1980 Part 4 - The Dummer Scops Owl

Every five seconds a monotonous single call note was given – I didn’t know whether to describe it as a penetrating whistle or a hoot. Maybe a bit of both. We were straining to try and get a glimpse of the bird that was making it, but a mature tree in full leaf, in the middle of a field, and at dusk, were proving to be considerable stumbling blocks. After half an hour of standing on a road that ran alongside the field’s edge, the bird dropped out of the tree and made a short, direct flight into another, from where it started to call once more. We were lucky, as unlike most of the 150 birders present, we had been standing in the right place at the right time, able to watch the Scops Owl in flight. The views had not been great but were enough to make out a small grey owl, thinner and more drawn out in shape than a Little. And so, the sleepy Hampshire hamlet of Dummer found itself at the centre of the British birding universe, hosting the first twitchable Scop’s Owl of our lifetimes.

Dave E, Terry S and I had arrived on site at 20.45hrs on May 19th and could hear the owl calling as we got out of the car. Our wait had not been a long one, but some of the other birders present were destined to not see it this particular evening. We left at 22.30hrs, having seen the owl’s fleeting shape fly across the field several times, leaving behind a band of steadily panicking birders, all desperate to set their eyes upon it. But in the dark, their mission was fraught with difficulty.

We returned four days later, arriving at 20.30hrs and staying until 00.30hrs. The owl was more visible on this visit but did not show until 21.40hrs. We saw it well, in flight, twice. The bird seemed to have settled into a pattern of visiting favoured trees, calling regularly. As it had now been observed over several days, observers were becoming smart to how it behaved, and more birders were bringing torches with them, hoping to spotlight the owl, but most of these were feebly powered and struggled to illuminate the owner’s feet, let alone a bird in a tree. Dave and I retired to the pub halfway through our visit, and inside we found an incredulous clientele, coming to terms with their sleepy, well-to-do village being overrun with birders. They had a sense of pride and ownership in this Mediterranean overshoot, and welcomed us, particularly the pub’s landlord who must have been delighted with the sudden influx of customers and revenue. This was becoming an increasingly common situation, of a rare bird being discovered close to a community, and the subsequent arrival of hundreds of birdwatchers. A positive reaction from the locals was not something that could be taken for granted, and the behaviour of those of us who ‘invaded’ their space was critical to ensuring that any twitch – particularly a prolonged one – went smoothly. Local businesses such as pubs, shops and café could benefit greatly from having a travelling caravan of new customers, with some enterprising locals setting up impromptu front-garden coffee and tea shops, raising pocket money for kids or nominated charities. Several weeks later I received a phone call from Dick Burness, who was following up on a rumour that the owl had been released. Apparently, this information had come into the public domain courtesy of ‘a birder with Dungeness connections’. No doubt a story concocted by somebody who had missed out.

I was back in Hampshire for another rarity within days, but not before I had recorded a male Cirl Bunting on the Surrey chalk hills at Pewley Downs; spent a soporific afternoon on Thursley Common; watched a Ringed Plover on a small settling bed at Beddington; and experienced a surprisingly quiet day at Pagham Harbour. On the evening of May 28th, I was getting ready to watch the live coverage of Nottingham Forest’s European Cup Final against Hamburg when Dave E phoned – there was a singing Great Reed Warbler at Fleet Pond. After picking up Terry S on route, we arrived at 18.15hrs and walked along the tree-lined edge of a large lake towards the station. We could easily hear the bird at full throttle, a loud, ponderous, croaking song, which diminished the other acrocephalus warblers that were singing to mere whispers. The bird was immediately in view, perched on a reed stem that was bending under the warbler’s weight. It moved with a heaviness, the stocky body, and thick bill on a triangular shaped head, bearing no comparison to the puny Reed Warblers nearby. It sang throughout our stay, at times directly in front of us, head on. Even in the evening’s gloom the bright orange gape shone out as the bird’s beak opened wide to issue forth its harsh song, the notes being launched into a sky that was alive with hundreds of Swifts and House Martins. We bumped into a local birder who Terry knew, and she invited us back for a drink at her home, which was close by. The house was quite grand, but what impressed me most was her birding library, which was housed in floor to ceiling bookcases along all four walls of a large room, a table placed in its centre. I was already a self-confessed bibliophile, and this room was breath-taking. It seemed as if every bird book that I knew existed was here on these shelves, with many more besides, a collection populated by rare first-editions, handbooks, and the most recently published tomes. It made more of an impression upon me than the Great Reed Warbler did.

On May 31st I was dipping at Breydon Water in Norfolk, where, after a four-day stay, a Broad-billed Sandpiper had decided that it was time to depart. We sat on a bank that ran parallel with a road, scoping through a modest gathering of waders, desperately hoping that the rarity might reappear. Whistle-stop visits to Cley, Titchwell and Holme only underlined that Norfolk was not setting the ornithological world alight at that moment in time. An overnight stay in the car at Cley was ‘enjoyed’, and after an early morning Little Gull, we cut our losses and headed to Minsmere. Our reason for pitching up at this Suffolk RSPB reserve was due to reports of a Hoopoe frequenting a heathy field close to the entrance track. I had longed to see this species, one that had leapt out at me from my first field guides, teasing me with its exotic head-dress, curved bill, pale apricot body plumage and humbug-striped wings. It was on show as soon as we arrived, and for 15 minutes we were able to watch it grubbing about in the dirt and flick its way across the field with an undulating flight. It lived up to expectations. The reserve was quite lively, and apart from the expected Marsh Harriers, Avocets (60) and Bearded Tit we also saw Turtle Dove, eight Yellow Wagtails, two Wheatears, Common Redstart, a singing Wood Warbler and six Spotted Flycatchers.

I had neglected Beddington, so returned for a mooch about on familiar ground as much as a spot of birding. The sewage farm was in full summer mode – gathering flocks of juvenile Starlings; squabbling gangs of House Sparrows that had built into a flock of 400; three-figure counts of Swifts patrolling above the rank vegetation; and alarm calls from breeding Lapwings, that flipped and rolled on my approach, leading me away from where their young were hiding in the vegetation. A Turtle Dove and up to four Green Sandpipers were welcome additions to the lazy summer lists.

In late June, Dave E and I spent a sunny, but cool morning on the Thames estuary at East Tilbury in Essex. The hoped-for Little Egret had gone, but the Coldhouse Fort area held plenty of interest for us. There was a small colony of Common Terns on a sandpit island, with Ruff, Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher and Yellow Wagtail nearby. The scrub was full of birds, and we were surprised to find Turtle Dove, several Spotted Flycatchers and Corn Buntings, with Grey Partridge also haunting the brownfield site. Spotted Flycatchers were also a feature in our Cheam back garden, with a pair hanging about for several days, although they did not stay and breed. The recent, unwelcome run of dipping on good birds continued, with a very wet visit to Redland Pit at Sevenoaks in Kent, where a Marsh Warbler had been singing. Some compensation was had when we met the warden, who kindly gave us a personal tour around the reserve. Apart from a roost of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a couple of Redpoll it was quiet.

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