Sunday, 13 December 2020

A birding year like no other

Looking back on 2020 was always going to be an exercise shrouded in the spectre of COVID. There is just no escaping from the fact that, at the very least, the virus inconvenienced and disrupted all of us - and for the unfortunate few, it impacted in a far more tragic way. Back in January the virus was nothing more than a vague whisper from a region of China that few of us had heard of before. Birding was a free and easy way to spend quality time, without the need to calculate bubble-sizes, lockdown quotas and the rights and wrongs of how to bird... times were easy.

My own birding year began locally. Apart from a trip to Pulborough Brooks in January, and a brief Dungeness visit at the end of February, everything was done locally, and nothing unexpected came my way. At the start of March, at Canons Farm, I had a run of birds that hinted at a good spring to come, with Black Redstart (2nd), Wheatear (11th, very early) and Woodlark (16th). Then the virus arrived. Lockdown was announced. A holiday to southern Spain was cancelled. Things became surreal.

If there was a tiny blessing to be had from the situation we found ourselves in then it came in the form of a reawakening of a connection with the natural world, and in the birding community this manifested itself even further with a long-overdue appreciation of the birds to be recorded from our own back-gardens or windows. Following on from an initiative that had started in Italy (#BWKM0 - bird-watching at zero kilometres), this blog became the host site to a UK version, in solidarity and support of our hard-hit Italian comrades.

Our own modest gang kept an eye and ear on-the-skies over a six week period, and we numbered 61 sites (including one in Albania, one in Eire, and another in the Chatham Islands). A British Isles total of 187 species were recorded, a phenomenal effort, with some truly surprising species cropping up, as can be seen from the graphic above. 221 'firsts for the garden' were recorded. But beyond these numbers was the sheer joy and camaraderie that was experienced. For me, those weeks became a whirl of back garden birding and collating the observations from the other participants, as my Whatt'sApp, Twitter, e-mail and Facebook feeds were constantly being updated with the latest highlights. At the end of each day I would prepare a post and feel a definite sense of being involved in a heart-warming enterprise. Towards the end of March something happened that we could all enjoy and share - an unprecedented passage of nocturnal wildfowl and waders. Maybe unprecedented is too strong a billing for the event, maybe this happens each and every spring, but a few things conspired to make it something that was widely 'observed' - calm weather, quiet skies due to a lack of road and air traffic and birders with time on their hands and the bit between their teeth. My own haul during this night-time festival comprised Common Scoter (twice), Brent Goose (twice), Teal, Gadwall, Coot, Moorhen (several), Golden Plover and, in late-April, Bar-tailed Godwit.

Once lockdown was over, and I could wander a bit further with a clear conscience, I still stayed fairly local. This paid-off handsomely when I had a calling Bee-eater fly over me (unseen) at Howell Hill on 1st June. And, I can now reveal, that I was a bit of a naughty boy on 22nd June when I just happened to be in the company of a Surrey lister when he heard the news that a Roseate Tern had appeared on Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir - and most unlike me, I took up the offer of having a look.

Roseate Tern - naughty but nice. Pots and kettles spring to mind.

The next birding highlight was an unexpected and unseasonal ring-tail Hen Harrier that spent a few days at Canons Farm in late-July - my second for the site. It was turning out to be a good summer for Crossbills, with small groups of birds being encountered - usually calling overhead - across the whole area. Locally, the early-autumn was one of standard fare. The chat passage was strong, with good counts of Whinchats and Stonechats. A couple of visits were made to the Sussex South Downs, which were full of birds, particularly Spotted Flycatchers and Common Redstarts, but this only went to underline how poor 'my' section of the North Downs was in comparison. Twice as much effort is needed to yield a quarter of what I saw across the county boundary. Back home, a couple of sizeable pushes of House Martins were witnessed, including 2,200 SW through Priest Hill on 30th September.

I finally conceded that I needed a bit of a 'proper' birding break, so found myself having a week close to Dungeness in early-October. I still kept clear of the crowds, so spent most of my time birding on the edge of the area. This resulted in some pleasurable finds, which included Yellow-browed Warbler, Stone Curlew and one of the most showy and confiding Red-backed Shrikes at St.Mary's Bay (top). I timed my arrival home to perfection, as it coincided with a large arrival of Redwings. From the garden I was able to witness three heavy days of west to north-west passage, with 7,724 on 12th; 3,203 on 13th (with an incredible 1,558 Fieldfare); and 5,334 on 15th.

The year started to fade away in a greyness of mild weather and drizzle, but birding is never predictable. A most unusual push into SE England of 'Russian' White-fronted Geese included not only Surrey but the Uber-patch as well, so I was more than grateful to watch 45 of these splendid birds grazing on the River Mole flood-plain at Betchworth on December 2nd. They are mostly still there as I write.

No two years are the same, but I somehow doubt that any year will come close to 2020 for its sheer weirdness. Will I ever again need to check that, aside from my optics and notebook, I have packed hand gel and a surgical mask?


Gavin Haig said...

Funnily enough I've recently been thinking about compiling a 2020 retrospective a bit early, but you've beaten me to it, Steve. Though I'm not sure I could do it justice in a single post. 😊

Not sure how many feel the same, but for me 2020 saw the 'online birding community' taking a more prominent role in my birdy life than ever before, via Twitter and WhatsApp mainly. Interesting stuff...

Steve Gale said...

Gav, your second paragraph could make a great post subject. So that’s your next two posts sorted...