12 January, 2010

Significant Birds

With the air filled with sideways sleet, most of the birds here are cowering out of sight. Fieldfare and Blackcap are still around, just staying somewhere less exposed.

With the Smew on the Exe [still, I think? - I hope!] I've been thinking about my favourite birds, and indeed some of the 'biggest' birds I've had the fortune to encounter. By biggest I'm not so much talking about rarity [let alone size! ;) ] but the ones that have had a real effect on me.

[Yes, this is one of those pondering, philosophical-type posts you've been threatened with...]

I think almost every birder has a First Bird. Not the first they'd ever seen, but a bird that changed the way they looked at the world, that set them on the path, so to speak. After all, most people just see birds as birds - the general background awareness, the things you see on the telly, and which sometimes relieve themselves all over your car... But sometimes something a bit special happens, and your view changes.

I had such a moment, back when I was very, very young. Do you remember the 80s? After the Falklands, but before the popular press decided Maggie was The Devil Incarnate? It was spring and I was at Infant School. One day we went down to beach, and I , being adventurous and fond of discovering new things even back then, went off clambering over the rocks along the waters edge towards the Devil's Armchair. I think I was pretending they were the high Alps, the sea was a 10,00 foot drop, and I was fighting German mountain troops in WWII. [Hey, it was what all the kids did back then!] Working my way around well out of sight of the family [who never approved of my mountaineering, for some reason, though I tried not to go up high, really!], I'd come across an inlet in the rocks and stopped to work out how on earth I'd get around it without the Nazis seeing me, when I suddenly realised I wasn't alone. A bird had swum into the inlet. It was very close - less than 15', maybe even 10' - and I was pretty much at water level. It was a big bird, dark above, paler throat, with a beak like a bayonet. It didn't move like the ducks I'd seen on ponds, it glided across the water like silk. It looked right at me with its dark red eyes, then turned oh so smoothly and swam back out to the open sea again. I was transfixed. I'd read and loved Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons' series, and I knew I'd just met the bird that gave the title to one of my favourites - Great Northern.

Knowing what I do now, it was a 2cy bird; too inexperienced, perhaps, to be very afraid of a small, still human. The small human took virtual possession of his parents' Collins Birds of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, spent hours looking at it, then set about talking them into some bins... More than a quarter-century later, I still have a special place in my heart for the GND [though the bins - Miranda 8x30s, which I was very proud of as they had 'gold-coated optics' - are alas long-gone].

I met another Great Northern much more recently, having just seen the [very unamused-looking] Laughing Gull in Brixham Harbour. This diver was an adult, fishing in the outer harbour, and I stopped on the breakwater, and sat down to watch it. After about 5 minutes of watching it at up to 150' or so, it disappeared below the wavelets with the usual nuclear submarine-like effortlessness, then came up just as smoothly less than 30' in front of me. It looked right at me and held my gaze for several seconds, as if it was wondering why this human was stopped and sat, when all the others up there were hurrying along in the cold wind, not looking at it at all. It sat high in the water, evidently unthreatened, and looked at me with those red eyes, then turned away, looked about briefly, and dived - coming up two boats away. I almost forgot about the Gull, Lifer though it was.

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