Yesterday’s taster of wind and rain has become quite the mouthful today. I avoided the morning’s downpours through a savy combination of sleeping in and DIY, but this did mean missing out on the Curlew that Daniel had seen struggling south through the rain.
Finding unusual birds during periods of heavy rain has pedigree, but also requires determination and willpower on behalf of the birdwatcher. Especially given that all too often the only rewards are the exercise, a thoroughly clean pair of shoes and — if you’re in the right mood to appreciate it — a freshening of the spirit.
Over the last year my lot has been to receive those prosaic rewards without the trophy of a rare bird dropping in, with a couple of notable exceptions. Last spring I caught a gloriously suave black tern before it evaporated north (though this was originally found by somebody else, and was less a reward for than the root cause of my soaking), and this May I found a flock of seven whimbrel, the curlew’s smaller cousin, battling their way against a bodyweight-supporting, sleet throwing northern gale.
But by and large I am mostly just grateful that I am the type that enjoys the bracing weather.
By the time I headed out today the rain had well and truly come to a close, leaving behind the strongest winds for weeks (or months?) to ruffle feathers and bend trees. Over coppermill lane hundreds of swifts and martins hurtled along on its particle accelerator force fields. While they appear dare devil in their speed, I think I know why they come down so low on days like these; even for them the pace is too hot to handle high up in the sky when the tempest is in town.
Sand martins and terns struggle to make any headway propelling themselves south over East Warwick, but seem to enjoy turning and letting the wind send them, in just a few seconds, the full length of the lake. Around the back of No. 5 the common sandpiper is still there, joined today by two terns floating along, taking turns to dip down to the surface and wet their beaks.
I also see a pair of mistle thrushes, the first I’ve seen here since the blog began. Easily the least attractive of our thrushes, they manage to look untidy even when every feather is precisely in its place. Their heads look as if they’ve been made from papier mache, left at the strips-of-newspaper stage before the paint goes on. I think one of them is a juvenile as it appears to be mid-moult; little fresh feathers, like scales or arrows, poke out between the grey-brown base coat and, for a change, it looks as if it has made an effort. It’ll wear off soon I expect. One of them carries a grub or two in its beak and as I approach they both fly off, rattling in alarm as they go.
I have nothing calling me urgently home — waiting for the glue to dry and the washing machine to finish — so continue onto the north side of the reserve. In the overgrown waterside willows next to the car park at least one family of blue tits, stained pale yellow with youth, bustles along from tree to tree. In the winter I waited here for hours on end in search of the firecrests that spent the winter. As autumn progresses this warbler-friendly avenue will become a more regular haunt but for today it’s merely a pleasant, low-key intermission.
On High Maynard the tufted ducks are beginning to gather in rafts to moult. By late summer these elegant, black and white ducks will number in their thousands. Today they bob up and down on their pint-sized sea as it tries to throw them of. Ducklings and cootlets take refuge in the wind shadow of an island. A pair of gadwall plummet out of the sky and glide magnificently on the breeze to a dramatic splashdown finale. It’s like watching the ski jumping on the telly.
At the back of the industrial estate a couple of sizeable willow trees, united by their foliage, billow green and turn sea monster; slowly they swallow the stockyard whole. As I approach canada geese and their tweenage goslings run, showing only their heads and necks above the thick bed of knapweed, to the safety of the water. The few lesser black-backed gulls overhead chatter to one another with the economical verbiage of an Alan Bennett play:
With dark clouds accelerating behind, and some well-placed sunbeams picking them out individually, they are the opposite of silhouettes. They hang in the breeze like the finely drawn main characters against the out of focus, layered background of a classic Disney film.
On the far side of Lockwood, within view of Tottenham’s football ground, I pause to record a birthday message for my football fan friend. The wind here is as bracing as anywhere on the reserve and the microphone, at times, picks up little more than the wind’s distorted huffs and puffs. Finishing the recording I pick up my binoculars again and focus in on a blue plastic bag travelling north on the wind. It’d be a beautiful sight were it easier to dismiss its primary function of being litter.
But I do have it to thank for pointing my eyes in the right direction at the right time. Another curlew hauled itself laboriously south against the wind, keeping close to the water surface and looking fairly unremarkable, like an immature gull. Largely the same brown colour as dead and rotting vegetation, the curlew’s dedication to camouflage severely diminished its visual allure, and its plumage is dull to look at even by well-camouflaged birds’ standards.
But this is not why I — and many others — love the curlew.
The one I saw today had a relatively short bill, hinting that it was probably a male (or, fingers crossed, a young bird, althoug that would be very early to fledge). Even this specimen had a beak several times longer than its head, with a pleasant downward curve, like Gonzo from The Muppets’ sophisticated French cousin. A common sight in my childhood, we would watch them probing the mud, seaweed or turf of many a wide, Welsh expanse. One place in particular, a beach midway between Beaumaris and Penmon, was always home to a few birds engaged in a stately search for worms as the tide tried to rush them. Once, we saw porpoises too.
Despite their size — the largest british wader, almost as big as a goose — their cryptic plumage means they are hard to see. But they are rarely difficult to find due to their hauntingly beautiful songs and calls. The call that gives them their name — an uileann pipe-like “currr-lee” — is how I’d want to be called if I were a dog. It is, more or less, how Mrs. Irons — the proprietor of the self-catering cottage we used to frequent each year on Anglesey — used to call her eldest border collie, Chips. How intricate and pretty a tapestry our memories weave.
On the hillsides and moors around Wrexham, where I grew up, these calls were commonplace. And at Point of Ayr on the Dee estuary in winter they’d mingle with the calls of oystercatchers, redshanks and shelducks as they abandoned the mudflats ahead of the rising tide, and gathered in their thousands to roost.
Interspersed with the calls there would always be a few songs, as beautiful a sound as you will hear in nature. Whistles break up and burble, with the voices of many birds layered on top of one another making the air shimmer with sound.
When I was eight years old my party trick was to hold some saliva in my mouth while I whistled, imitating their sound. I got a gold star for it in class. I can still do it:
The book I’m currently reading, Curlew moon by Mary Colwell does a far more comprehensive job than this short post of bringing them to life, but also focuses on the sad story of their demise. Once common on moorland, marsh and pasture, the tens of thousands of pairs that used to breed here are now reduced to a fraction of that number, most of the decline occuring since the eighties. There are serious concerns that they’re well on their way to extinction.
Which is why I am hopeful the short-billed wanderer who strayed onto our local patch is a child of 2020.
And maybe it will come back the same way next spring.
🦅 First boring bird
Related boring birds: Swift, House martin, Sand martin, Common tern, Common sandpiper, Mistle thrush, Blue tit, Tufted duck, Coot, Gadwall, Canada goose, Lesser black-backed gull,
🦚 All boring birds