red kite

It’s a strange dynamic, being a permit holder at the wetlands. When accessing the areas that are out of bounds to all but birdwatchers, security guards and fishermen I’m always conscious of the need to not make it look like a free for all. I don’t dress like a stereotypical birdwatcher and I don’t want to give the impression that I am flouting the rules, and thereby encourage, by my example, others to disregard the signs and overrun the less distrubed sides of the reservoirs.

So I started the day’s walk lingering by the steps up Lockwood’s bank while waiting for the coast to clear before jumping the fence onto its western side. This took me next to an area of uncut scrub I usually only view from afar, but it was quite pleasant to wonder around it at eye-level, listening to the songs of two battling whitethroats.

Today, once again, I was on a loose quest to track down a rosy starling, and Lockwood is often a good place to find marauding, post breeding flocks probing the wasteland of mown grass for grubs.

Despite the work of the mowers the avenue of purple flowers along the trackside has been left alone, as has the giant exotic thistle, as tall as a pony, that looms over the landscape like a queen on a chessboard. A fisherman sits nearby taking photographs of a sedate flotilla of geese. I’m glad there is some overlap in our interests. On my part, I find it interesting to observe the diverse range of fishing paraphernalia and behaviours.

This particular specimen has four rods spaced out at intervals of around 20 metres. Each rests on its own stand, like a spider rest on the snooker table, and somehow managing to gain purchase on the submerged aggregate of the reservoir walls. One rod beeps as I walk by — it’s all hi-tech sensors nowadays. Aside from the fly fishermen, anglers seem to have lost interest in holding on to their rods. Even a group of teenage fishers I come across later have the same setup.

It reminds me of an advertorial I saw a few weeks ago in a birdwatching magazine for some innovative, smart binoculars:

The dG goes one step further, immediately transmitting captured digital images directly to an identification app o a smartphone or tablet, via its own built-in wi-fi hub

It described these innovations as the next logical step in fieldcraft, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Where’s the fun in that?”. I sometimes debate with an artist friend of mine the merits of experience versus categorisation, and the strange blend of hunter, detective, collector and nature-loving romantic that makes up a birdwatcher’s psyche. Maybe I’m a luddite, but the fishermen pacing up and down the waterside in boredom while their electronic eyes do the fishing isn’t an example I want to follow.

A kestrel glides in from the east and settles to hunt over Tottenham Marsh. It hovers, spirit-level still, in the fresh breeze, silhouetted and devoid of colour. After only a few seconds it drops a shoulder and shimmies onwards to inspect another patch of grass for voles. It repeats the move again and again, impatiently searching for a meal. Soon I lose sight of it to the south. As a child passenger in the family car driving up the A483 to Chester the sight of a kestrel hovering above the roadside verge was always a moment of excitement, and my head would roll backward to watch it for as long as possible as it receded from view.

At the top of the reservoir I hear an old friend, a lesser whitethroat jangling away. I creep down into another patch of unkempt meadow I rarely set foot in order to stalk the source of the tantalising ditty. It sounds like trying to start an old car with an almost flat battery, the engine not quite turning over. I say old car because I don’t recall hearing the sound for many years — cars are so quiet nowadays.

I find the group of bushes the bird is in, but despite spending a good fifteen minutes triangulating the sound and trying various vantage points all I get are a couple of brief glimpses. Damn midsummer leaves.

I make the rare decision to walk down the far side of High Maynard, the lake on one side and the concrete overflow channel and a menagerie of light industrial warehouses on the other. It can be a good spot for starlings but today, as on the rest of the reserve, they are absent. Instead I find the track strewn with feathers and goose shit, and a lone coot’s egg, pale grey and flecked with ink, abandoned on the grass. It’s like the aftermath of some strange kink party.

coot egg

Nearing the end of the walk I run in to Lol, wearing his Hi-Viz and carrying the warden’s garulous walkie talkie. After the obligatory talk of what is — or rather, what isn’t — about, we jealously discuss the south of France and its avifauna, pipe-dream about setting up a birdwatching tour company in the Cevennes, and bitch playfully about certain other birdwatchers’ sickeningly mercurial ability to magic rare birds out of thin air — maybe it’s pheromones?

Pausing at the victorian water tower at the southe end of Lockwood, as if by poetic magic a painted lady butterfly flits into view, right on queue when we mention them. I might hang aroudn for a while and scan the sky for passing raptors, I say, and no sooner have the words left my mouth than a Red Kite coasts in from the west.

Red kites are iconic birds. Driven almost to extinction in the UK, I saw one once from the Tal-y-Llyn steam railway in mid wales while on holiday as a six or seven year old. While that memory is not as vivid as that of the luxury of having a ping pong table in our self-catering accommodation, I was somehow aware that the bird I briefly saw sitting on a fence post across the ffrith was particularly special.

Save for a journey once in my teens to visit their wintering stronghold (at a farm near Rhayedr in mid-Wales an enterprising farmer spread a tractor-load of offal on the hillside every day, and charged birdwatchers to sit in the cold watching the kites swoop down to gorge on it), I did not see another kite in Wales until a three week stay in Aberdyfi a couple of years ago where, thanfully, they are now common as buzzards.

It’s far easier to see them in the south-east of England nowadays though after a very successful reintroduction programme, and they frequently pass through London. I boat-sat for some friends in Reading about five years ago and on my two mile traipse to the closest co-op I would often have one, or both, of the local pair circle low above me, demonstrating a curiosity that’s rare in wildlife of any kind. Perhaps, with their precision cut forked tail and lithe, arm-like and deeply fingered wings, that seem to balance in the air like the suspended hands of a marionette, they have the luxury of being more in control of the relationship than most, rightly anxious creatures do.

Today I watch the kite float closer, the sun lighting up its fiery copper tones, and then soar laconically away northwards. They’re not the rare sight they once were, but are still every bit as stunning, and I daren’t take my eyes away. Higher up, a peregrine circles, awaiting the right time to plummet to earth.

I’m spoilt for choice what to write about today. Perhaps there is enough luck to go around after all.

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