Dawn through Garten Woods. This isn’t HDR, two different exposures stitched together, because HDR is an affront to taste and human decency…
8pm and Fen Drayton was bathed in the golden light of impending dusk. With verdant green banks and reeded fringes it was hard to tell that this was a completely man made landscape- only the regimented barring of islands on the scrape gave it away. Lapwings and other plovers chased after their chicks along the bars, whilst Cuckoos filled the air, before one eventually flapped its way across the vista- like a simulation of an elasticated falcon.
Not this- not even a Bullfinch defying its appearance and gently feeding on a patch of weeds, could cheer me up. The drake Blue-winged Teal had flown not more than 30 minutes ago. Fen Drayton is a tortuous complex of 12 gravel pits, with even more lakes in the areas off the reserve. It could’ve been anywhere.
I walk back frustrated, too frustrated to enjoy a summer evening in the Cambridgeshire countryside. Tufted Ducks fly overhead and drop onto the lake. A few Mallards follow suit, which, with the benefit of hindsight should’ve been a flashing fluorescent warning sign to stop. To get back to the lake. But I pressed on. Dad reaches the car and drives on a short distance, I elected to walk. Ferry Lagoon, the largest of the lakes gets a cursory scan. It’s not teal like, too deep, too big, only the preserve of the big Aythya diving ducks surely?
I turn away and see 3 ducks flying over. Two of which were Mallards and I forget what sex and plumage because they were rather overshadowed by the company they were keeping. Half moon patch on the face, electric blue wing coverts- not the speculum- body apparently all dark- Blue-winged Teal! A jaw dropping moment as they twist in flight and shoot overhead and away at an oblique angle- back towards the Ferry Mere scrape, blue wing coverts flashing in the gathering gloom.
Run. Shout to dad and run. Run, hell for leather, cameras bashing my chest, puddles splashed up my thighs, ragged breath, asthma inducing running, bent double, muscles on fire. Stop. Asthma. Walking fast, burgeoning panic, the result of my passion- not the same passion that makes people shout at 22 millionaires on the TV. I wanted this, I wanted to pin it down, I wanted the lifer, I wanted to break my twitching duck…
No sign. A Barn Owl silently hunting the grassy banks was rudely ignored, for trying to make shapes out of the mist. Steamed up eyepieces at full zoom, not a recipe for good birding at dusk. Heel kicking; disconsolate in the dark, we walk off at 9:20ish for a final look over the lake near to where I was when it flew over, for no further sign of anything of interest.
It’s the classic listers’ dilemma; do I tick, based upon what I saw, taking in trust that other birders eliminated hybrid combinations of Australasian Shoveler? Is it better views desired or is that just a cop-out for the not-so-serious? Even the anti-lister can get ethical about lifers…
American Ducks Dipped This Year
-Lesser Scaup, Dozmary Pool, Cornwall (lake was frozen)
-Ring-necked Duck, Porth Reservoir, Cornwall (bird was relocating to Devon at the time)
-Canvard, Cavenham Pit, Suffolk (Hybrid Canvasback X Pochard that returned the year after I found it. It sort of counts as an Americanish duck)
-Green-winged Teal, Eyebrook Res, Leics (copious amounts of teal friendly vegetation)
-Surf Scoter, Largo Bay, Fife (I’m bad with sea-duck as well, so two American sea-duck…)
PS; The Blue-winged Teal was seen on the scrape at 9:30 until dusk and is still there today.
‘The globe’s still working’ is the line that Ted Hughes immortalised about returning Swifts. Of course it’s passed into conservation cliché because it perfectly sums up how it should be, whilst framing the possibility that one day, when the Swifts don’t come, the globe will be irrevocably broken. What if it was about Turtle Doves? Would Hughes’s line have had a more pressing urgency? The patchy return of the Turtle Dove, showing that the globe is faltering… From the tropical 45°C heat of a West African winter, to traversing the illegal guns of Malta before ending up on the fringes of broken woodland and weedy margins in an ever decreasing area of England, they’re not fragile. But with less than 40,000 and declining, with 85% already gone, Turtle Doves are in a very precarious state. By comparison, I don’t know why I was bothered.
It was early evening and the light was being sucked up by an accumulation of cumulonimbus clouds and the resulting vacuum was filled with oppressive humidity. In the muggy air, overlooking a weedy field set aside precisely for the purpose of farmland bird conservation, I was on edge; sweat and humidity do not make me happy- conversely they feel stale and energy sapping. As if the atmosphere has reached its zenith of unpleasantness and stands poised on the edge of freshness and cooling rain and pauses, preferring another half hour of sweaty humidity. Swallows and martins flickered overhead on their way to the lakes, fragile against the threatening bulk of the sky, whilst a Whitethroat clung to the bare branches of a dead tree, bravely singing from its exposed perch. A pair of Nightingale, so often the impossibly mellifluous needle in a thicket haystack showed well, perching on a fallen birch with a mouthful of insects before darting off- presumably nest-wards.
The weedy field wasn’t empty but it was mundane. Collared Dove, Woodpigeon, Rabbit… Then after less than 5 minutes it materialised in the air, above a weed patch flying away. A dove, darker, more saturated, lands in the bough of an intriguing tree- half covered in leaves, half bare.
It subverts the ornithological norm. Collared, theoretically, should be more interesting. No British records prior to 1953, when they exploded from their Middle Eastern population and took over the western world with monotonous calls and insipid colours… But they’re interminably dull, not a patch on this intricate plumage- dark centred and orange-fringed feathers- or the enigmatic mystique that comes with having wildly inaccurate folklore and a red list status. And sadly it will probably be the only Turtle Dove I see this year. It purrs its gentle song, more of an amplified cat than its mostly aquatic reptile namesake- quite how these repeated fuzzy ‘turrr, turrr’ notes got turned into Turtle is beyond me.
From the safety of a hide, we watched a pinkish tinge develop, before lightening cracked the Suffolk sky. A Moorhen chick, barely a few days old swims with its parent for the reeded cover- witnessing lightening for probably the first time. A few spits of rain turned into a clatter in the space of seconds- as nature’s percussion violently beat on the metal roof.
A new idea- I’ll get out of here…
These aren’t just pictures of birds, they are portraits of suffering. Riedel’s photographs of the oil-slicked sea birds evoke a range of emotions from reproach to dejection. Above all, I love photography because it’s concise. A single image can burn the truth into your brain in an instant: BP trashed the Gulf, we let it happen and now we have no idea what to do. We’re as helpless as these oil-soaked birds.
The first image looks less like a bird than a shambling mound of oil, a cloudy-eyed sci-fi monster of our own creation….
The most horrifying image is the pelican rearing up out of the water, dripping oil—wings spread, beak gaping, eyes bulging. He looks like he’s being crucified.
— Lindsay Beyerstein, A Pelican Crucified: A Pulitzer for Wildlife Photography?
A single image, evoking (for me) a response more powerful than words.
And the black.
For the record I don’t like Whiskey, The Famous Grouse are not paying me, other brands of Whiskey are available etc.
But not many brands produce adverts as brilliant as this…