking into a garden or looking out of a window and actually birding - proper birding - as opposed to the pre-COVID19 habit of half-heartedly looking up into the sky as we walked to the car to travel elsewhere. The results were truly unexpected. 'Hidden in plain sight' passages of birds, nocturnal waders and wildfowl and all-day raptor streams that made us get up in the morning (or sit out in the gathering evening gloom) full of anticipation and excitement. When lock-down eased, the return to what we once did ornithologically had subtly shifted.
I can clearly remember the sense of adventure in the summer when I returned to local patches that I had not visited since March. These were places that, if not summarily dismissed beforehand, had been taken somewhat for granted. In this 'new normal' I was seeing them through a clearer, brighter lens. They promised much.
My first birding foray out of the county post-lockdown was to the West Sussex South Downs in early September. I spent two days exploring the hills either side of Washington and had a brilliant time, full of Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchats and Warblers. And then, last week, I had a whole week in the Dungeness area, a place that holds a special place for me, and once again provided some memorable birding. But strangely, when I returned home from these excursions, rather than get depressed about my inferior local birding opportunities compared to where I had just been plying my optics, it did the opposite. My efforts closer to home were energised - I'd undergone the ornithological equivalent of a blood transfusion!
This week I have witnessed some brilliant thrush migration from the garden. Thousands of Redwings and Fieldfares have streamed westwards with the odd Crossbill and Hawfinch thrown in. Had I still been at Dungeness I would have been able to spend time with a Red-flanked Bluetail, but I would have missed the thrushes. Now, as much as I would have liked to have seen the Bluetail, I will share something with you that you may not believe. I wouldn't swap the thrush experience for the Bluetail. Why not? The thrushes were mine. Nobody else saw them. They were of national numerical relevance. They meant something to me. The Bluetail did not.
I have spent most of the day looking at images of the Norfolk Rufous Bush-chat and the Kent Masked Shrike. I've read accounts of birders tripping over Dusky and Pallas's Warblers. I have not had one pang of envy. I am happy for the finders, and, even though I do not understand why grown men need to drive long-distances to see a bird somebody else has found, I respect their freedom to do so. What do I get from keeping up with this glut of rarities gumming up my media timeline? Hope. Hope that I might be lucky enough to be tossed just a crumb from the birding Gods. As much as my local birding is not about rarity (and how could it?) I am not impervious to the excitement of the chances of it happening, even if those chances are very slim indeed.
After many years of optic abuse, and having dined (maybe just briefly) at the top table, it is a blessing to be able to get so much out of birding in places of modest means, close to home. There is a perverse sense of 'trailblazing' and trying to prove a point that 'local and dry' can be rewarding. When it comes right - and it often does - it is exhilarating.
This week, as I have stepped out of the back door to wait for dawn to break and the thrushes to start passing overhead, I have chuckled to myself. How lucky am I that this, the simplest and purest form of birding, can still float my boat after so long. I don't need a Bush-chat or a Bluetail. If I start to get a bit ornithologically leggy I just need a quick trip down to the Sussex downs or the Kent shingle to recharge the batteries, and then it's back to my modest scrap of Surrey. Even on the edge of London, there is much to see. And who knows, there might be a chat with a blue tail waiting for me...